Part One – A Modern Country Music History: From Bars to Barcodes (1989-1996)

If there’s any common thread linking together country music history, it’s a yin-and-yang debate between holding onto tradition and pushing forward to form new sounds. This history will not explore country music’s first 60 or so years as a commercial genre; it will cover its last 30 or so years from a point where the age-old debate raged on and a new chapter formed in country music’s history – the 1980s, or rather, the end of it. From there, we’ll explore a history defined not only by that popular debate, but also by sweeping technological and structural changes that forever redefined what it means to be a country music star in the modern era. Along the way, too, we’ll delve into several of the artists who were either responsible for or met those changes to stake their own chapters in the history books, for better and worse. This is an examination of country music’s last 30 years, and we start this story with 1989, a year that would both close a chapter in country music history and pave the way for a new one to be written.

Country When Country Was Cool

Keith Whitley. From ‘Taste of Country’

Country music ended the 1980s poised for a boom period.

New acts would not only push country music to commercial heights never seen before, but also lead to its most diverse cast of characters yet. It was a test to see if Nashville was ready to embrace both forward-thinking sentiments and a return to its roots by offering fresh perspectives on old models, rather than ape what had already been done before.

As it turned out, Nashville was ready. Established acts like Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Kathy Mattea, and Lyle Lovett provided music that was both critically successful and commercially acclaimed, and acts like George Jones, Ricky Skaggs, and Vern Gosdin proved that slow, lonesome, stone-cold country was still in style. As singer/songwriter Steve Earle proclaimed, it was the time of country music’s “integrity scare.” For a brief moment, renegade songwriters and iconoclastic talents dominated the record-label rosters and made inroads at country radio. It struck a balance that would set the stage for country music’s next 30 years, even if the mediums of representation would change with the times.

One name that should have joined the class of emerging performers was Keith Whitley, who was just beginning to hit his stride when he died on May 9, 1989, from alcohol poisoning. The thirty-three-year-old rising star had been steeped in the deep honky-tonk sounds once made popular by Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, but also struggled with alcoholism, just like his heroes who came before him. He formed a friendship with musician Ricky Skaggs in his childhood, and together the two formed the East Kentucky Mountain Boys, steeped in a hard bluegrass sound that would serve them well in the years to come. They were both hired to play for Ralph Stanley while still in high school. After fronting and performing with other various outfits throughout the ‘70s, Whitley pursued a country music career in Nashville, in 1984, just as the traditionalist wave was taking off and the polished Urban Cowboy sound was on its way out. Known for his expressive, soulful, aching delivery, Whitley’s voice was an asset that would serve him well for romantic ballads like “Don’t Close Your Eyes” and “When You Say Nothing At All,” but it would be another single, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” to perfectly capture the short-lived career. It hit its stride after Whitley’s death and captured his life better than any previous single. Though his career was cut short, he would be a strong influence on many artists who rose to prominence in the next decade.

Vince Gill, an established performer himself at that point who, like Whitley, fostered an impressive bluegrass background, wanted to honor his fallen friend by recording a song he wrote in the wake of the devastation, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Gill had played in a band with Ricky Skaggs and Whitley in his earliest days, making the news hit that much harder. He felt uneasy about the song, though, and wouldn’t finish it for another four years, when his brother, Bob, died. The first few lines, he said, were about Whitley, but the song was ultimately about his brother. As a single, “Go Rest High on That Mountain” featured Patty Loveless on harmony vocal and would become a classic in time. Gill’s star had risen earlier in the decade, thanks to the success of his first top five ballad, “When I Call Your Name” that finally established him as a major solo artist.

Gill’s star would rise alongside the acts that debuted in the late ‘80s – particularly 1989 – and early ‘90s paved the way for country music’s future. Suzy Bogguss, for instance, converted to country later in life and performed it more convincingly than many of her contemporaries, debuting with 1989’s Somewhere Between, named for a Merle Haggard love song and evidence of a singer with beautiful tone and a clear vocal style that would bolster singles like “Drive South” and “Outbound Plane,” among others. Mary Chapin Carpenter was a Princeton-born, Tokyo-and-Washington-D.C.-raised, folk-loving, Ivy League-schooled singer-songwriter inspired by Joni Mitchell and the Carter Family who’d remind listeners of country music’s commitment to good, honest songwriting. She debuted earlier than her class of ‘89 contemporaries, but came out swinging with “How Do.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter. From ‘Country Rebel.’

Kathy Mattea could relate to that commitment to honest lyricism, and opened the door for artists like Carpenter and Lyle Lovett in the early ‘80s. She struggled in Nashville for years until she cut a song written by contemporary folkie Nanci Griffith, “Love at the Five and Dime,” a No. 3 country hit in 1986 that paved the way for more, including one she debuted at the turn of the decade, the emotionally stirring “Where’ve You Been.” She continued penning and recording thoughtful, challenging material in the decade, and reaped the benefits with a single like “Walking Away a Winner.” Tracy Lawrence, another artist known for a clear, expressive vocal style, was shot four times protecting his date from assailants, on the even of his first album release in May 1991. The single, “Sticks and Stones,” went to No. 1, giving Lawrence’s story a happy ending – and start.

