Did you catch the Country Music Awards on CBS Tuesday night?
Country music from Madison Square Garden in the Big Apple. No stretch when one considers that New York once boasted the largest country radio station in the U.S. And many nomadic Americans who settle in New York enjoy country music or had some connection to it growing up. I know I did. My grandmother was from Tennessee and besides listening to country crooner Eddy Arnold, I got a taste of bluegrass and outlaw -- Cash, Waylon, Willie, and Merle. And besides, Roseanne Cash and her family and Steve Earle and his gal Allison Moorer all live in NYC.
But I couldn't help but think that I was watching the Grammys. The way some of the artists dressed seemed more upscale pop or rock then down home country. Like it was some big clever marketing campaign to woo the record buying public that may not be familiar with a new class of crossover country acts. How many of the acts were truly groundbreaking in the same way Hank Williams or Patsy Cline were? Big & Rich are fun, but so is Disneyland. Hell, the CMA Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year was Keith Urban, a bloke from Australia. I like his music, but it don't stand nearly as tall when propped up against Johnny Cash's or even George Strait's. In a previous era he'd be touring with the Eagles or Poco.
I like the heartflet grit of Gretchen Wilson -- she won Female Vocalist of the Year -- and the authentic machismo of Trace Adkins. But their albums don't resonate with me the way the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash albums do or even Dwight Yoakum's. Many CMA artists shoot for a more polished and homogenized radio vibe and in doing so loose what their live shows often deliver. Plenty of these acts started out as bar bands and learned to play in front of live audiences. They know how to connect to their fans from the lip of a stage. So why do they often allow Nashville's pop polish to mare their sound?
Moreover, did you know that many of the country acts in Music City use the same set of revolving session players and employ a different set of live musicians on the road? Not all of them, but many of them do. Dwight Yoakum doesn't, but then, you can hear the difference in his music right from Jump Street.
Back in 2000, another Australian, Kasey Chambers, hit Nashville and her debut disc The Captain utilized her father and her older brother Nash as well as Nashville alt-country mavens Julie and Buddy Miller to make some noise. Shelby Lynn couldn't reach the level of success of her country peers in the '90s until Island released her breakthrough disc I Am Shelby Lynne in 2000. Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow) produced this classic roots-rock disc that is more reminiscent of Brit Dusty Springfield's classic Dusty In Memphis than any Nashville-produced effort from the same year. She even won a Grammy for Best New Artist; quite absurd considering she'd already recorded six albums.
Before I digress further, let me say that I've seen numerous country acts play some of the smaller venues in New York and have been blown away by the musicianship, songwriting and delivery. Just last week I interviewed bluegrass star Del McCoury and later that night witnessed a breathtaking set at Joe's Pub. Back in the late '80s I saw Vince Gill play to a very small audience at the old Lonestar Roadhouse on West 54th street and was staggered by his lead guitar playing and truly exceptional voice. Ditto for countless shows by The Mavericks. Yeah, Raul Malo and the boys were a bar band in Florida long before Tony Brown signed them to MCA Nashville.
In 2002, Alan Jackson even played CBGB's in a pair of ripped-up bluejeans. That was an impressive marketing gimmick even though Jackson's the real deal; but not a stretch for CB's owner Hilly Crystal, since he's a huge "country/bluegrass/blues" fan. And Willie Nelson's always passing through town to play the Beacon, Town Hall, or Irving Plaza. But he's a living legend, a true pop culture icon who has transcended the worries of radio charts and marketing schemes.
And speaking of Irving Plaza, I caught Dwight's most recent show from that venue back in September. This was the same place I saw him in '86 when he opened for Husker Du. How many country acts today would even consider touring with an alt-rock band let alone a post-punk band as loud and fierce as Husker Du? Then again, how many contemporary country artists would let Rick Rubin, Daniel Lanois, or even Nigel Godrich produce their albums? Well, national treasure Emmylou Harris employed Mr. Lanois to produce Wrecking Ball and it remains one of the most beloved and enduring albums in her impressive canon.
But who will be next?
Converge is the Word.
Dusty Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!