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- May 21, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 20
Down in Nashville, Some Strange Things Are Happening as America's Music, Once the Most Rigidly Authentic of Art Forms, Trades a Little Bit of Soul for a Big Bag of Gold
Lord knows it ain't. The whole world of country music has been knocked ass-over-teakettle lately, with the industry turning up its nose at those wet eyes. Once a down-home, Mom-and-Pop operation—only 10 years ago, a country album that sold 200,000 copies was a hit—country music is now a half-billion-dollar-a-year business. Figure it out. The last time anybody toted it up, country music was hauling in about 15 percent of the approximately $3.5 billion spent on music each year. That's a lot of zeros in the plus column.
Of course, as always when moneymen march through the front door, the less hardy values—tradition, authenticity, soul, moist eyes—sometimes fly out the window. Consider the following: The Grand Ole Opry—that sacred Mother Church of country—is now a tourist attraction in a theme park. The brittle-edged, hard-country sound of Hank Williams has now been supplanted by the soft-voiced, middle-of-the-road, maudlin murmurings of former pop mediocrity Kenny Rogers—while a pigtailed Nashville outcast named Willie Nelson has become country's once-and-future king. Real, authentic country stars are leaping aboard the big-bucks bandwagon as fast as their lawyers can arrange the best deals—Conway Twitty has built himself a bizarre little money-maker called Twitty City, and Porter Wagoner lets people be photographed in his performing coat at a dollar a shot. And straight arrows like George Strait and John Anderson, who like to do things the old-fashioned way, are considered reactionaries. The true believers have become the dissenters.
In fact, things are so topsy-turvy that you can't even call the music by its right name anymore. Apparently "Country & Western" is not bankable enough, or something. "We don't call it Country & Western," sniffs one middle-level industry functionary. "We never call it Country & Western. We always call it country." Oh, well, that's what happens when you get noticed (and written about) by outsiders, flatlanders, Yankees, critics and people who generally ought to mind their own business.
A decade ago the people who ran Nashville—the producers and publishers who controlled the output—were content with a drop in the bucket. Nashville was placid, tranquil. A plantation atmosphere reigned through the early '70s. Many songwriters were salaried and worked in cubicles from 9 to 5. Singers and their backup groups toured 300 days a year by bus from state fair to honky-tonk—and it looked good on their report cards if they were back every Saturday night to play the Grand Ole Opry for scale wages. Record company producers picked the songs and the studio sidemen that would appear on any record. Using one's own band was seldom allowed.
When country's greatest star and best songwriter, the late Hank Williams, went into the studio to record an album, he was treated like a serf. Fred Rose, his autocratic producer and co-writer, had already decreed what songs would be cut and which musicians would perform on those cuts. A true feudal system. Hank was the first country superstar and never made much more than $100,000 a year. He didn't know that he could complain—though had he lived to see Kenny Rogers rake in more than $20 million last year, he might have figured it out.
The drastic change—that is to say, the commercial change—began early in 1976 with Wanted: The Outlaws. That was the first Nashville album to go platinum. And it was strictly a patch job designed to pick up a few extra bucks with a handful of songs already in the can. Jerry Bradley, then running RCA in Nashville, had a keen eye for packaging a concept. He saw that Willie Nelson had abandoned Nashville for Austin, Texas, and that Willie's buddy, Waylon Jennings, was wearing not only leather and long hair but a fierce spirit of musical independence that was drawing a new, young, multiclass audience. For the Outlaws album, Bradley put together some cuts by Willie, Waylon, Jessi Colter (Waylon's wife) and Tompall Glaser, fronting the package with an album cover that looked like a Wild West wanted poster. The songs were not among any of the artists' finest work, but the album's image was perfect. After years of country stars singing syrup and looking like mannequins, here were some mavericks daring to get down and dirty, if need be. The surprise was that the music had not changed—Willie had always sung eclectic country blues and Waylon had played a hard, rock-tinged sound ever since his stint in Buddy Holly's band—but that the audience had. It was a weird mix of hippies and rednecks, stumbling over this "progressive country" after rejecting the soft country and soft rock that were the alternatives. The outlaw phenomenon took off, and amazing things happened. Urban cowboys sprang up all over the place: This was not so much a country-to-pop crossover hit as a Certified New Thing. Utopia reigned as rednecks grew their hair long and hippies cut theirs short, and everybody danced arm-in-arm in honky-tonks everywhere.