Pam Tillis, the oldest of country star Mel Tillis’ five children, became the one of the few country singers to write and solely produce her own albums in time, starting as a songwriter for Conway Twitty and Highway 101, among others, before a 1989 move to Arista Records saw the eventual debut of 1991’s Put Yourself in My Place take shape. A distinguished vocalist, Tillis’ crowning achievements include the rocking “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” and “Maybe It Was Memphis,” heralded by some critics as the best single of the decade. Travis Tritt was as much informed by Lynyrd Skynyrd as he was Waylon Jennings, and ready to put some “drive” in country music. Alan Jackson played solid, smart, straightforward country music that somehow met the best of both worlds in terms of songwriting and pure sound. And as for the acts waiting for their own stories to be written – like Tim McGraw, who moved to Nashville in 1989 determined to further his music career – they’ll receive attention in due time.

Though often dubbed as “neotraditional,” in truth, the movement was far more diverse than just that, even if acts like Randy Travis, Patty Loveless, George Strait, and Dwight Yoakam continued to provide that kind of country music. It also included progressive songwriters like Kathy Mattea, Nanci Griffith, and Lyle Lovett, as well as artists too tough to box in, like Steve Earle, k.d. lang, and Foster & Lloyd. Country music’s new musicians of the ‘90s specifically, though, cited as many rock influences as they did country ones. In 1993, for example, a tribute album to the Eagles was released featuring acts like Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, and Trisha Yearwood. The often dubbed “class of ‘89,” then, would be spearheaded by its valedictorian and salutatorian, and who fit what role would change as the ‘90s roared.

High Sales in Low Places

Garth Brooks

Right out of the gate, Clint Black was the leader of the pack, a Houston native who possessed movie-star looks and a physical advantage that would serve him well in the upcoming music video age. Black built his following playing clubs on the Houston-Galveston circuit, often with his songwriting partner Hayden Nicholas. He would not receive greater visibility until Bill Ham, the former manager of rock group ZZ Top, became his manager. Ham signed Black to a contract with MCA Records in 1988, ushering in a start like no other. Black’s debut album, Killin’ Time, topped the country charts for 28 weeks, bolstered by the success of its four No. 1 singles, including its title track and “Better Man,” and went on to sell over three million copies.

The collection immediately marked Black as a traditionalist in the honky-tonk vein, but it was a marker he’d never quite live up to with follow-up releases, none of which would capture the same commercial spark his debut had. Maybe it had to do with the timing: The album’s producer, Mark Wright, was fired not long after its release. Wright would go on to work A&R for MCA’s Tony Brown, producing Mark Chesnutt’s albums throughout the decade and Gary Allan’s 1999 breakthrough album, Smoke Rings in the Dark, and works by both artists, like Killin’ Time, were unabashedly country in style. Black would still become a consistent hit-maker, but another contemporary of his from that class, Garth Brooks, would eclipse him to become a cultural icon.

Of course, it didn’t start out that way for Brooks, the Oklahoma native who grew up listening to everything from “Townes Van Zandt to Tom Rush to Janis Joplin to George Jones to James Taylor” and beyond. Unlike Black, Brooks only sported regular-guy looks and a voice that was earnest but not technically stellar. In fact, Brooks and Black were born just three days apart in February 1962, and their debut albums were released in the same week of April 1989. Both collections were even stylistically compatible with one another. But Black overshadowed Brooks that first year, enough to where a Texas newspaper once called Brooks “Garth Black” in a headline and through three-quarters of an article, only spelling his name right for the last few paragraphs.

What hindered Brooks’ early success on Music Row only endeared him to fans. A fan would later remark to him that, “It’s weird: You’re like one of us who made it,” thereby supporting Brooks’ “everyman” persona. But, by the spring of 1988, Brooks had been rejected by every record label in Nashville. A chance performance one night at the Bluebird Café, in which he was moved up to an earlier slot because one of the performers failed to show, resulted in him singing “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Capitol Records executive Lynn Shults was sitting in the audience, expecting to hear the no-show singer. Shults had already turned down Brooks once before, but something about that night and that performance changed his mind.

With an advance of $10,000, Brooks was tasked with producer Allen Reynolds to craft a debut album. To put things into perspective: Clint Black’s debut album went gold in four months and platinum in eight, the fastest-selling country debut at the time; Brooks’ album didn’t reach the gold plateau until a year after its release. Both “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old)” performed well on the country charts, but it would be the album’s third single, “The Dance,” a song Brooks had heard by writer Tony Arata at a Bluebird writers’ night, that would catapult him into superstardom. Upon its release as a single, the album’s sales doubled within a month. In a sense, Brooks, as Bill C. Malone notes in Country Music U.S.A., was a “genius at merging musical styles and cultural symbols: rock and country, cowboy costuming, rock concert mannerisms and devices (including cordless microphones that permitted him to roam freely on large stages, and ropes and pulleys that enabled him to fly across the stage like Peter Pan).” He was a marketing master, embracing a populist stance by offering his albums directly to his audiences at below-market prices. He drew inspiration from former rodeo champion and later country-rock performer Chris LeDoux and inspired people who didn’t listen to country music to listen to him, at the very least.

And despite what Brooks would come to be known as – a bane of traditionalism and the “anti-Hank,” according to Kinky Friedman – he was loyal first and foremost to country music. As producer Allen Reynolds notes in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, “He did this without ever once allowing his record label to promote his records across into other markets, like the pop market. His loyalty was to country radio and his attitude was, ‘Let them come to us. Let’s be so good at what we do that they come to us, and leave pop radio or whatever kind of radio and come listen to country.’ ”

Garth Brooks. ‘Ropin’ the Wind’ album cover.

