Boom! It Was Over?
Signed by President Bill Clinton, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 forever changed the way the music industry operated and opened the doors for country music to become a genre of strict formats. In the 1940s the United States Federal Communications Commission strictly limited corporate conglomerates to owning a single station. Those guidelines loosened over time, and by 1996, the ownership was capped at 40 per owner. With the 1996 act, owners could now own an unlimited number of radio stations.
The new act quickly led to consolidation and homogenization. Clear Channel Communications, the biggest radio owner of all, grew to own over 1,200 radio stations. By 2002, only 10 companies controlled a 65 percent share of the radio audience; these stations all operated in uniform fashion. By the mid-to-late ‘90s, record sales were concentrated on a smaller number of releases, and executives were under pressure to keep promoting records that sold in the millions, meaning there was less room to experiment with new artists or sounds.
As Rodney Crowell notes, “Expectations became part of the creative decision making. That means that the record companies’ bottom line had risen to such great heights with the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain that their shareholders were never going to be happy if they were out trying to develop a new act who sold one-fifth, or one-hundredth of what those artists sold. It just wasn’t going to happen.” In a new age of radio consolidation, artists dropping in to see disc jockeys was a literal thing of the past, and records were pushed through one person programming for 1000+ stations, with their say-so being the say-so.
The late ‘90s also saw the introduction of a new tool – Auto-Tune, developed by the Antares company as a studio and stage aid to nudge flat or sharp singing into perfect tune. Roughly 90 percent of major-label country artists were soon using this technology. Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, and Allison Moorer were not among them. Critics of the technology argued that recordings had become so air-tight and perfect that it suffocated individuality and emotion in a genre that traditionally prided itself on its imperfections. They argued it was cheating a genre that prided itself on authenticity, especially when many of the genre’s most legendary performances, from Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash, among others, came from those imperfections. Supporters of it, on the other hand, argued that they were simply using the technology of the time to make the best and most cost-effective recordings possible.
Historians argue it was around this time that, because of well-scrubbed performances and radio consolidation, the genre suffered from “sound-alike syndrome.” Indeed, country album sales declined about 20 percent in 1996. The women of country music hadn’t received the memo about the genre’s demise, though. Between 1994 and 1997, album sales by female country artists more than doubled. In 1998, 52 percent of Billboard number-one country hits were performed by women. In 1995, country music women began performing together in package shows, starting with Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, and Carlene Carter. Then Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Kim Richey. Lacy J. Dalton, Juice Newtown and Janie Fricke, too, as “Ladies of the ‘80s,” a nod to K.T. Oslin’s breakthrough hit, “’80s Ladies.” Martina McBride even spearheaded a Girls Night Out country tour in 2001 with Reba McEntire, Jamie O’ Neal, Sara Evans, and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. By far the biggest female success story, though, was Shania Twain, as well another one of her contemporaries who received the same criticisms she did as her star rose.
Faith Hill broke through in 1994 with “Wild One,” which rocketed all the way to the top of the charts. She came to Nashville wanting to be Reba McEntire but forged her own path. Still, despite her success, she noted the struggles women in country music faced to gain airplay. “I had one radio guy tell me there were too many female performers coming his way, and that he was going to have to cut some from his hour playlist. I said, ‘How many females do you play an hour right now?’ And he said, ‘One.’ ”
In 1996, Hill hit the road with fellow rising star Tim McGraw, son of the late Major League reliever Frank “Tug” McGraw, something he wouldn’t know until he was 11 years old. By the time he graduated from high school, McGraw was set to become either an attorney or professional baseball player, and only pursued music after finding success through a band he formed while still in college; he didn’t even know how to play a guitar until then. He found a label home with Curb Records and broke through with mere novelty hits in “Indian Outlaw” and “Refried Dreams” before eventually pushing more thoughtful, artistic material on the “Spontaneous Combustion” tour in 1996, leading to a relationship with Hill. The two fell in love on that tour and were married that fall. Like Shania Twain, Hill formed her artistic identity through her high-fashion image and aggressive marketing. Her 1998 Faith album, a much more upbeat collection of singles that even included a duet with McGraw in “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me,” sold five million copies. Breathe followed, in 1999, once again with a McGraw duet in “Let’s Make Love,” though this time with the added criticism that it did not, according to Billboard, “adhere to any country music guidelines or standards.” Hill brushed these criticisms aside, stating that, “I’m certainly not going to sit here and say, ‘I don’t want anybody except country music fans to hear my work.’ As an artist and entertainer, I want to reach as many people as I can.”
O Brothers and Sisters!
If Twain and Hill were too much for purists, a new country trio was set to prove that an act could still attain superstardom while making indisputably country music. Originally a bluegrass band and then cowgirl-costumed novelty attraction, The Dixie Chicks – known originally as the Dixie Chickens in 1989, in reference to a song by Little Feat, then as just the Chicks in 2020 – comprised of Texas sisters Martie and Emily Erwin and, later, Natalie Maines, broke out in 1997 with “I Can Love You Better.” After nine years and three independent albums, the group became known in Nashville for its stellar vocal harmonies, Martie’s championship-winning fiddling, Maines’ blusterous vocal and stage presentation, and Emily’s triple instrumental threat on dobro, banjo, and guitar. Wide Open Spaces followed, in 1998, and sold 11 million copies to become the biggest-selling album by a country group in history, buoyed by the success of its title track single, “There’s Your Trouble,” and “You Were Mine.”