After years of slumber, Nashville was cashville. Out went the violins, back came the fiddles—albeit, mixed with ringing electric guitars and a solid rock beat. Into town came the money merchants, sniffing a trend. In 1977 former pop singer, jazz singer and folk singer Kenny Rogers tested country's waters with Lucille—and he found something he never had before: a big career. Country became genuine big business.
As a pure form derived from ballads that accompanied the Anglo-Saxon immigrants of two centuries ago, country music had been virtually immune to change. It was simply peer-group music that reflected the shared experience of a classless society: no hoity-toity superstars in country. They all signed autographs (the fans pay the bills, after all).
But things changed quickly as the stakes climbed. Most of the music offices in Nashville are in quiet, airy, turn-of-the-century houses on tree-shaded Music Row near Vanderbilt University. They soon started reverberating with accents from New York, London and Los Angeles. When there's a half billion up for grabs, everybody wants to move into the neighborhood. The edges have been shaved off country—and sometimes the center gouged—to produce "slick" country, polished and glossed over to hit the common denominator. That would be Kenny trying to make like Lionel Richie, Dolly trying to make country singers out of Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone, Alabama reinventing Southern rock, and Lee Greenwood redefining blue-eyed soul. Then there's Willie, who is in his own time zone and can do whatever he wants. Out there on the edge of the scene, where time more or less stands still, there are the neo-reactionaries, the hip traditionalists—Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs—who essentially bear the flame while melding the old with a bit of the new. Also melding—in their case a new urban-rural sensitivity—are Rosanne Cash and her husband, Rodney Crowell. "It's not as simple as it used to be," Rosanne says. "Everything's more complicated now, and the music reflects that. To me, it's a logical progression. There're a lot of people my age who grew up liking the kind of music I like. So I have to follow my heart, musically. I can only do what I know how to do, and that's the sum of a lot of things that aren't country."
So what does all that mean? Just that the past and the future of country music are being thrown together in a hurly-burly mix, with radical reactions against the status quo, even against the Nashville rebels of the '60s, even against the outlaws. Out there on the far left are Jason and the Scorchers, a powerful, quasi-punk fusion of Hank Williams and total abandon. And on the far right, in the white hats, are the trad-hip-traditionalists like real cowboy George Strait, so firm-jawed and pure-voiced, he's a throwback to Gene Autry. But—and here's how weird the whole scene has become—this guy is getting women's underwear thrown to him onstage. By the women who were wearing it previously. And what about soon to-be-star Keith Whitley, who sounds so stone-country that he is twice-removed from hip? City slickers will need a translator to understand his lyrics. And last but not least are the stone traditionalists, Vern Gosdin and George Jones and Merle Haggard, who actually are singing C&W, if anybody still calls it that.
Of course, nobody does. Even so, many on Music Row were surprised when MCA mogul Irving Azoff swooped in from corporate headquarters in Los Angeles and lopped off the heads of almost the entire staff of MCA's Nashville office and geared up the operation. Used to be that Nashville was a small, close-knit music community, and you simply didn't do that sort of thing, go out and fire everyone. Used to be, but those days are gone now, probably forever. As Azoff so succinctly put it, "My moves in Nashville are parallel to all the other moves I made in the company in England, Canada, New York, L.A., or in black, white, yellow or green music. Our aggressiveness is industry-wide. Nashville is just another wing of the music industry." This carpetbagger is the voice of the future. Nashville may not like it, but it's learning to live with it. As Hank Cochran wrote in that old honky-tonk song: "It's not love, but it's not bad."