Brooks’ power – and that of every other artist during this time period, for that matter – was aided, or, at the very least, properly accounted for, by the introduction of the SoundScan system in 1991, which significantly changed country music’s public perception. Designed to provide a more accurate count of record sales, the computerized system replaced the previous model that had been used to tabulate Billboard chart rankings and as such determine the relative power of individual artists and genres as a whole. The old system, which relied on sales reports sent in by retailers, woefully underrepresented country’s sales figures. The proof came when, during the week the new system debuted, Brooks’ No Fences album moved from No. 16 to No. 4 on the pop chart. In 1991, Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, an album launched with only a $30,000 promotional budget – a lower sum than RCA invested to launch Clint Black and significantly smaller than what was being spent on pop and rock acts of the time – became the first country album to debut at No. 1 on that same chart.

The Country Music Association held an event on September 24, 1991, to celebrate the achievement, with Garth Brooks onstage in front of a six-by-four-foot blowup of the Top Ten sellers on Billboard magazine. Country music’s success extended beyond Brooks, too. Liberty Records president Jimmy Bowen opened an issue of Billboard at the event and rattled off names. “I see Travis Tritt at No. 27. I see Ricky Van Shelton at No. 42, and Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood.” In total, he cited 27 names, in addition to Brooks’ three chart entries.

The new data indicated that country sales comprised 17 percent of the overall total for American music, second only to rock then. Before, most country sales took place in discount retailers like Wal-Mart that didn’t provide sales reports to Billboard. Store layouts played a part in country music’s representation as well. As Don Cusic notes in his essay, “Country Green: The Money in Country Music,” featured in Reading Country Music, “Country music had its own section, generally at the back of the store, while pop records were displayed up front. So country music was not even considered in calculating pop sales unless an album sold so well that it was moved to the front of the store.” SoundScan made such errors now impossible.

Brooks was now a country music king. By early 1994, he had sold more than 33 million albums, and his landmark series of concerts in Dallas in the fall of 1993 included special effects like an enormous ring of fire, a simulated rainstorm, and a flight through the air. He sold a record-breaking 195,000 tickets sold in less than six hours for those shows. He became the model for young, fresh-faced male country artists of the ‘90s, from John Michael Montgomery to Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, Mark Chesnutt, Wade Hayes, Sammy Kershaw, and beyond. And young country stars of all varieties were now enjoying big-buck campaigns equal to their pop counterparts; the music and images projected reached even farther. Some were opposed to the rise of hat-acts. Travis Tritt, for instance, first used the term “hat act” to describe performers who were imitating a style and weren’t real cowboys. He protested the term not only by refusing to wear one, but also by embarking on a tour with Marty Stuart called the “No Hats” tour.

George Strait. Credit: GAB Archives / Red Ferns

If Brooks influenced his contemporaries, though, it was because he himself was influenced by George Strait, who wore a cowboy hat upon his debut at a time when western wear was considered archaic in Nashville. The fashion style hadn’t been seen as popular since the days of Roy Rogers, and certainly wasn’t in the era of the Urban Cowboy phenomenon. When MCA began discussing a potential record deal with the budding Strait, they wanted him to ditch his Wranglers, big belt buckle, and big hat, hoping to market him off his boyish charm. “They asked him to take his cowboy hat off,” said Strait’s manager, Erv Woolsey. “They wanted to put him in bell bottoms with studs up the sides. He told them, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ He dresses the same way he dressed when he was growing up. It’s who he is.”

Strait was a genuine cowboy who spent his childhood on a ranch near Pearsall, Texas, and only gravitated toward country music through a stint with an army band in Hawaii in the late 1970s. In his youth, he was inspired by the British Rock invasion and joined various garage bands in high school. While in college he organized his Ace in the Hole Band, absorbing the music of Hank Williams, George Jones, and Merle Haggard along the way. He began organizing local gigs, after failing to make it in Nashville, and attracted Woolsey’s attention, who guided him to an eventual MCA contract. With the success of his debut single, “Unwound,” Strait, along with Ricky Skaggs and John Anderson, proved that hard country was still commercially viable, even in the early ‘80s. His music was inspired by Texas dancehalls, but he also suited ballads like the smooth “Marina Del Rey” just fine. But it was singles like his covers of the Bob Wills staple “Right or Wrong” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” that showed his true style. A decade after his debut, he entered the ‘90s with a song that stayed at No. 1 for five consecutive weeks, the tender “Love Without End, Amen.” Five years later, he broke records for the sales of his Strait Out of the Box collection, which completely shattered expectations for a multialbum collection. He did it all by maintaining a low-profile image and never extending his reach beyond country, too, another rarity for a genre that prided itself on the seedier motives and actions behind its outlaws and rebels. His clean-cut fashion style and sound would affect a whole crop of new country talent.