The group’s honest, uninhibited interviews and fashion sensibilities even won over pop music fans, enough to where they received comments from fans saying, “I hate country music, but I love y’all. Y’all aren’t country.” Martie brushed off comments like that, stating, “We’re a country group. That’s what our expertise is in. I mean, Emily plays a banjo, for God’s sake. I play the fiddle. Natalie’s got that undeniable twang that she will never be able to escape with all the speech therapy in the world.” Indeed, the three took pride in bringing back traditional country music and putting a modern spin on it. Fly, released in 1999, saw both the Texas dancehall shuffle of “Hello Mr. Heartache” stand alongside the dark comedy of “Goodbye Earl” and would go on to sell 10 million copies. And the trio’s live shows featured banjo solos and fiddle breakdowns more akin to heavy-metal guitar solos. Additionally, in 2001, they sued their record company for $4.1 million in unpaid royalties and wanted out of their contract. This came as part of a larger movement within the music industry that saw rock artists like Courtney Love and Don Henley seek to end unfair recording contracts favoring big label interests over artists’ interests.
The success of both Shania Twain and the Chicks in the latter half of the decade, as historians have argued, was mostly due to their abilities to balance country music’s aesthetics, symbolism, and commodification. Both, as author Charles L. Hughes argues, were “hugely popular, ultimately controversial, and equally representative of the music’s historical push-pull remixed for a new century.” Initial success for the Chicks mirrored that of a larger trend within the industry – a back-to-the-basics approach that spurred a widespread revival in, of all things, bluegrass music. A number of young bluegrass musicians moved to Nashville, spurred by the difficulties of making it in bluegrass, and were drawn by country-oriented recording studios and bands, bringing a bluegrass sensibility and its musical vocabulary to country audiences. It was mainly spearheaded by Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, both of whom, among so many more, were embraced by the ever-growing Americana movement, the former artist being the closest claim that bluegrass has ever had to a global superstar.
An award-winning talent with more than 26 Grammy awards to her name, Krauss grew up in the college town of Champaign, Illinois and joined a local folk-bluegrass band at age 12, known then for her fiddling skills. Her distinctive, aching soprano would garner the most attention, however, when she signed with Rounder Records three years later and released a debut album the next year – 1987’s Too Late to Cry. Backed by her Union Station band, a handpicked quartet of young, talented pickers she joined in 1986, Krauss began making albums that regularly topped the bluegrass charts, and reinvented the typically male-dominated, fast-picking play style to fit her mold – one that emphasized both a lonesome-sounding soprano vocal and a heightened lyrical focus that were supported by the arrangements, rather than the other way around. The heartbroken subject matter of 1989’s Two Highways, then, revealed an artist and band that wasn’t so far removed from country music, with brokenhearted subject matter framed through the detail and irony of modern folk and bluegrass music. By 1993, the twenty-one-year-old became the first bluegrass artist to join the Grand Ole Opry since the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse’s 1964 inductions.
The anthology collection of 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection defied conventional wisdom by not only selling more than 2 million copies, but also by giving Krauss two Grammy awards and four CMA awards, two of which were for Female Vocalist of the Year and for Single of the Year with Union Station, for a cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All,” Krauss’ only top five country radio hit. She achieved her goals without abandoning her acoustic-based style and without major label support, and it’s fair to say that – be it bluegrass or country music – Krauss has become of the most wide-ranging and well-respected artists in both worlds with time.
A sign of the times that, in the age of restrictive mainstream radio airplay and a general shunning of country music legends, Dolly Parton released a trio of bluegrass albums heralded as some of her best-ever work, Ricky Skaggs returned to bluegrass through 1997’s Bluegrass Rules!, and no album broke through in country music beyond garnering pure critical acclaim. Even outside of bluegrass and folk music, the late ‘90s saw certain acts from the decade delve into riskier, more artistic material, like Marty Stuart and his landmark concept album, 1999’s The Pilgrim; a commercial disappointment, but a high artistic achievement.
Steve Earle could relate. He released a bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band in 1999’s The Mountain, which came four years after his comeback effort Train A Comin’. He emerged in the late 1980s idolizing artists like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark while pushing a noticeably hard-edged brand of country-rock, especially with “Guitar Town,” his 1986 debut single, but quickly veered toward hard rock after his second album faltered. After being dropped by his label in 1991 and arrested in Nashville for cocaine and heroin possessions he was jailed, but later reemerged sober. In the meantime, Travis Tritt took Earle’s own “Sometimes She Forgets” to the top ten, as a way of showcasing Earle’s influence on younger country musicians. Earle would later contribute to and release tributes dedicated to Townes Van Zandt, who died from a heart attack on New Year’s Day, 1997, but honored him through the final song on his 1997 El Corazon album, “Ft. Worth Blues.” Like Earle, Van Zandt’s commercial success in country was limited, and he too struggled with personal problems. But, also like Earle, his reputation among other songwriters was immense, and was cited as an influence for budding artists of the era.
Patty Loveless also tapped into her roots in the early 2000s, with 2001’s Mountain Soul, spurring a run of acoustic concerts. Even throughout the ‘80s, artists like Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Alison Krauss were promoted artists familiar with bluegrass influences and traditions. And ‘90s acts like Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, and Loveless also acknowledged their own bluegrass backgrounds. Bill Monroe died in 1996, but his legacy was secured by this particular revival. In 1997, at Vince Gill’s request, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences devoted the country-music portion of that year’s Grammy awards broadcast to spotlight bluegrass and bluegrass-adjacent music. The segment featured Gill, Krauss and Union Station, and Loveless, and closed with Monroe’s own “I’m Working on a Building.” It was as much a tribute to Monroe as it was a showcase of how popular and influential bluegrass music had become since its inception.