Country music is not shy about honoring its own. In fact, being a country music star means never having to say you've gone unawarded. This week, for example, the Academy of Country Music in L.A. is handing out its 1984 awards to the singers, writers, performers, pickers and personalities it feels are worthy of such honors. Every fall the Country Music Association in Nashville does the same thing. Not surprisingly, the rosters of award-winners are not always the same. Nonetheless, every year a few performers from the world of country are somehow overlooked. PEOPLE has decided to rectify that unfortunate situation by instituting its first life-time achievement country music awards.
Best Lawn Mower Story: Once, when Tammy I Wynette was married to George Jones, she hid the keys to all their cars to keep him from hitting the I bars. She forgot about the I riding lawn mower, which Jones subsequently steered on down the road to a watering hole.
Some Real Names: Conway Twitty was Harold Jenkins. Roy Rogers was Leonard Slye. Jessi Colter was Miriam Johnson. Dale Evans was Frances Smith. Tammy Wynette was Wynette Pugh. Minnie Pearl was Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon. Patsy Cline was Virginia Patterson Hensley. T Texas Tyler was David Luke Myrick. And Slim Whitman was Otis Dewey.
If Tonto and Eddie Van Halen Had a Kid, It Would Look Like...: William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. The "Mountain Man" has got enough hair for the whole quartet, not to mention teepees and a "sweat lodge" in his backyard.
Best Tattoo: The tiny I blue heart on Rosanne Cash's left instep.
Worst Tattoo: David Allan Coe's spider on his primary private part.
Best Duet: Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons on Hickory Wind. The I sweet harmonies bring tears to these old eyes.
Best Novelty Duet: Clint Eastwood turned his signature line from Sudden Impact into a modest money-maker with T.G. Sheppard: Make My Day.
Best Song Titles: If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body (Would You Hold It Against Me?). Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed. Your Wife's Been Cheatin' On Us Again. Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life).
Worst Song Titles: There's no such thing as a bad country title. The worse, the better.
Best Fiddle Player: Johnny Gimble. Incomparable. Made his name with I Bob Wills in 1949 and now backs Willie Nelson. "He's I the best," says Willie.
Best Body Part: Crystal Gayle's hair, which is an I inch shorter than Little Jimmy Dickens (4'11") is tall. She washes it every day when touring, every other day when not. It takes four hours to " dry in the open air, since a, dryer might damage it.
Best Car: Nudie of Hollywood customized a Pontiac convertible for George Jones. It was embedded with 4,000 silver dollars, the door handles were real six-shooters and the horn mooed. Runner-up: Elvis' gold Cadillac.
Is He Dead or Is It Memorex? Best half-dead duet award has to go to Jim Reeves, who died in 1964, and Deborah Allen, who never met him. Nonetheless, thanks to the miracle of recording technology, Reeves and Allen collaborated in 1980 on a hit duet, "Take Me in Your Arms and Hold Me."
Best TV Show: Bobby Bare & Friends, a one hour interview/performance show that has been on the Nashville Network since its inception last year.
Worst TV Show: Hee Haw. Syndicated corn that has been on the air since 1969.
Oldest Fan Club: Ernest Tubb's just turned 40. (Ernest is 70.)
Country in Extremis: On the far left, punkabillies Jason and the Scorchers; on the radical right, country's Mr. Clean, George Strait.
Best Names: Pig Robbins, Narvel Felts, Sterling Whipple.
That's Funny, Y'all Don't Look Jewish: When Kinky Friedman appeared with his Texas Jewboys on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, he was introduced by the Rev. Jimmy Snow as "the first full-blooded Jew" to do so. One of the Jewboys was black; another was Chinese.
Best Guitar Player: Grady Martin—since Chet Atkins isn't out working the road. During his decades of making the great, ones sound even better, Martin has backed up everyone from Hank Williams to Bing Crosby, Cash and Kristofferson, and now hangs out with Willie. Plays the guitar just like ringing a bell, as Chuck Berry said.