“I was going to the store with my dad and I remember coming out of Turtle Creek, up there where I was going to take a left by the blue church, heading north to Snyder’s IGA,” Garth Brooks said in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary. “And Dad had the radio on and this lady said, ‘Here’s a new kid from Texas and I think you’re going to like his sound.’ And it was George Strait. And it was ‘Unwound.’ There’s something about the beat; something about that fiddle lick; and then that whole first opening line, when George opens his mouth, you just, there you are. And that’s what happened to me. And it was that day, I looked and said, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ ”

The newfound information offered in the present day by SoundScan, however, gave those in Nashville a cause for getting more radio stations to feature country music, and a boom period was on: Between 1989 and 1991, country music sales doubled, from $460 million to nearly $1 billion. Between 1991 and 1994, they doubled again, to 1.97 billion. By 1995, nearly 70 million people were listening to a country station. Advertisers began seeing the appeal of a new “hot country” style that merged the theatrics of stadium rock with the new traditionalist movement that carried over from the ‘80s. Concert performances moved beyond traditional auditoriums and fairgrounds that had sustained country music since the ‘50s, as musicians booked sold-out shows at sports stadiums, some of which were nationally televised. Brooks arguably put it best when he said, “It’s like someone opened the closet door. Just because the light is on, does it mean it wasn’t that way all along?”

Video Helped The Radio Stars

SoundScan was not the only technological advance that benefited country music during this time. The ‘90s ushered in the age of the music video, a new phenomenon that helped country music connect with its fans like never before. During an otherwise boring trip to a Nashville convenience store one day in October 1993, newcomer Faith Hill would experience that benefit, when the woman behind the counter exclaimed, “You’re the wild one!”

It was the first time she had been recognized in public as a country singer. Her debut album, Take Me As I Am, had yet to be released, and its debut single “Wild One” was only starting its ascent at country radio. But a video of the song, featuring Hill singing and dancing, received significant exposure on cable TV’s Nashville Network and Country Music Television. It allowed a store clerk – a fan – to put a face to a name, and allowed for a connection that would have taken weeks or months to form in an earlier time. Videos would also reignite a trend not seen since the days of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – a dance craze. An important part of country music since its advent, line dances had been popular in the United States for centuries, and its popularity can be traced all the way back to the British Isles in the seventeenth century, when immigrants took to the contra dance.

When marketing executives at Mercury Records began planning Billy Ray Cyrus’ introduction, they worried that the singer’s first release, “Achy Breaky Heart,” would alienate conservative radio programmers with its amped-up rock production and vivacious energy. On the other hand, Cyrus had darkly handsome features, a muscular build, and a live show that oozed sex appeal in a way that was perfect for the time. He had a strong following in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, and to capitalize on that, his first video was shot at a hometown theater, featuring people going crazy over his debut single. Line-dancing had also been a hot trend at this time, thanks in part to Brooks & Dunn’s 1992 hit “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and further bolstered by Tracy Byrd’s “Watermelon Crawl,” Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Down at the Twist and Shout,” and Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw.” Mercury hired a choreographer to develop a line-dancing routine known as the “Achy-Breaky Dance” as well as a promotional reel to be sent out to dance clubs on how to properly accompany it. Country radio was the last entity to receive the song, and the hit that labels feared wouldn’t perform well instead became one that radio programmers begged for to add to their playlists.

Like Clint Black before him, Cyrus would have an edge over Garth Brooks for a small moment in time and eclipsed him in 1992 as country music’s biggest story of the year. In both scenarios, Brooks would prove to have the staying power. But Cyrus’ story did display the power of the country music industry’s newfound focus on marketing and multimedia promotional plans. Before, a new artist would have to settle for a paltry budget to record a few songs, which were sent out to radio stations. If radio programmers were interested, the artist would be allowed to complete an album. This new system changed the rules.

It also placed an emphasis on visual appearance, which, as already noted, certainly didn’t matter to “everyman” Brooks, but would place an increased burden on country music’s female artists. When Trisha Yearwood started her country music career, she heard all the time that women don’t sell records. “Don’t expect to sell as many records as George Strait because women just don’t do that,” she was told. She said once that, “There is a mentality in Nashville that women don’t sell as well as men, and if you don’t think it is going to happen, it is surely not going to happen.” In 1992, one executive decided to investigate that complaint. Arista Records publicist Merissa Ide, according to Finding Her Voice, tallied all of the gold and platinum sellers then active. At the time only 36 women were album-making artists on major labels, but 15 of them had won sales awards (42 percent). Men represented 117 album-making acts, of whom 44 had sold in the millions (38 percent). In pop music, women were among the biggest sellers. As it turned out, country fans weren’t much different, despite the old myth floating around. Yearwood proved that when, in 1991, “She’s in Love With the Boy” went to No. 1, the first time a female artist’s debut single topped the chart in country music since Connie Smith’s “Once a Day” in 1964. When her self-titled debut sold one million copies, it became the first platinum album by a female artist since Donna Fargo’s debut nearly 20 years before. She also opened for Garth Brooks on tour that same year.

Cleveland Francis art cover. From ‘Herald Courier’

Race issues also continued to face country music representation during this time, just as they had since its inception as a commercial musical genre. Cleveland Francis Jr. was one of many artists to take advantage of the music video era as he pursued a country music career. A cardiologist, Francis left his practice in Alexandria, Virginia, inspired by the mix of gospel, country and Cajun music he heard as a child. As the oldest of six children to Louisiana sharecroppers, he played a guitar made from a cigar box and window screen wire until he was given a Sears, Rosebuck Silvertone model guitar by his mother. Long after becoming a cardiologist, Francis was signed by Miami’s Playback Records, where he invested $25,000 in a music video for his 1990 single, “Love Light” (a cover of an old Glen Campbell song), featured prominently on CMT. The video caught Liberty Records president Jimmy Bowen’s attention, who signed Francis. Francis then rerecorded his single for his 1991 album Tourist in Paradise, but after meager sales and only minor chart success with it, he was dropped. His biggest chart hit, “You Do My Heart Good,” reached No. 47 on the charts.