The movement’s greatest impact, though, would come from an unlikely source. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen set out to make a film that pulled from Preston Sturgis’s 1941 satirical film Sullivan’s Travels, in which a pretentious Hollywood director wants to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou for a downtrodden audience he knows nothing about. The wardrobe and costuming for the movie, titled, to no one’s surprise, O Brother, Where Art Thou, pulled from the Depression era and was meant to tap into Homer’s Odyssey as an age-old hero sets out on a quest filled with dangers as he struggles to return home. But the actual message was something of a love letter to the rich, original music of the region.
It would be the soundtrack to attract the greatest amount of attention, though. Produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring Ralph Stanley, Dan Tyminski, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris, among others, the album further inspired a 2000 documentary and concert film featuring artists from the soundtrack as well as a star-studded follow-up tour series that packed auditoriums in more than 50 cities. With it, Ralph Stanley was finally accepted as a roots music icon. In 2002, a Down from the Mountain tour hit the road, headlined by Krauss, Harris, the Whites, and Patty Loveless, plus Stanley, Norman & Nancy Blake, Chris Thomas King, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, with additional performances from the Peasall Sisters, the Cox Family, and the Fairfield Four on select dates. “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow,” first made famous by Stanley, was the album and film’s big hit, credited to the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys (in which actor George Clooney plays the lead singer and Dan Tyminski provides his vocals). Denise Stiff Sheeham acted as the soundtrack’s executive music producer and was the person who assembled the cast of old-time revivalists who performed for Burnett’s microphone.
It was not country music that took credit for its success, though. Nothing from the soundtrack broke through to country radio, and many of the featured artists were already established Americana and bluegrass stalwarts anyway. Its overall success was further verified when Dan Tyminski won Male Vocalist of the Year and the soundtrack won Album of the Year at the 2001 IBMA Awards. If anything, country music was mostly lost as it headed into the 2000s. Even Garth Brooks’s artistic and commercial influence took a tumble when, in 1999, he issued The Life of Chris Gaines, a fictitious attempt at doubling as a pop singer masquerading as a troubled rock idol. The goal for Brooks was to prime his audience for a Hollywood film in which he’d play the character, but the album was misunderstood by both fans and critics, and plans for the film were quickly scrubbed. Soon after, Brooks announced his pending retirement as he celebrated a milestone of over 100 million albums sold, with 2001’s Scarecrow acting as his last release for over a decade.
Shania Twain, too, mostly disappeared from the public eye by 2000. She and husband Mutt Lange retreated to an estate in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, then to a chateau in Switzerland, an even more remote area. Unlike Brooks, Twain continued to release new music for a time. Up!, released in 2002, reflected a rare, blunt move toward market expansion. Three versions of the album were released, all of which contained the same recordings but with different mixing, so as to appeal to different listening audiences: “pop,” “country,” and “international.” Fitting, too, that it was issued on Mercury, which first pioneered pop-country crossovers long ago with Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.”
Long Times Gone
By 2002, the Chicks’ popularity coincided nicely with the brief return of bluegrass and other traditional forms of country music as commercial forces, even if they were still worlds apart in representation. The trio released the evocatively titled acoustic album Home that year, made all the more clear in its intent with its Darrell Scott-penned lead single, “Long Time Gone.” In the song, Maines notes the disconnect between contemporary and traditional country music, singing, in the final verse, “They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard / They have money, but they don’t have Cash.” Or, to put it another not-so-subtle way, “They have Junior but they don’t have Hank.” Despite its bluntly fierce message to the industry, the song reached No. 2 on the country charts and crossed over the top 10 of the pop charts, marking the group’s first multi-genre hit. They were superstars.
That changed on March 10, 2003, when, while performing at the Shepherds Bush Empire theater in London, Natalie Maines issued a statement that she and her fellow Chicks were ashamed to share their home state with President George W. Bush, just as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq. “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
At the time, Home was the No. 1 album in the country, and the trio had topped the charts with the Vietnam-themed “Travelin’ Soldier,” which its writer, Bruce Robison, later described as “the fastest-descending No. 1 country single in the history of the Billboard charts.” The group’s Top of the World tour was set to become one of the highest-grossing country music tours ever until that night. When the group members returned from London, they found that most radio stations had dropped their music; Maines personally received a letter saying she would be “shot dead” at the group’s next show in Dallas. Radio DJs sympathetic to their side were fired, and the group lost its sponsor, Lipton. Meanwhile, the Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band. Chuck Browing, who ran the Cox chain, said, in regards to the Chicks’ music, “We did some callout research, and the vast majority said, ‘we don’t want it.’ ”
It mattered not, apparently, that artists like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard – who themselves were a “long time gone” from modern country radio – could, and did, issue antiwar songs and sentiments without backlash. The Chicks found a new radio home on talk show radio, which only further fanned the flames. Glenn Beck, for instance, said that Maines should be “shoved into an airplane propeller.” Talladega, Alabama’s WTDR was the first radio station to boycott the Chicks’ music, and the end of ownership limits with the Telecommunications Act meant a Cumulus Media decision affected 260 stations. Clear Channel’s ban supposedly, according to Chris Willman’s Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, affected more than 1,000 stations.
What radio conglomerates considered to be controversial grew only more restrictive in a post 9/11 world. Shortly after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a list containing more than 150 popular songs were deemed unfit for airplay, over concerns that they may potentially negatively depict the President or U.S. foreign policy. Outside of the country music industry, Senator John McCain, certainly no liberal and an ally of Bush, cited the ban as an example of how deregulation could lead to an “erosion of the First Amendment,” further adding, “Would you do that to me? Then why do it to a group of entertainers?” Comedian Larry the Cable Guy, on the other hand, wrote on his blog: “How dare this first hippo of country music go to a country whose support we’re trying to get for a possible war and then attack our President in that country?” And then there was Toby Keith, who, during his concerts, doctored a slideshow of the group with Saddam Hussein on his overhead screen.