Best Singing Ex-con: Merle Haggard did two years and nine months in San Quentin for burglary and was in the audience when Johnny Cash once performed there. In 1972 then California Gov. Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard.
Most Unlikely Talent Scout: Johnny Rodriguez was arrested in Texas for goat rustling. Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson liked his singing and encouraged him to change careers.
Duet-To-Me-No-More-Times: Got to be Willie, who's moving on down from A to Z and may be knocking on your door any day now. Past collaborators include Julio Iglesias, Tracy Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Jackie King, Roger Miller, Leon Russell, Dyan Cannon, Amy Irving, Jimmy Carter, Kris Kristofferson, Neil Diamond, Ray Price. This year he has lined up a talented quartet of coworkers: Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.
Best Tree Story: Once, when Tammy Wynette was married to George Jones, she hid all their liquor to keep him from drinking. Good thought. But George had a better one. He hid bottles of vodka in their orange grove and hunkered down among the branches, enjoying fresh screwdrivers.
Best Song: Your Cheatin' Heart, Hank Williams. Nobody will ever write or sing a sadder song. Guaranteed. Runner-up: Coat of Many Colors, Dolly Parton. An agonizing and breathtakingly beautiful minibio of Dolly's school days. She swears it's true. I believe it.
Worst Song: Coward of the County, Kenny Rogers. If you're interested in gang rape, this one's for you. Runner-up: Rubber Room, Porter Wagoner. There are some doors we may not want opened.
Best Album: Red-Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson. After almost 10 years, still the genre's most lyrical and coherent concept album, country's best answer to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Runner-up: Honky Tonk Heroes, Waylon Jennings. The most ambitious country album ever, it contains an astonishing sunburst of beautiful—and tough—ballads by legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who once told me at a Willie Fourth of July picnic that he was doomed to die. Then he marched off into the sunset to do so. Of course, he didn't.
Worst Album by Someone Considered a Major Star: Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits (more than 14 million sold), the Kmart of country. Compare it to anything Willie or Waylon or Merle has ever done. Then look yourself in the mirror and be honest. Runner-up: Any album by Slim Whitman (more than 50 million records sold, lifetime), country's answer to Veg-O-Matic.
Best Touring Bus: No winner. They're all pretty much the same now, usually customized Silver Eagles with plush bedrooms and lounges and color TVs and VCRs and stereos and microwave ovens and bars. One of these rolling motel rooms costs up to $100,000, even for a used one. Why do country singers rely on buses? For one thing, it's a touring tradition and a badge of honor to have a shiny bus with your name on it tooling along the highways of the South. It's also convenient—Loretta Lynn prefers her bus to her house. Many country bookings are at state fairs or in secondary markets, far from major airports. A bus actually saves time and gives you a place of your own when you pull up to some kind of Silver Dollar club somewhere that doesn't even have dressing rooms.
Best Bathtub Story: Once, when Tammy Wynette was going with Burt Reynolds, he lost consciousness in her bathtub and slipped under the water. It didn't occur to her to pull the plug. Instead, fully dressed, she climbed into the tub, struggled to haul him out, dressed him, called an ambulance—and off he went to the hospital.
Most Obvious Toupee: Sorry, Hank Snow, but it's yours.
Best Bars: Gilley's in Houston (actually, Pasadena) is still the wildest. No-nonsense bouncers use Mace on troublemakers. Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth claims to be larger and, instead of Gilley's mechanical bulls, has live indoor bull riding. Amazing place when everybody gets juiced up. Be careful at closing time. The Lone Star in New York and the Palomino in Los Angeles are more manageable and actually safe.
Stop Him Before He Builds Again: Webb Pierce has constructed two guitar-shaped swimming pools.
Country Myths Shattered: Johnny Cash is not an ex-convict—though he has served 48 hours in two city jails for speed and alcohol offenses. Dolly Par-ton is happily married and has not had breast implants. William Lee Golden is not Howard Hughes' son. David Allan Coe did not murder another inmate when he was imprisoned. Roy Rogers is from Cincinnati. "Happy trails to you...."
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