Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
If ‘Pop Goes The Country’ is anything, it’s an exercise in observing the chain of history. The final volume of this series has history that goes back further than even I could have guessed, and in a sense, it’s a case of double irony – everything comes full circle, and I’m closing out this series, and 2019, by discussing Billy Ray Cyrus for something other than “Old Town Road.”
Before we analyze the impact of Cyrus’ ’90s smash hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” though, we need to establish a history – the historical lineage of the country dance, for that matter. Ever since the commercial genre of country music coalesced into a legitimate enterprise, dancing has been a way to connect fans with music. Dance styles co-existed with string band and fiddle music for common Saturday night entertainment in the twentieth century, including square and round dance patterns, solo clogging, flat-footing and buck-and-wing dancing. Country music’s evolution in the form of radio shows and commercial recordings owes its credit for development in dance contexts.
The later emergence of western swing, centered in the Southwest in the 1930s and credited largely to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, along with emerging cultural dance practices helped country dancing move closer to its iconic form. Slavic and German immigrants in Texas, for instance, contributed folk styles of dance including the schottische and polka, both of which latched onto emergent country music culture. Economically-driven migration patterns in the 1930s and 1940s gave rise to honky tonks in the Southwest, which targeted young people eager for a night’s entertainment of live music, drinking and dancing.
Ironically, two moments in country dancing history became pivotal for its growth, one of which came during a time when country music almost faded as a commercial genre – the rockabilly movement. Teenagers enamored with rock ‘n’ roll took over the dance floors, and they changed the style while they were at it, eschewing the concept of partner dancing in favor of a more free-flowing style. Partner dancing was brought back, however, in the late 1970s as music venues returned to a more central role in community formation, particularly in working class communities. With that focus in mind, music in those venues aimed to service the accompanying social interaction between attendees, which came in the form of dancing. Disco and country music thrived in venues where partner dancing offered this form of entertainment for its fans, and John Travolta is all the proof needed of that.
In Aaron Latham’s 1978 New Journalism piece on the country dance scene, he describes Gilley’s, an urban dance hall and nightclub in Pasadena, Texas, as a place where “an urban cowboy doesn’t have to know how to brand or rope or hog-tie or bulldog … but he does have to know how to dance.” Latham and James Bridges adapted the article into a screenplay, which became 1980’s Urban Cowboy. Country music had already headed in a direction allowing for more prominent mainstream acceptance during this time, mostly due to economic and nationalist trends already discussed in this feature; Urban Cowboy just helped catapult that momentum by fascinating viewers with the two-step dancing depicted in the film. Of course, the newfound interest in the genre didn’t include a desire to learn about its rich history, nor did it even assume there was anything beyond a passing interest.
To shift the conversation, however, country music’s boom beyond dancing during this time included talk show appearances for Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson and generated even more films featuring these stars (another past discussion point explored through this series). Country record sales, in particular, benefited from the exposure. Inevitably, record labels increased budgets and expanded staffs to handle what appeared to be more than a passing fad. Artists took note of their own increased popularity, and, through their managers, did their best to commit labels contractually to appropriate royalty arrangements. Some very expensive deals were made during this time, deals that generally called for large advances and for significant guaranteed payments when the artists completed a new album. But many of these agreements outlived the business climate in which actual sales would come close to earning back advances and guarantees – something gave, and spoiler alert: it wasn’t the record companies. Suddenly, big-name artists with long-standing record label relationships found themselves without contracts (though only briefly, in some cases). The aforementioned Parton, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash all switched labels when management passed on their terms for renewal.
On top of that, by 1986, the Urban Cowboy boom was over. Throughout the 1970s, country music’s share of total record sales fluctuated anywhere between 10.5-12 percent. The Urban Cowboy movement upped that total to 15 percent, but by 1986, it had fallen to just 9 percent.
To help relieve these pressures, a new generation of artists was ushered in, one that set its sights on targets attainable in tough times. Younger artists simply weren’t as demanding of their record labels, and pared-down A&R staffs were more open to fresh musical approaches than they might otherwise have been in either the ‘60s or ‘70s. In other words, the emphasis shifted toward an entire record label roster over one superstar. It worked, as 23 new acts appeared on the Billboard country charts during 1986, more than ever before.
Business declines fostered a spirit of experimentation and openness toward alternative musical acts and styles, including a swinging of the metaphorical pendulum. Artists like Texas cowboy George Strait and Kentucky prodigy Ricky Skaggs dominated country charts during this time and further pushed slicker-sounding ‘70s artists off the charts. It’s not hyperbole to say Strait revived interest in hard country music while Skaggs revived interest in bluegrass. The key, though, came in the genre’s emerging versatility. Alongside Strait and Skaggs in the neotraditional camp came performers like Keith Whitley, Patty Loveless, the Judds and Randy Travis; Progressive singer-songwriters like Kathy Mattea, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett arguably made for another subset, as did pop-oriented acts like Exile, Lee Greenwood and Gary Morris. In the late 1980s, recovering from a recession that mirrored the nation’s, Nashville began to regain its optimism and success. The country music industry was poised for another era of growth.