Keith’s feud ran deeper, and is reflective of country music’s general reaction to 9/11 events. He started strong out of the gate with 1993’s “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” which ended up being the most-played song of the entire decade. Poor label management early on halted consistent chart success, and he eventually left his Mercury Records home over frustrations regarding record promotion – including a failure to release his How Do You Like Me Now?! album. The modest neotraditionalist wanted to bring more attitude and swagger to the conversation, and while the DreamWorks label was hesitant to go through with it, they listened to Keith’s decision after their own handpicked single flopped on the charts. The album’s title track marked a shift for Keith towards something more direct, aggressive and, to put it bluntly, uncaring. Consistent chart success came with it. Jingoistic anthems provided lucrative ground for Keith, who followed with 2003’s Shock’n Y’all, which featured “American Soldier” and the not-so-classy “The Taliban Song.”
Keith’s 2002 single “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” reflected mainstream country music’s general tone in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the same way, for instance, Darryl Worrley’s “Have You Forgotten” did. Outside of Nashville, country music’s left flank became even more outspoken, and it came from former mainstream artists. Steve Earle’s 2004 album The Revolution Starts Now featured both “Rich Man’s War” and “Condi Condi” that stood in opposition to the Iraq war, as did Rodney Crowell’s 2005 song “The Outsider.” Music critic Robert Christgau cited folk icon James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” as the best song of the 2000s, a song in which McMurtry expressed his views on the current U.S. political and economical situations of the time.
“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (Angry American)” was written for Keith’s late father, H.K. Covel, after his death in a car accident that March, and was as angry as its title implied. To quote it: “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” It became a No. 1 hit less than a month after its release, and his massive summer single turned into a call to action; Keith’s face was prominently stamped on the pro-war movement next to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. He reportedly didn’t support the Iraq war, but he supported the persona. The Chicks’ Natalie Maines called the song “ignorant” and said it “makes country music sound ignorant,” further adding that, “It targets an entire culture and not just the bad people who did bad things.” Keith brushed her off as “not a songwriter” and, as already mentioned, included her and her fellow Chicks members as part of his live show. Maines retaliated by wearing a hand-lettered shirt with the initials “F.U.T.K.,” branded, she said, for “Friends United Together in Kindness,” but later revealed to stand for, “Fuck you, Toby Keith,” at the ACM Awards in May 2003, in which Keith won the Entertainer of the Year award. Keith would become a superstar and remain that way for almost another decade and regret the feud; the Chicks would not.
Because of its response to the devastation of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, country music’s modern mainstream of the time was informed by its right-wing politics. Political associations in country arguably originally calcified long ago when Richard Nixon conflated common country music themes of family, religion and patriotism with views of the “silent majority.” Ronald Reagan took it further, cementing a relationship between politics and country music’s fondness for nostalgia and celebration of simple, ordinary lives. Still, assumptions about the genre’s performers and its audiences have essentially shuttered more nuanced discussions over its actual more complex historical relation to politics. Journalist Chet Flippo fell victim to the idea that the genre’s politics were monolithic when writing for his Nashville Skyline column in 2003. He characterized country music fans as “largely conservative and patriotic,” but critics of that assumption noted that to oversimplify the genre was to mischaracterize a more complex history.
Still, the blackballing of the Chicks remains one of the most shameful events in the genre’s history, and offered a legitimate criticism that it was then a genre that couldn’t respect artists regardless of their beliefs. It would also lead to an unhealthy future for its female artists by shunning a group that expanded country music’s horizons at the turn of the ‘90s and at the beginning of the new decade. An ultimately unmeasured and unfair stance is one that the genre is still trying to shake to this day.
But even in a post 9/11 world, some outliers were there to offer genuine comfort for a nation in need of healing, like John Michael Montgomery’s 2004 hit “Letters from Home” or Tim McGraw’s 2007 hit “If You’re Reading This,” both of which aimed for something more populist and thoughtful. Alan Jackson would top them both, with “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” a sensitive meditation on the tragedies and a plea of compassion that was more immediate in its timing. It debuted at the 2001 CMA Awards and topped the charts, earning Jackson national attention and catapulting him to superstar status. Jackson debuted in 1989 alongside Clint Black and Garth Brooks, but was arguably at the peak of his career in that moment.
The youngest of five children raised in a small home that began as a converted tool shed off a gravel road in rural Georgia, Jackson’s early love for music was deep as it was wide, even if his space was not. His upbringing gave him the courage to dream big, and after a stint in his first band, Dixie Steel (named after a box of nails), he moved to Nashville alongside his high-school sweetheart, with no college degree or any inclinations of what the music business would involve. He came to Nashville with a brown paper bag filled with cassette tapes of songs he’d written, so many that the bag yielded hits for Jackson at least four albums into his career. But his first taste of success in Nashville came from working in TNN’s mailroom. He eventually graduated to a staff writer position with Glen Campbell’s publishing company and signed with the fledgling Arista Records label not long afterward.
His debut single, “Blue-Blooded Woman,” stalled at radio, just as Jackson discovered he and wife Denise were about to have their first child. As he mentally prepared to quit music and head back to Georgia, his second single, “Here in the Real World,” prevented any further thoughts, when it reached the top five of the charts. “My career was either going to happen or not … and that song took it there,” he says in the liner notes of Genuine: The Alan Jackson Story. “I remember the first time I sang it on the Opry. Roy Acuff stood right there beside me, three feet from me, and made me sing that song.”
