Saturday, March 14, 2009

UK Newspaper Debate Country Music's Potential

Dierks Bentley at Country Rendez-vous Craponne, France 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Two major British newspapers have just published articles about the potential and market (or lack thereof) for country music in the UK, both of them pegged to an upcoming tour by Sugarland.

The Financial Times runs a story by Jon Lusk called "Can Country Make It in Britain?"

In the piece, he deals with many of the issues that country fans, musicians and promoters have described to me in various European countries, and which I have noted in my own articles and on this blog -- see my December post Country Music -- questions (and answers?).

Even though the UK market for country is best described as a “niche”, there are almost 30 specialist radio shows and three magazines (Upcountry, Country Music People and Maverick) devoted to it. But the lack of coverage by the British mainstream media suggests that country music has something of an image problem.

Alan Cackett, editor of Maverick, says country is now at its lowest ebb in the UK since the early 1970s, when it was often on television and high in the pop charts. The last country star to make it really big internationally was Shania Twain, whose Come On Over album sold 4m copies in the UK alone – after it was remixed as a “pop crossover” product in 1999.

One problem that Cackett identifies is that country music is not being marketed to young people, and the average age of most country music gig goers certainly bears this out. Indeed, whether country music is even being marketed at all is an issue for most mainstream (Nashville) artists, who almost never get covered by the broadsheets.

The Independent, meanwhile, runs a piece by Nick Hasted -- "Far from the old country music," that addresses issues of crossover, authenticity and commercialism, pegged to the success of Taylor Swift as well as the Sugarland tour.

More than any other music, country's whole history has been defined by this battle between commerce and authenticity. Its greatest artist, Hank Williams, wrote slick pop songs such as "Hey Good Lookin'", and bone-chilling laments straight from its Appalachian mountain roots. He died aged just 29 in 1953, a burnt-out proto-rock star. The very next year, Elvis Presley took country's rebellious tendencies for rock'n'roll. The country establishment, centring on Nashville's 16th Avenue (dubbed Music Row), reacted with the slick, string-sweetened "countrypolitan" style which dominated country in the 1960s.

"Nashville is Cashville," Time magazine declared in 1964, noting that, in the year of Beatlemania, the city's studios made 30 per cent of the nation's hits. Splashes of steel guitar and fiddle were deemed enough to suggest the music's rustic roots. The banjo in the video for Taylor Swift's "Picture to Burn" follows this precise formula.

There have been various insurgencies against this orthodoxy. In the 1970s, it was the outlaw country of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, and self-destructive Austin songwriters Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. The new country of the 1980s brought left-wing heroin addict Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and kd lang. They all failed in Nashville. Their fresh energy instead led to Garth Brooks. His videos, showmanship, and overweight, balding, Everyman appeal nodded to country's roots with his Stetson.

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