In a 1994 commentary for Billboard, Dr. Francis, after returning to his cardiology practice, addressed the fact that the way certain country acts tied their marketing efforts with Confederate imagery was problematic. According to him, “For many African-Americans, country music became the symbol of oppression because of its perceived association with the racism of southern whites.” In 1995, he published survey data showing that 17-24 percent of black adults over the age of 18 were listening to country music, revealing an under-served market of around 5 to 7 million listeners. Nisha Jackson, who was signed to Capitol Records in 1990 and let go after only one failed recording, blamed black country singers’ problems on music executives conservatism and racism in failing to market black artists more aggressively. The industry didn’t do much with Francis’ data, either. Trini Triggs, of Natchitoches, Louisiana, issued a self-titled album on MCG/Curb in 1998, but failed to score any hit singles.

As a result of Francis’ experiences, he formed the Black Country Music Association. Its goal was to educate listeners about Black country music and promote its individual members. Fellow singer/songwriter Frankie Staton ran it, another Black artist disillusioned by Music Row after a failed career attempt in country music.

And while mainstream country music danced the night away ignoring its plights, another movement would begin that pulled from tradition and formed it into something new – and it, too, would do so in Nashville, but away from its mainstream culture. They would not listen to Garth Brooks, who once said at a Country Radio Seminar that, “The message I would send to the youth is not to screw up the mainstream, but work with it to make it what you want.”

An Alternative Solution

Uncle Tupelo. From ‘Exclaim!’

A new style of music would emerge in the early 1990s that would blend traditional country music with anything from bluegrass, folk, rock, blues, punk, soul, and jazz, as a way for artists to draw on a variety of roots-music styles or to provide a haven for those who preferred vintage sounds over contemporary trends. Its pioneers include, among others, country-rock icons like Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons, folkie-turned-country artist Emmylou Harris, and other groundbreaking artists of the ‘80s like Joe Ely and Jason & the Scorchers. While it would come to be known as many terms throughout its time – and is most commonly referred to as “Americana” today – what is known is that one term, “alt country,” was properly termed in the ‘90s.

The moniker itself doesn’t even tip its hat to country music, but rather the success of rock acts in the ‘80s and very early ‘90s that broke through to the mainstream – Nirvana, R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins, among others. Alternative, then, was a badge of honor. A common kinship arose between those acts and the ones that would rise in country music’s underground scene, a commonality in how they moved from struggling on independent labels and college radio stations to rising toward higher levels, albeit significantly different ones.

Punk-rock was the biggest influence behind the alt-country movement, a genre that prides itself on taking music down to a grassroots level and fostering performers who, while certainly not master musicians, had the passion and drive to care about the art first and foremost. Country music itself is about emotional expressions that are simple and honest, so the comparison isn’t too far-fetched. Even Dwight Yoakam received his start in Los Angeles, honing his craft by playing punk-rock venues and clubs with acts like X and the Blasters before making his way to Nashville.

But the movement starts, for all intents and purposes, with Uncle Tupelo, a band comprised of high-school friends Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, and Mike Heidorn, that, with its 1990 debut album, No Depression, combined hard-hitting punk influences with slow, twangy ballads cut from the country music cloth. The album’s title track was originally a Carter Family song from the Depression era. It would also go on to become the name for an Internet fan club chat folder on America Online. That same chat group would go on to form a bimonthly magazine called No Depression, which featured coverage of the burgeoning movement. The term itself was even used to describe the music and similar stylings of non-mainstream acts in Robbie Fulks and Lucinda Williams, along with Western Beat, twangcore, country and Westerburg and y’alternative. But no term stuck or really described the music itself that well as “alternative country” did.

In 1994, independent Chicago record label Bloodshot Records issued a compilation CD titled For A Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country, featuring its own Freakwater, the Bottle Rockets, and the aforementioned Fulks. Its artists tended to be roots-oriented but iconoclastic in song and style choices. Its most famous artist, Fulks, discovered hard country music after earlier fascinations with bluegrass, rock, and folk, and became a student of the genre, going so far as to take jabs at traditional country music song topics and turn them into his own. More obvious examples include his takes on religion, with “God Isn’t Real,” and Nashville, with “Fuck this Town.” As label president Rob Miller once said, “People will pick up a Robbie record or a Bobbie [Bare Jr.] record and say, ‘I don’t hear any punk in here.’ It’s more in the ethos and the way that we run the business.”

In 1995, the Gavin music-trade publication began running an “Americana” chart, and in late 1999 the Americana Music Association was founded to further “American roots music based on the traditions of country.” The simpler definition for this music, however, was best described by what it wasn’t: It wasn’t on country radio. At that time, acts like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn could relate, as both received Americana awards at a time when then Country Music Association no longer recognized them. Despite the fusion that Uncle Tupelo started, these bands would often sound more in line with country music than the average mainstream act of the decade. And for anyone that doubted Uncle Tupelo itself, the band’s third album, March 16-20, 1992, featured plenty of traditional old-time tunes, including the Louvin Brothers’ “Great Atomic Power.” Other acts were hard to box in, as was also intended. Of course, by 1994 Uncle Tupelo had disbanded anyway, leaving Farrar to form Son Volt and Tweedy to form Wilco and both to push toward rock music’s mainstream.