Clint Black and Garth Brooks had the star power, but Jackson had the consistency, and throughout the remainder of the decade he had critical and commercial success by writing the majority of his own material with a straightforward, agreeable country sound, and would foster a career lasting more than three decades. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, his biggest hit coming into the 2000s would come to him in a dream. “I woke up one morning around 4 a.m. for a few weeks afterward, and had that chorus going through my head,” he told Yahoo News in 2011. “The song came out of nowhere in the middle of the night – just a gift. And I got up and scribbled it down and put the melody down so I wouldn’t forget it, and then the next day I started piecing all those verses together that were the thoughts I’d had of visuals I’d had. It was a Sunday – I remember because, when I started writing it, my wife and girls had gone off to Sunday school, and I finished it that day. Like I said, that song was just a gift. I’ve never felt I could take credit for writing it. Looking back, I guess I just didn’t want to forget how I felt on that day and how I knew other people felt.”
The song became an anthem for those who weren’t sure how to put the tragedy into words, and along with winning a Grammy award for Best Country Song, the single’s B-side, “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” was another tale of remembrance. The song was dedicated to Jackson’s father, Eugene, who had died in 2000, and continued a familial theme that would shape Jackson’s material in the 2000s: From “Small Town Southern Man,” another song dedicated to his father but written more as a tribute to his upbringing, to “Remember When,” a ballad supported mainly by mandolin dedicated to Denise describing their live together. And between those hits and a mega-smash hit in the Jimmy Buffett duet of “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” Jackson’s star arguably burned just as bright, if not brighter, than it had a decade before.
Old Roses in Bloom
By this point, the goal of country radio programmers was not to sell albums for artists and labels – it was simply to keep people from turning their dials, as they might if they ever heard anything out of the ordinary. Radio was not the only music business entity to change in the new century, though. In the early ‘90s, numerous record companies were located on Music Row. By mid-2005, only four major companies remained: Universal, Sony BMG, Warner Bros., and EMI. Nashville’s publishing houses experienced a similar decline, and likewise, only four major publishers remained, all owned by the aforementioned companies. Songwriters had increased chances for getting their songs recorded by major-label artists, but were often encouraged to co-write as many songs as possible, rather than rely on the individualistic moments that inspired countless classics before. In 1961, there was an average of 1.12 writers per No. 1 Billboard country hit. The figure was already well above two writers per hit in the mid-’90s and continued to climb as the decade progressed. On one hand, more contributions equated to more opportunities for writers, but the final product could also scan as formulaic when bounced around so many times. Music videos also became less significant in the new century. In 2000, TNN’s new owner, Viacom, changed its format away from country programming and modified CMT, shifting away from its music-video focus in favor of reality and scripted programming.
Reba McEntire’s first concern remained the members of her female audience, addressing their problems and concerns through her music. At one time, she told the Chicago Tribune, “I’m trying to sing songs for women, to say for them what they can’t say for themselves. But I’m trying to do it for the eighties and nineties.”
McEntire grew up with parents who symbolized her two passions of the rodeo life and music. Her father was a champion calf roper and her mother was a powerful singer and influence on Reba’s own work. She joined a band with her siblings as the Singing McEntires while she was still in high school, and found her break after singing the National Anthem at the National Rodeo finals in Oklahoma City in 1974. She signed to Mercury Records the next year and started her solo career. After shifting to MCA Records in 1983, McEntire took greater control over her career and released the back-to-basics My Kind of Country in 1984. The ‘90s were arguably even better for her, with the arrival of music videos. Starting with the music video for “Whoever’s in New England,” McEntire’s songs and accompanying videos began to prioritize powerful story lines. “Is There Life Out There,” released in 1992, portrayed her as a waitress, wife, and mother who goes back to school to get her degree, further inspiring a 1994 TV movie based on the concept, as well as more acting opportunities for her in the ‘90s.
As she moved into the 2000s, then, not much changed. She starred in her own television show, fittingly titled Reba, in 2000, about a mother and her life following her divorce from husband Brock, who was cheating with a woman named Barbara-Jean (who further acts as the show’s comedic relief). The show’s themes of enduring trials and tribulations in the face of teenage pregnancy and an unbalanced home life, all while trying to build a career, made McEntire’s own “I’m A Survivor” a particularly fitting theme song, especially when it was released as a single to country radio, ultimately peaking at No. 3 on the charts in 2001. Between her commitment to the show as well as a foray into theater starring in the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 2001, though, “I’m A Survivor” was, for all intents and purposes, her last major hit on the charts for two years. “My own essential rule to survival is work hard. When you’re done, continue to work hard,” she says. “And if you don’t have a sense of humor, you might as well forget all the rest of it. If you can’t laugh at the bad as much as the good, then you’re in for a rough road.”
In addition to the purging of the Chicks, 2003 proved to be a tumultuous year for country music. Over the past decade and into the new one, country music would say goodbye to several legends, including, among others, Roy Acuff, Tammy Wynette, Roger Miller, Bill Monroe, Townes Van Zandt, Gary Stewart, Conway Twitty, Chet Atkins, and Waylon Jennings, and it was apparent by now that there was no room for the legends on country radio. George Jones finally got his wish and broke through briefly with 1999’s “Choices,” nominated for Single of the Year at that year’s CMA Awards. Jones refused to perform his single on the show when told he’d have to settle for a shortened performance. Alan Jackson was set to perform his take on “Pop a Top” off of his Under the Influences covers project for the show, but quit singing the song during the instrumental break to transition into “Choices,” in honor of Jones. Jackson stayed staunchly on the side of tradition, too, collaborating with George Strait for “Murder on Music Row” in 2000, a blunt criticism of the direction taken by modern country music, written by bluegrass artists Larry Cordle, leader of the venerable bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time, and Larry Shell. While never released as a single, it received attention from the general industry anyway, after the two performed it at the 1999 Country Music Association awards.
