The early 1980s produced a source of financial pressure on Nashville’s country music record divisions.
The Urban Cowboy phenomenon, named for a movie that glorified a honky tonk and cowboy lifestyle, spread country music’s brand image to an urban society long thought immune to the charms of rural culture.
Notice, though, that I said it spread country music’s brand image – not necessarily the music itself. The movie made a star out of Johnny Lee, but his music was that of an easy-listening pop variety, not hardcore country music. Even the soundtrack itself features a hodgepodge of names not necessarily thought of as “country” for its time. The names include the following: The Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Joe Walsh, Bonnie Raitt, Dan Fogelberg, Bob Seger, Charlie Daniels, Kenny Rogers, Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt, and J.D. Souther.
By 1981, country music was America’s best-selling genre of music. For a time, country accounted for nearly 15 percent of all records sold. Meanwhile, two other phenomenons were taking place.
First, the roots of alternative country were planted in the ’70s. While not the first artist to necessarily record this sub-genre of music, Emmylou Harris was a pivotal part of creating a domino effect with its influence. With albums like Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel, Harris and producer Brian Ahern invented a new kind of country music – one that talked about classic country themes of home and work, but blended it with the modernist irony and folk-like tendencies of Bob Dylan and his subsequent heirs. It blended Appalachian string-band instruments with Bakersfield country and rockabilly, taking the energy of Gram Parson’s country-rock and subtracting the sloppiness of it to appeal to country radio.
From Harris, her rhythm guitarist, Rodney Crowell, became a producer who applied the Harris-Ahern sound to his own recordings, as well as to those of Rosanne Cash and Guy Clark. Harris’ bassist, Emory Gordon Jr., became a producer who interwove the sound on records by Steve Earle and Patty Loveless. Harris’ pianist, Tony Brown, became an MCA Records executive who signed and produced albums by Earle, Loveless, Marty Stuart, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Vince Gill, who played guitar and sang on many of those albums, went on the become a star in his own right. A tight-knit group of friends worked behind the scenes to craft modern-day masterpieces that had an air of authenticity to them while also finding commercial success.
The second phenomenon is linked to the first one. When Crowell left Harris’ band, his replacement, Ricky Skaggs, would go on to produce similar recordings by him and the Whites. Skaggs, however, wasn’t looking to bring a progressive attitude to the format, but rather stand with George Strait and John Anderson in the early ’80s as an artist wishing to reconnect a sterile pop-country scene with its roots.
At this point, we’ve established three forks in the road – a fad, a movement looking to bridge artistic integrity with commercial success while moving a genre of music forward, and a movement looking to reconnect with its roots that found not just success, but superstardom. In 2019, we’re right back in the early ’80s, and as of now, we stand in the middle of it all while country music plots its next move.
The Urban Cowboy phenomenon went beyond itself. Other booming entities of the time included the hit television series, Dallas, and other movies like Coal Miner’s Daughter with Loretta Lynn, 9 to 5 with Dolly Parton, and Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson. Today, alternative channels beyond movies exist for exposure. In 2019, debates are abound as to whether “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X is a country song. Like the Urban Cowboy phenomenon, this is a fad not associated with the sound of the music, but rather the branding and imagery of it. The song mentions a cowboy lifestyle, but features little-to-no elements that stamp it as a country song, musically, just as Lee’s rise to stardom came from smooth pop hits hidden under the disguise of a country framing. One year ago, Mason Ramsey went viral for singing along to a Hank Williams song in a Walmart. The viral moment came not from a newfound appreciation for Williams’ music or its exposure to a new audience, but rather because, let’s be honest – a kid yodeling in a Walmart is bound to cut through the clutter of the Internet and grab attention. Ramsey also dressed the part.
“Country” is in everyone’s mind in 2019, but not in a good way. Like with the early ’80s, there are consequences for country music in the long term. Now, these viral moments are a way to laugh at what people perceive to be a backward way of life, let alone a backward style of music. Urban Cowboy was at least described as a backlash against disco, which explains its widespread acceptance by pop audiences. Basically, whereas “yeehaw culture” pokes fun at a way of life, Urban Cowboy‘s acceptance was of a more genuine variety.
But again, Urban Cowboy’s boom was also short-lived in country music despite its somewhat (and seemingly) positive ramifications. As previously mentioned, before 1985, country music accounted for 15 percent of all records sold. By 1986, they fell to 9 percent, lower than the average of 10.5-12 percent all throughout the ’70s.
This is where we sit in 2019. No one will be talking about “Old Town Road” or Ramsey five years from now. Country music, as it has all throughout history, will fade in the background of pop culture before killing itself to try and reclaim the spotlight once again.
Hopefully this story learns from its past and makes the correct moves.
Despite setbacks from 1985-86, country music managed to bounce back. A new generation of artists was ushered in, with targets set not on world domination, but on reasonable goals given country’s current situation at the time. Pared-down A&R staffs were more open to fresh musical approaches than before. The emphasis now was on an entire label roster, not just a flagship superstar or two. With RCA and Warner Brothers leading the way, traditional and country-rock acts viewed as not commercial enough in the ’70s now found themselves with major label record deals. Bottom-line-focused executives learned how to profit once again from sales of a few hundred thousand albums, and promotion and marketing departments explored every possible avenue for increased income.