In a sense, the movement provided a home for disgruntled punks digging for their roots, but there were some acts, like Dale Watson, who didn’t think there was anything “alternative” about the hardcore country music they were playing. Mainstream country certainly favored an act like Watson during this time, who tipped his hat towards George Jones, Johnny Paycheck and Lefty Frizzell. But it still favored young blood, and Watson was far too old for the time. That didn’t mean the influence wasn’t there. Mary Chapin Carpenter, for instance, took Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” and turned it into a legitimate chart hit, as did Patty Loveless, with another Williams cut, “The Night’s Too Long.” Williams’ own Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was a Grammy-winning effort that cemented itself as a landmark collection for the era and sound, filled with tales of sensuous longing, disappointment, and death. It came as no surprise that Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, produced by hip-hop and rock producer Rick Rubin, received more initial coverage from rock publications than anywhere else, or that Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall received tribute albums in the form of Tulare Dust and Real, respectively, from alternative artists.

It was on Tulare Dust, in fact, that singer/songwriter Iris DeMent sang Haggard’s “Big City,” his ode to the working person yearning for fun and freedom. Haggard loved it. “He thought it was the greatest thing ever,” according to Nicholas Dawidoff’s In the Country of Country. “That’s the way I wanted ‘Big City’ to sound,” Haggard said. He immediately bought DeMent’s first two albums and found himself captivated by her voice, and found a kindred spirit through her take on Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz.” He wanted to record two of her songs for himself, and called her to ask whether she’d be interested in helping him learn them.

Iris DeMent

Suffice it to say, it didn’t take much convincing for DeMent, who grew up listening to Haggard the same way he had grown up listening to Frizzell – with a rare sort of admiration that fuels the decision to pursue a love for music. The youngest of 14 children of an Arkansas-fiddler and his gospel-singing wife, she was three when the family moved to find a better life in southern California. Raised with a strict Pentecostal upbringing, DeMent broke away at age 16 to forge her own path, eventually making her way to Kansas City at age twenty-five to write songs. After financing a trip to Nashville in 1987 and coming under the tutelage of Emmylou Harris in the ‘90s, she released her debut album, Infamous Angel, in 1992, and received rave reviews for her emotionally stirring voice and lyricism that got intensely personal; songs like “No Time to Cry” and “Easy’s Getting Harder” arguably tell her story better than anything written about her. Several more critically acclaimed albums followed, and DeMent eventually found even more kindred spirits through collaborations with John Prine and Steve Earle, among others.

As author Nicholas Dawidoff says, “DeMent uses simple language when she writes, and her songs tend to explore common experiences: the way timing and passion figure into love affairs, how it feels to spend a life in the same drab small town; the complicated ways people respond to death. Although the songs have the sound and feel of traditional country music, there isn’t the vestigial longing for the retreating rural paradise that was such a common theme among the generation of country songwriters who were active in the middle decades of the century.”

These new alternative country artists argued that contemporary country music had abandoned its working-class heritage, and now spoke only to a suburban middle class. These artists reclaimed country music icons and re-positioned them as punk ones, too. There were also some, however, that resisted labeling the music at all. “If I never hear that term [alt-country] again, it would be too soon,” Neko Case once said. Robbie Fulks began using the term “descriptive country,” to confuse people. It was only critical of Nashville and nothing more. “I remember there was a big push in the early ‘90s to rid country music of any lingering Hank Williams feelings that it had,” Case once said, regarding mainstream country music’s direction in the early ‘90s. “There were ads like ‘All Country, No Bumpkin!,’ or ‘Not the Country Your Grandparents Listened To!,’ or ‘Nobody’d Dog Is Gonna Die!’ It was really stupid.”

Dale Watson carried on the tradition for Austin, Texas, as the “Live Music Capitol of the World,” which was also home to acts like Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Scott Biram, the latter of whom played a very specific type of blues from the North Mississippi Hill Country, brought to the attention of the rest of the world by Fat Possum Records in the early ‘90s. True to spirit, Austin was one of the epicenters of the original country music Outlaw movement and a lot of independent music infrastructure. In Nashville, BR549, a hillbilly-boogie quintet that took its name from Junior Samples’s used-car salesman routine on Hee Haw (and originally featured a dash between the “5” and the “4”), spearheaded another movement – an alternative traditionalist revival that would occur right in the heart of downtown Nashville.

By the early ‘90s, lower Broadway street comprised the last bastion of old buildings that symbolized what Music City used to be. Overrun with dirty bookstores and bars, it would also be where The Grand Ole Opry’s original home, the Ryman, had once shuttered, in 1974, and where young cowpunk and neo-traditionalist musicians like the Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Hillbilly Casino, Greg Garing, and Joe Buck and Layla Vartanian commandeered lower Broadway and revitalized the strip into the tourist destination it is today. Venues like Robert’s Western World and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn were essential in garnering attention, the former even being known as “home of the BR549” for the band’s four-hour sets that became standing-room-only affairs. BR549 landed on the cover of Billboard magazine before it even had a record deal. The band signed with Arista Records in 1995 and issued a live EP, Live from Robert’s, as its first release. The band’s eventual debut album’s first single, a cover of Moon Mullican’s “Cherokee Boogie,” was nominated for a Grammy, but country radio’s refusal to embrace the band limited its status as a cult favorite, and by the 2000s, the group was largely inactive.