In between that divide during his entire career was Johnny Cash, who passed away on September 12, 2003 at age 71 and had been in frail health since the death of his wife, June Carter Cash, just four months earlier. Cash’s career had been revived throughout the ‘90s. In 1992, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at age 59. In 1993, producer Rick Rubin approached him to record an album for his label, American Recordings. The eventual album, named after the label and released in 1994, received rave reviews and success not seen for a Cash album in a long time. Along with its notable sparse arrangements, the album was well-received for Cash’s still-booming voice and its multi-genre song choice, but mostly for its commitment to return to both Cash’s roots and those of the country music genre in general, too. Country radio didn’t play any single from the album, but it sold 150,000 copies, more than any other album of his since 1971. Even after his death, follow-up projects were equally as diverse and riveting, including a sequel that featured both Marty Stuart and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as backup musicians. While nominated for a Grammy award for Best Country Album, Rubin took out an advertisement in Billboard, using a photograph of Cash giving the middle finger to the camera at a 1969 San Quentin concert. It said, simply put, “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”
Cash’s death shocked not only the country music industry, but the world in general. He was memorialized with concert tributes, musical reissues, and a Hollywood biopic called Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The man who popularized rockabilly, struggled with addiction, embraced folk artists in Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at a time when Nashville wouldn’t, ran opposite to Nashville’s politics in his support of the disenfranchised, and had his career bottom out only to experience the greatest success he’d ever seen, was now at rest.
Cash would not be the only country music legend to collaborate and revitalize his career with a prominent figure in the rock music industry during this time. Following her husband’s death in 1996, Loretta Lynn returned to solo recording after a hiatus of more than 10 years. She released Still Country in 2000, published a second autobiography, Still Woman Enough, in 2002, and was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003. But it would be 2004’s Van Lear Rose, produced by singer and guitarist Jack White of the White Stripes, that introduced her to new audiences. White was a fan of Lynn’s from the time he was a child, going so far one day as to watch the film adaptation of Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter all day long in a theater, refusing to leave. The two struck up a friendship, and White agreed to produce a Lynn album that would recall her past glories while incorporating new ideas into the mix.
The result was an album where Lynn wrote every song, including the title track dedicated to her mother. It was recorded only on eight tracks to communicate a quality of authenticity shared across both classic rock and traditional country. White also aimed for single takes in order to keep the music “as real as possible, because that’s what Loretta Lynn is,” according to a 2004 CMT interview. But it also includes “Portland, Oregon,” an unlikely duet between Lynn and White with a hard psychedelic rock background bolstered by Lynn’s powerful country inflection that, in a nutshell, is about a one-night stand. Van Lear Rose peaked at No. 2 on the country album chart, giving Lynn her best performance since April 1977. It won two Grammy Awards, and took home the Album of the Year honors at the 2004 Americana Awards, at which Lynn was also named Artist of the Year. The night of the Awards, though, Lynn was reportedly more excited for White than for her success. As Peter Cooper notes in Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride, she was “always more concerned with truth than with rewards.”
Not all of country music’s legends were completely phased out of country radio. As the decade rolled on, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, and Reba McEntire remained consistent hit-makers. Strait, in fact, would eventually be named as the ACM Artist of the Decade for 2000-09. And several more would attain one final No. 1 hit: Kenny Rogers, in 1999, for “Buy Me A Rose,” alongside Alison Krauss and Billy Dean; Willie Nelson, in 2003, for “Beer With My Horses,” alongside Toby Keith; and Randy Travis, also in 2003, with “Three Wooden Crosses,” which was named the CMA Song of the Year.
But it was also clear that, in the wake of a void left by both Garth Brooks and Shania Twain that could and would not be replaced, mainstream country music was in need of fresh new faces to drive it forward. It would find them in various styles and forms in the coming years.
Addressing and Bridging an Age-Old Divide
By 2005, public opinion began to turn against the Iraq war, as it dragged on without any evidence the country had weapons-of-mass-destruction. Country music shifted away from war-themed songs and replaced them with lighthearted anthems celebrating the South and small-town life. The purging of the Chicks occurred during a 22-month period in country music in which no solo female performer had a No. 1 country hit (the last one being Martina McBride’s “Blesssed”), and only 4 (of 34) top 10 country hits in the first half of 2003 featured women, compared to 14 in 1998. That streak was broken, in 2004, when Gretchen Wilson released “Redneck Woman” and took it to the top of the charts.
Wilson was one part of a larger collective in Nashville during this time known as the Muzikmafia, further comprised of John Rich and Kenny Alphin (who themselves comprised the duo Big & Rich, after Rich’s stint as a vocalist and guitarist in the band Lonestar) as well as country-rap artist Cowboy Troy, which aimed to fuse country music with rock and hip-hop elements. The group’s home base was located at the Fontenelle mansion and a bar called 3rd and Lindsley, and promoted “music without prejudice.” Perhaps as a sign of the dichotomy starting to form between the genre and country radio, Big & Rich sold a multi-platinum debut album off a hit single, “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” that didn’t make the top ten.
With “Redneck Woman,” written with Rich, Wilson became country music’s first female superstar since the mid-to-late ‘90s, and its first rookie superstar since Billy Ray Cyrus. Her single carried the attitude brought into the new decade in mainstream country music without the overt patriotic flavor of Toby Keith’s material. She was inspired to write the song after watching Faith Hill’s music video for her smash hit “Breathe,” noting to Rich that she would never look like her or be “that kind of woman,” spurring the creation of the kind of woman she was: A redneck one. She was told she lacked photo-spread looks and corporate-ready polish when she got to Nashville, and, like Garth Brooks, was initially passed on by major labels. Like Cyrus, though, Wilson never maintained momentum beyond that debut single, save for a few top ten singles over the next year. The “Redneck Woman” persona defined her to the point of typecasting her, and follow-up singles failed to differentiate her beyond that established image.
