Back to the country

George Strait and friends twang it up at the ball field

So far, the 21st century has not been kind to country music. After an amazing decade of growth and astronomical sales, business has sunk like a stone in Music City, and in spite of a few mega-selling artists who have kept the industry afloat, the genre is suffering a serious recession.

In the mid-’90s, country music accounted for about 25 percent of all CD sales, and it was the No. 1 radio format in the United States. Currently, the sales market share has dropped to about 10 percent, and a large amount of this comes from sales of four artists: Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks. In addition, country is now a distant third in the number of radio stations, with most of those playing a very limited number of songs.

Part of the problem can be traced to a deluge of mediocre acts created to meet the perceived needs of a seemingly insatiable audience, and a dilution of the quality of the product itself. With so much money on the line, the labels began focusing on image over substance, and hit songs were created by collaborators who kept the messages simple, contrived and positive, and aimed at a specific target audience. In short, country music ironically was “dumbed down” for its new fans. The fans, in turn, have proven to be almost as shallow as the genre has become, and in light of the recent drop in popularity, Nashville is in an uproar.

Throughout this musical metamorphosis, a few artists have remained true to their roots, and consistently have released music that reflects the traditional values and components of country. The general approach now seems to be combining the old with the new, and the most obvious example of this trend is the current “George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival.” Strait’s fourth annual traveling road show blends the old and the new, with 10 acts on the bill and a full day of music guaranteed to provide something for everyone. Despite the broad-ranging lineup, several dates on the tour have been moved from stadiums to smaller venues due to low ticket sales, which also may be a reflection of the fading popularity of contemporary country music.

If any one artist on the bill best exemplifies the bridging of old-school country music with the new order, it would have to be Brad Paisley. Winner of the 2001 Country Music Association’s Horizon Award for most promising newcomer, Paisley’s music is steeped in tradition, but contemporary enough to fit in with the current radio fodder.

Paisley notes, “There is a lot of pop music on country radio right now, and I am lucky to be one of the few people who is playing the traditional-sounding songs. As long as radio is playing my music, it doesn’t concern me too much.” Nevertheless, Paisley is painfully aware of the fickle nature of music. “If you ask me the same question in a few years and they have stopped playing my stuff, you will probably get a different answer,” he laughs.

Paisley is a rookie on the Strait concert package, and is thrilled with the opportunity to play shows with some of his heroes. “This gig couldn’t be better. It’s the coolest thing I have ever been a part of,” he says. He describes the backstage camaraderie among the musicians as wonderful, and is enjoying the impromptu jams that happen from time to time. Last week, Paisley says he sat in with the show’s opener Asleep At The Wheel for “Sugarfoot Rag,” which will appear on the band’s next album. The opening slot has given AATW the widest exposure the band has received in its four-decade career.

Tour headliner George Strait is now considered an elder statesman in the field, with his classic Western swing and heartfelt country tunes. However, in recent years, Strait has drifted a bit more toward the mainstream with some rather bland singles, much to the chagrin of his hardcore fans. While some artists have strayed over the line, Alan Jackson’s reputation as an authentic honky-tonk artist has been his trademark for more than 10 years, and he remains true to his roots.

During the 2001 tour, Strait and Jackson perform a duet of the ironic “Murder on Music Row,” a controversial tune that addresses the issue of pop influences invading traditional country music. Paisley says, “The fans flip out when Jackson comes out to do that song. They are there to see Alan and George, and seem to have a sense of what the debate is all about. I think most of the fans at the recent shows support the country side.”

Also on the tour this year are a number of acts that seem to be lost in the Nashville shuffle. Retro country band BR5-49 and edgy rockers the Warren Brothers perform on a side stage, while talented but unclassifiable singer Sara Evans has a spot on the main bill. If anything, the attempt by the tour bookers to cover all the bases seems to reflect the musical schizophrenia that is currently affecting the country music industry.

The George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival will be held at Turner Field Sun., April 22 at 12:30 p.m. 404-249-6400.??