In May 1991, Billboard began using data acquired from SoundScan, a company that sought to report sales data through bar-code scans at cash registers. Previously, sales had been calculated according to sales clerks’ estimates, and when it came to country music, it turned out those estimates were wrong. The week the program was instigated, Garth Brooks’ No Fences album moved from No. 16 to 4 on the pop chart, and later in 1991, his Ropin’ The Wind album became the first album to debut at No. 1 on the same chart. New data indicated country sales comprised 17 percent of the overall total for American music, second only to rock. This helped Nashville’s cause in getting more radio stations to feature country music.
A boom was on, indeed.
Coincidentally, country music’s newest boom period ties in directly with country dancing. From barrooms to bar codes, technology fueled country music’s rise in the ‘90s, just as it had fueled those eager to learn the two-step to Urban Cowboy a decade before through VHS tapes. Line dancing, which migrated from disco musical culture into country in the ‘80s, was a ready-made style of dance that offered choreographers, dance instructors and venue owners a potential business model – a one-to-one correspondence between the choreography and a song. For every new song released, a new dance was choreographed and distributed through magazines, workshops and videos to dance instructors.
A dance craze was now on, too, largely due to the growth of the music video industry. Inspired by the precedent set by MTV’s rock music programming, the Oklahoma corporation Gaylord Enterprises introduced similar television venues for country music: The Nashville Network (TNN) and Country Music Television (CMT) helped young, good-looking entertainers combine their material with pulsating dance rhythms for a lucrative mix.
One example is the team of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn – better known collectively as Brooks & Dunn – who first hit the charts in 1991 with “Brand New Man.” In 1992, their “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was part of, and further fueled, this newfound dance craze, giving way (finally) to today’s subject, “Achy Breaky Heart.”
The music video for “Achy Breaky Heart” used technology to its advantage, sporting a music video featuring a line dance choreographed by Melanie Greenwood specifically for that song. With instructional videos, step sheets and advertising that came from the video present nearly everywhere, the “correct” way to dance to Cyrus’ tune was available for purchase, coast to coast. If “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” fueled interest in line dancing, “Achy Breaky Heart” catapulted that interest just as Urban Cowboy had done with a different style of dance one decade earlier. And with that came concern and criticism for country music’s direction. Travis Tritt charged that Cyrus was turning country music into an “ass-wigglin’” contest, but “Achy Breaky Heart” continued onward. The single rose to No. 1 faster than any other single in country music history. The ‘90s are primarily known for supporting country music’s success in album sales, but “Achy Breaky Heart” was the genre’s first legitimate crossover hit in nearly a decade. Cyrus even eclipsed the aforementioned Brooks as country music’s biggest story of 1992, though Brooks would prove to have greater longevity.
Throughout the late 1990s, while Shania Twain reigned the charts long after Cyrus’ success came and went, the uniformity of the country dance practice was firmly in place. The aforementioned “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” Tracy Byrd’s “Watermelon Crawl,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Down At The Twist And Shout” and Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw” all had their own line dances and were performed nightly in any establishment that claimed to be a country dance venue. By the early 2000s, though, country music’s overall popularity with the general public, while nowhere near depleted, did see a noticeable decline. TNN’s Club Dance went off the air in 1999, country bars shuttered their doors, and line dance instructors found other employment. Country’s relationship with dancing (particularly the two-step), which shaped its earliest years and evolved with it over the following decades, while not completely gone, was no longer driving its success as it headed into a new age.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
– The history on country dancing stems from The Oxford Handbook of Country Music, particularly Jocelyn R. Neal’s chapter, “Whiter The Two-Step: Country Dance Rewrites Its Musical Lineage.”
– All sales data and statistics for country music in the ‘80s and ‘90s stems from Country: The Music and the Musicians, particularly Bill Ivey’s chapter, “The Bottom Line: Business Practices That Shaped Country Music.”
– Further analysis taken from Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music In America, particularly Peter Cooper’s chapter, “Pocketful Of Gold: Country Music In The Age Of Plenty.”
– Further analysis also taken from Bill C. Malone’s Country Music U.S.A., particularly the chapter, “Tradition and Change.”
And thus ends our year-long feature exploring country music’s biggest crossover hits. When I started this in January, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had compiled research on a few of the first volumes, but never did I expect to learn about, or have as much fun with, country music’s rich history. Nor did I expect it to be one long conversation, in essence. Hopefully this feature is ultimately viewed as a larger conversation of country music’s changing landscape throughout time rather than a pop-versus-country debate. Not to say that some volumes weren’t necessarily a bit dull, but through our conversations on songs like “El Paso,” “King Of The Road,” “Harper Valley P.T.A.” and yes, even “Achy Breaky Heart,” I hope this has been as enlightening for you as it has been for me. No, “Achy Breaky Heart” is certainly not country music’s final crossover hit, but the larger cultural conversations shift dramatically when entering the 2000s, and I’d rather end on a high note here. So with that, thank you for indulging in my little project this year.