And country music was back without a leader. On one hand, newcomers like Dierks Bentley, Joe Nichols, Shelly Fairchild, Josh Turner, Sara Evans (who debuted in the very late ‘90s but gained momentum in the new century) and more broke through with traditional-sounding tunes that echoed their influences. Turner broke through with the Hank Williams-inspired/Johnny Cash-sounding country-gospel number “Long Black Train” in 2003, and Bentley released the Waylon Jennings-esque “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” in 2005 to launch his sophomore album. Further echoing that sentiment was Martina McBride’s 2005 release Timeless, an 18-song album of country classic covers ranging from Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” to Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” and purposefully recorded with older Nashville session players and outdated, analog recording equipment. The result was McBride’s best sales start of her career up to that point, debuting at No. 1 on the country album charts and selling more than 250,000 copies in its first week. Lee Ann Womack followed suit when, that same year, she released the traditional-sounding There’s More Where That Came From.
Womack, who came to Nashville determined to be a classic country singer, broke through with 1997’s “Never Again Again,” which twelve radio stations refused to play because it was “too country,” at a time when several female artists were releasing pop-crossover successes. She followed suit with “I Hope You Dance,” a noticeably slicker record complete with strings and darker, more-prominent electric guitars, as well as a vocal harmony contribution from Sons of the Desert. The song topped both the country and AC charts and peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, but follow-up singles didn’t perform as well, and Something Worth Leaving Behind, released in 2002, didn’t produce a single top 20 hit or even reach gold status (compared to I Hope You Dance, which went triple-platinum). There’s More Where That Came From was her way of reclaiming the musical style she preferred, and while it, too, was not a commercial success, it was awarded the Album of the Year distinction by the Country Music Association and earned a gold certification.
The actual style was far from popular by this point in history, though. And it would, ironically, be male country acts from the ‘90s to become a few of country music’s stars in the new century with a modern take on things. Tim McGraw entered the 2000s alongside Faith Hill as country music’s power couple on the Soul2Soul Tour. He would maintain that relevance throughout the decade and beyond, including having Billboard’s most-played country song of 2004 with “Live Like You Were Dying,” dedicated to his father, who died of a brain tumor that year. McGraw’s expertise extended beyond his own singles, though. First, his 2002 album Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors was recorded with his own touring band. He also produced several albums for Jo Dee Messina and the debut album for country duo Halfway to Hazard, along with collaborating with rapper Nelly for his own “Over and Over,” in 2004. And beyond his musical contributions, McGraw made his acting debut with the independently released Black Cloud, which paved the way for a supporting role in the hit movie, Friday Night Lights, that same year. He’d follow that with roles in Flicka, The Kingdom, Four Christmases, The Blind Side, and Country Strong, among others.
Over time, McGraw competed with a fellow contemporary for the rightful distinction as country music’s leading man. Kenny Chesney, like McGraw, had started with little-to-no success upon entering Nashville and had been a perennial B-list act in the ‘90s. His debut album failed to even chart. His music career began later than most, too. A native of Luttrell, Tennessee, Chesney concentrated on sports as a youth – not music. He didn’t start playing guitar or singing until after he began studying advertising at East Tennessee State University, where he participated in the ETSU Bluegrass program. While there, he performed in nightclubs and restaurants around Johnson City and recorded an album independently in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia. After graduating in December 1990, he moved to Nashville, becoming a regular performer in the Lower Broadway tourist district and earning an audition with Opryland Music Group. He earned a writer’s contract the day of that audition.
Initially signed to Capricorn Records, in 1993, Chesney released his debut album, In My Wildest Dreams, which sold only 10,000 copies. After Capricorn closed its Nashville division in 1994, Chesney left for BNA Entertainment, performing a tad more modestly over there as a consistent hit-maker. It would be 1996’s Me and You that would give him his real start, though. Both “When I Close My Eyes” and its title track reached No. 2 on the charts and featured a fan favorite album cut, “Back Where I Come From.” I Will Stand followed the next year, giving him his first No. 1 in “She’s Got it All” and another fan favorite, “That’s Why I’m Here,” about alcoholic rehabilitation. Still a consistent B-lister, Chesney’s career would take a turn with 1999’s Everywhere We Go, in which one of its No. 1 singles, “You Had Me From Hello,” was inspired by a line spoken by actress Renee Zellweger in the movie Jerry Maguire. Chesney would be married to Zellweger for a brief time in 2005, for four months. The album’s second notable single was an over-the-top sexual innuendo-turned-song called “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” which, while just shy of a top 10 hit, became a favorite at his live shows and is considered one of his signature songs today.
It would be 2002’s No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, though, that would recast Chesney’s artistic persona. “I sit and listen to some of my early recordings and just cringe,” he said in 2004. “I love George Strait with all my heart, but when I quit trying to be him and started just being myself, that’s when my whole world changed.” His brand became his persona, and a part of who he was has translated with country audiences into the present day. He took greater creative control over his touring schedule and management. Now he was a beach-loving extrovert to his fans and began celebrating his home in the Virgin Islands through his music that mixed escapism with nostalgia. On June 7, 2003, he headlined his first stadium concert at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, Tennessee, drawing more than 60,000 people. And by 2004, he was selling more concert tickets than anyone else in the music business, country or otherwise. He regularly headlined multi-artist stadium concerts when few performers risked such ventures. He was now pushing million-selling albums regularly, and by the end of the decade had been named both the CMA and ACM Entertainer of the Year four times each.