Along with his “Western World,” Robert Wayne Moore also opened a bluegrass inn, but left for California not long afterwards, leaving it to Layla Vartanian and Joe Buck. Buck, who began as a street performer on Lower Broadway and played at Robert’s Western World, was picked to be the star attraction and himself was billed as the “BR549 of the Bluegrass Inn,” today now known simply as Layla’s. Buck would go on to play bass for Hank Williams III, then as a one-man band behind a bass drum mostly playing punk music. The impact of both venues opened the door for even more to come on Lower Broadway.

Lower Broadway’s greatest moment of revitalization, though, would stem from a stalwart of country music, who would be the one to lead the charge in saving the Ryman from permanent destruction.

A Woman’s World

Emmylou Harris. Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Johnny Cash once remarked to journalist Patrick Carr that, “Every so often country has to get back to Emmylou Harris,” but Harris represented the divide that was starting to form in country music’s mainstream and alternative worlds. By the early ‘90s, Harris was moving away from her role as a mainstream country artist, performing three 1991 concerts at the aforementioned severely decayed Ryman Auditorium, all of which brought attention to the importance of the long-closed relic and helped spur a successful renovation campaign. Starting on May 1, 1991, Harris started a series of shows at the mother church that stretched into 1992. For almost 20 years, the Ryman’s legendary acoustics had gone virtually unused, save for being the source of a few movie scenes between Nashville (1975), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and Sweet Dreams (1985). With Harris’ performances, the home of country music was alive with sound once again.

Captured in 1992’s At the Ryman, Harris performed with an all-star acoustic band in Sam Bush, Roy Husky Jr., and Jon Randall, and the bluegrass-inflections of the show predated a roots movement of a different variety that would occur nearly nine years later. She even brought on aging patriarch of bluegrass Bill Monroe, who had first appeared on the Ryman stage in 1939. The album reminded listeners of the building’s phenomenal acoustics and place in music history. A building about to be destroyed was instead saved by an $8 million renovation project spearheaded by Harris and begun by Gaylord Entertainment. It reopened as a performance venue on June 3, 1994, with Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, and Marty Stuart cutting the ribbon. It also featured a lobby with bronze statues of both Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl in it. Starting with one weekend in 1999, The Ryman began hosting Opry performances again. Harris, meanwhile, would move toward the alternative wave she helped inspire, crafting 1995’s experimental rock-leaning Wrecking Ball and championing the songwriting of artists like Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams along the way.

Harris followed her muse, but other slightly older artists still wanted to benefit from country music’s mainstream. When Patty Loveless released “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” featuring George Jones on harmony vocal, several radio programmers requested a remixed version that didn’t feature him. Country radio formats wanted straightforward, down-the-middle country music from “hot” new artists, and while Loveless refused to take Jones off the recording, the song peaked outside of the top 10. His 1985 single “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” had now scanned as an eerie prophecy for what would follow. Several veteran performers during this time either exited during this time or tweaked their sound to fit in. Willie Nelson left Columbia Records, Loretta Lynn just couldn’t get a record contract, and Merle Haggard ostensibly fought his record label over artistic decisions. Their influences – Jones’, in particular – could be heard through artists like Sammy Kershaw and Joe Diffie. The former artist tried for a country music career in the ‘80s but struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, causing him to quit the business and work at Walmart until signing with Mercury Records in 1990 and releasing a string of successful singles, including “Cadillac Style” and “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful.” The latter artist promoted his brand of “turbo tonk” – a blend of country and rock that fueled upbeat, hook-laden numbers like “Third Rock From the Sun” and “John Deere Green” well. But both artists drew direct vocal comparisons to Jones, and Diffie’s ballads like “Home” and “Ships That Don’t Come In” were equally as, if not more, compelling, than his rowdier cuts.

Patty Loveless. From ‘Country Universe.’

For Loveless, though, actually including Jones on the single was a bold and daring move, Her first hit, after all, was a top ten cover of his own “If My Heart Had Windows,” in 1989. A distant cousin of both Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, Loveless, like them, was a coal miner’s daughter born in the small Appalachian town of Pikeville, Kentucky, where her father died of black lung disease in 1979. As a child she’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry and sing with her brother, Roger, who showed her songs to Porter Wagoner while Patty was still in high school. She eventually made her way to Nashville, and after a few life and label changes, developed one of the strongest, most consistent discographies of the 1990s, including, among other singles, “Nothing But the Wheel,” “Blame It On Your Heart,” “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” and the aforementioned “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me.” But, like Jones, Loveless’ commercial success slipped after 1997, and she too would be a country artist to follow her own muse into the new decade.

Another paradox presented during this time was that several of these new artists who debuted during this time period wouldn’t peak until well into the 2000s. That was not the case with LeAnn Rimes, a child prodigy following in the tradition of Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, and Marie Osmond. By the age of seven, she was a regular on the Dallas-area stage show Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue after auditioning with Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” By eight, she had competed on Star Search singing Marty Robbins’ “Don’t Worry.” Rimes recorded a debut album when she was 11 on a small southwestern label, ready to record a song handed to her by Fort Worth DJ Bill Mack, who was impressed with her after hearing her sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Mack had originally written the song for Patsy Cline, and during the next few months, Rimes’ tape found its way to Curb Records owner Mike Curb, who signed her on the strength of the song. She was 14 years old when the song made her an overnight sensation.