Or, to put it simply, when you’re at rock bottom, you may as well pick the safe option of taking risks.
The results produced a spirit of experimentation and openness toward alternative musical styles and new acts. MCA reactivated Dot Records as a creative budget line and tried a special series devoted to New Age instrumental recordings. Not everything worked, of course, but enough did.
It’s not a story without its dark side, though. These new changes and new artists meant certain artists had to go, including Conway Twitty, Crystal Gayle, Mickey Gilley, and Barbara Mandrell who all found their sales cut in half post-Urban Cowboy. Johnny Cash was even dropped from the CBS roster.
Musically, though, we once again can point to the roots of progressive country and an early neo-traditional revival as working happily together to pave a new road for country music with fresh, new faces. Artists had more promotional juice and were able to wield more artistic control over their recordings, with producers like Jimmy Bowen working with George Strait, Reba McEntire and the Judds to craft their own, individual sound.
One important point, however, is that it didn’t mean crossover acts had no room in the format anymore. Alongside Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Loveless, Kathy Mattea, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, the genre also housed Gary Morris, Lee Greenwood, Restless Heart, Exile and more. Country music’s brand image was strong by embracing variety, and that variety comes from serving all of its markets. By 1986, even mainstream rock publications like Rolling Stone and Spin ran articles on new country artists. Ironically, artists like Earle and Dwight Yoakam drew more ink than big sellers like Travis and Ricky Van Shelton.
The moral of the story is that, while country music embraced an increased pop-culture status in the early ’80s, the real change came from within the industry itself.
Again, though, the early ’80s share similarities with the late 2010’s, but it’s not an exact repeat scenario. Sales are down in the modern day, but this is an industry-wide phenomenon brought on by streaming and illegal digital downloads. Country radio faces problems in the future with targeting Generation Z, but it’s fine at this exact moment in time. It’s not necessarily financial woes that plague current country music, but rather a lack of a strong brand identity.
But that doesn’t mean country music can’t take the right steps to pick up where it left off before. Luke Combs just had a seven-week No. 1 single with “Beautiful Crazy,” a record not seen since 2004 with Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Of the three forks in the aforementioned road, Combs represents the bridging of a gap between traditional and current standards. He’s not the hunky, good-looking faceless artist pedaling products over art – he’s connected with an audience through his relatability. His music is devoid of most (but not all) modern trends in country music, favoring organic instrumentation and an organic presentation of the material. Midland, Jon Pardi, Ashley McBryde and the recent breakthroughs of Texas-country artists like Aaron Watson and Cody Johnson (among others) represent a demand not just for an organic sound, but an organic presentation of it all as well.
But while the last fork in the road, the road that featured Harris, Crowell and others, has also seen an increased emergence, it’s the broken link in this whole scenario. These artists worked together to have their music heard by a mainstream audience and receive radio play. Today, artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell (if you even want to consider him part of his conversation at all), and Margo Price favor other means of having their messages heard. Simpson would prefer to busk outside the CMA Awards to protest; meanwhile other artists prefer to not target country radio at all, instead filtering their messages through social media marketing and other means.
Last year, yet another remake of the movie, A Star Is Born, was remade depicting an alt-country superstar, a term that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. The title character, Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper, sells out arenas without comprising his artistic vision, all while battling demons not unheard of for country music legends. I cannot, nor can anyone else, say this doesn’t exist in the real world for a lack of effort on the artist’s part. But what music listeners hope to see is an “alt-country,” underground artist willing to tear down the doors of the mainstream establishment. But again, radio is not the funnel in the genre all artists necessarily have to go through anymore.
Could it happen, though? Of course. Chris Stapleton never asked for Traveller to take off at the CMA Awards in November 2015, but it did. Now Stapleton is at a crossroads himself – does he break down those doors, or is he content riding off the continued momentum? Either way, the platform can be there for the right artist. Eric Church hardly conforms to mainstream standards, and he’s found superstardom outside radio airplay.
But to go back to the “Old Town Road” debate for just one more second, it does expose the bigger problem of country music’s lost brand identity. One minute, artists like Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris are praised as the future of country music, and the next they’re used as excuses for why anyone should be allowed to be played on country radio. The demand is there, and the artists are there, but the balance isn’t quite right. The disconnect between radio airplay numbers and sales is much stronger than it was in 1985. Radio now tests what people tolerate, whereas sales and streaming test what they actually love. But with country music caught in the midst of controversy, even if it was Billboard’s fault, it does beg the question, “what is country music?”
And the answer can include multiple markets without sacrificing its core identity, but the industry somehow forgot that along the way. Hopefully it learns from past mistakes and creates a sustainable business model for the future, because events in 2019 are not unlike those of the early ’80s. It would be nice if the industry had a plan for when that bubble does eventually burst and the genre itself ceases to exist as an artistic or commercial format.
Certain pieces of data such as country’s record sales were largely taken from Country: The Music and the Musicians by the Country Music Foundation, specifically the chapter, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Ricky Skaggs, Alabama And Their Contemporaries by David Gates. This piece was also largely inspired by current events in country music as well as a piece by my friend, Nathan Kanuch, titled, “Maybe It’s Time: Alt-Country’s Portrayal in ‘A Star Is Born’.”