Keith Urban, originally from Australia, was another artist who broke through to Nashville in the ‘90s, albeit as a leader of a trio called the Ranch, a popular Nashville club band that found little success otherwise, and even earlier as a member of the road band for Brooks & Dunn and as a guitarist in the music video for Alan Jackson’s “Mercury Blues.” As a child guitar prodigy, Urban found early success in his home country through singing competition shows, inspiring him to try his luck in the United States. After being dropped as part of the Ranch through Capitol Records, which did little promote the band’s material, Urban grew depressed and took up cocaine as a coping mechanism. He’d describe his first seven years in America as a period of increased drug use that led him to enter rehab in 1998, and again in 2006. He emerged confident from his first stint, though, and re-signed with Capitol Records to make his solo debut in 1999, the first country music star to emerge from the label since Garth Brooks. His love for both pop and rock melodies and country music earned fans, including, perhaps surprisingly, Loretta Lynn. By 2002 he was working with producer Dann Huff for his Golden Road album, a noticeably more pop-country inspired effort in its cascading guitar chords, upbeat rhythms, and sunny melodies. “I’m not ashamed of the country side of what I do,” he said, in regards to his hit single, “Somebody Like You.” “It frustrates me that in this genre people think we have to push that country thing aside, like we’re ashamed of it. What we’re ashamed of is the ignorant perception of some people in society about country music. I don’t put banjos on my record to make it ‘country,’ I put them on there because I think it sounds cool.”
Though never a bonafide superstar, Gary Allan eschewed trends in favor of cultivating his own sound, starting as a neotraditionalist in the late ‘90s before fully developing his West Coast-inspired sound on 1999’s Smoke Rings in the Dark, which included two signature tunes: the title track, and the top five “Right Where I Need to Be.” He grew up in a musical family, playing in honky tonks at night with his father and refusing to play any venue that wouldn’t let him play the country music he loved as he struck out on his own. He didn’t find success right away, and only found it through a chance encounter while selling cars for a living. He left a demo tape in a car sold to a wealthy couple, and they enjoyed it enough to give him $12,000 to make professional demos in Nashville. He was then signed by Decca Records.
He continued his hot streak into the 2000s while sporting a defiantly individualistic attitude. His fourth album, 2001’s Alright Guy, was made as a response to his distaste with the “fluff” on country radio, and his fifth album, 2003’s aptly titled See If I Care, reflected his attitude toward the music business in general with its title. He stood isolated, but wouldn’t escape personal tragedies. In 2004, his wife, Angela Herzberg, committed suicide, and 2005’s Tough All Over explored the tragic situation and furthered Allan’s knack for penning moodier, darker, and more challenging material than his peers of the time, which continued with 2007’s Living Hard and 2010’s Get Off on the Pain, even if chart success for him faltered by the turn of the 2010s. The New York Times praised him as the “anti-Rascal Flatts: one of country music’s most stoic figures.”
Somewhere in between the faint traces of the neotraditionalist movement and the embrace of modernity in the new century was Buck Owens disciple Brad Paisley. He was introduced to country music through his grandfather, who played Merle Travis-style guitar. By age 13, he appeared regularly on Wheeling Jamboree, a Saturday-night broadcast on radio station WWVA in Wheeling, Virginia. It was also in Wheeling that he opened concerts for Roy Clark, George Jones and Little Jimmy Dickens, as a teenager. By the time he graduated from Belmont University, he’d landed a songwriting contract with EMI Music Publishing, scoring an early hit with David Kersh’s “Another You” in 1997. On his own, Paisley signed with Arista Records and released Who Needs Pictures in 1999, on which he played the guitar parts and helped write every song. Featuring a music eclecticism in both style and presentation – on an album that featured dance numbers, Bakersfield-esque boogies, jazzlike guitar riffs, heartbreak numbers and quirky up-tempos, all backed by pedal steel, fiddle, and barroom piano, no less – he’d eventually earn a title from music critic Robert Christgau as one of Nashville’s “most reliable” artists.
Indeed, by incorporating artists like his aforementioned heroes in Little Jimmy Dickens and George Jones along with Dolly Parton and Bill Anderson into his recordings, skits, and outtakes on his subsequent releases (including “Kung Pao”, featuring the “Kung Pao Buckaroos,” off Mud on the Tires, that features, of all things, old radio barn dance banter), Paisley was putting a modern spin on an older sound – bridging the divide between the best of both worlds, in a sense. And that’s further reflected in his subject matter, which could range from the quirky, dry humor of “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song) to the haunting, dark suicides portrayed in “Whiskey Lullaby,” featuring Alison Krauss. Indeed, by the time he released 2003’s Mud on the Tires, he was a genuine country star. And the formula grew to be both unique and reliable, if predictable, over the course of the decade: An album release would feature a mix of instrumentals, gospel songs, duets consisting of both serious material and skits, and a whole slew of No. 1 hits to follow. From 2005, when he released the Dolly Parton duet “When I Get Where I’m Going,” to 2009, Paisley scored ten consecutive No. 1 country hits, a streak that wouldn’t be broken until the 2010s by Blake Shelton.
Predictable to a fault, but hardly formulaic, especially when Paisley was one of few modern acts during this time to challenge his instincts and act on them. “Welcome to the Future,” for instance, released at the end of the decade, addressed the simultaneous joy and fear that came with living in a modern America and the work to still be done with race relations after Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. His music was firmly country, yet pulled from a melting pot of various musical and cultural influences.
But as the age-old debate of traditionalism versus progressivism rolled on, one thing country music had to band together for, albeit very slowly, was an embrace of modern marketing tools and avenues to reach fans as it reached the middle of the decade.