With time, however, Rimes would find the burden of stardom at a young age to be too much. By 1998 she was an accomplished singer, author, and actress in both television shows and movies. She was grossing more than $150 million in record sales and was pulling in $200,000 a night, 100 nights a year. She was, as noted in Finding Her Voice, “ill, chronically exhausted, and emotionally frayed.” Her father, Wilbur Rimes, managed her and produced her records, but by then he had divorced from LeAnn’s mother Belinda Rimes. LeAnn and Belinda sued Wilbur in 2000, charging that he’d cheated his daughter out of $7 million the previous five years. He countersued. LeAnn would also sue Curb Records on her own, at age eighteen. She’d wanted out of her contract because she’d signed it as a minor, though unlike other child stars before her, Rimes had successfully petitioned the court to remove her minority status, which made the contract binding. She disowned her I Need You album and made snide remarks about the company while hosting the 2001 Academy of Country Music Awards. She and Curb Records would eventually patch things up, but it would not be the first time an artist disputed with that specific record label in the new century.

If Rimes debuted too fast and too hard, Shania Twain had the opposite problem. Like Garth Brooks, she didn’t bust right out of the gate, but when she found her muse, there was really no one who could rival her. Born Eillen Edwards in 1965, Twain and her family settled in the mining town of Timmins, Ontario. They were desperately poor, but, like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton before her, Twain proved that poverty need not define a person. Her parents gave her pride and ambition. She worked with her stepfather, Jerry Twain, – the only father she’d ever acknowledge – on reforestation crews, and would sing loudly as she worked, as a technique for warding off bears. Her mother, Sharon, recognized her ability and saw it as a means to escape poverty. At age eight Twain was performing in talent contests and clubs and writing songs by age ten. She was paired with Canadian country artist Mary Bailey, who became her manager. Her parents would drive her nearly 500 miles to Toronto just to make contacts, take voice lessons, and record.

Shania Twain

Her parents died in 1987 from a head-on car accident. Twain was only 21 years old and left to return home to care for her three teen siblings. She moved the family to Huntsville, Ontario, and got a job singing at the Deerhurst Resort. Jerry Twain had been a member of the Ojibway Native American tribe, and in honor of her father’s memory, Shania ditched her birth name, after meeting another woman with the same name and deciding she liked the sound of it. She’d later find out what it means: “I’m on my way” in Ojibway.

Twain eventually headed to Nashville in 1991. She landed a Mercury Records contract, though the label felt she’d be better off with songs written by industry professionals, rather than her own. Two singles, “What Made You Say That” and “Dance with the One That Brought You,” failed as radio hits, but their music videos attracted the eye of rock producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who immediately tracked her down. He showed up at Nashville’s Fan Fair Festival in June of 1993 to meet her. They married that December. The two clicked creatively, and their work together resulted in a sound that was a danceable pop/rock concoction mixed with country fiddles. Singles like “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” and “Any Man of Mine” became both huge radio hits and dance club favorites, cementing Twain as a media sensation – one who did things her own way, with a producer that wasn’t one of Nashville’s own, and attained success without joining Music Row’s inner circle. She also refused to tour until 1998, instead opting to release upwards of anywhere from eight to eleven singles from her projects. She staged her first tour as a headliner, so that she’d have enough material to perform a full show.

She also changed the rules of songwriting perspective. On “Honey I’m Home,” for instance, she’s the working woman who comes home expecting her significant other to cater to her needs. “Her message is female empowerment without male-bashing,” as journalist Chet Flippo once noted. Her 1995 album The Woman in Me made country music history when it hit 12 million in sales, making it the biggest-selling female-led album ever. Her 1997 album Come on Over soared past the 18 million mark to become the largest-selling female-led album of all-time, regardless of genre.

Twain’s success came at a time when women assumed equality and independence as natural rights and struck out boldly to assert that control like never before, recording songs that spoke not only to their own agency, but also to the rising movement for LBGTQ+ rights, domestic violence, and the AIDS epidemic. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 1993 hit “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” expressed a desire to live an individualistic life, even if it went against societal expectations and broke matrimonial bonds. Reba McEntire warned of the danger of AIDS with “She Thinks His Name Was John” and gave women a voice with “Is There Life Out There,” in which its character yearns for a need to pursue an independent lifestyle. Chely Wright took that concept further with “She Went Out For Cigarettes,” about leaving an unfulfilling relationship. Both Faith Hill and Martina McBride addressed domestic abuse in “A Man’s Home is His Castle” and the Gretchen Peters-penned “Independence Day,” respectively. Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” was a party-anthem celebration of that agency, and even outside of the mainstream, messages roared. Iris DeMent, for example, spoke of long-hidden sexual abuse through “Letter to Mom.”

Country music’s commercial boom of the early ‘90s, then, was as artistically rich as it was commercially successful, but it wouldn’t remain that way.

Read: Part Two – They Don’t Have Cash and They Don’t Sound Haggard (1996-2005)

2 thoughts on “Part One – A Modern Country Music History: From Bars to Barcodes (1989-1996)

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