As the decade sandwiched in between the revolutionary outlaw movement of the 1970s and the commercial country boom of the ‘90s, it’s fair to say that the ‘80s offer an overlooked time period within country music – or, at the very least, a misunderstood one. Even as the decade exited the former decade, things weren’t as clear as they now seem in hindsight.
For example, rough-edged, progressive artists like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson helped spearhead a more forward-thinking approach to country music in terms of idea and sound, but they co-existed with pop-crossover sensations like Kenny Rogers, Ronnie Milsap, Olivia Newton-John, and Crystal Gayle, among others. And though this piece is not meant to be taken as one side versus another, it is worth noting the tension that existed at the end of the decade, forged by decade-old conflicts regarding country music’s sound. To give one such example of the in-fighting, let us not forget Charlie Rich’s response to John Denver’s win for the CMA 1974 Entertainer of the Year award.
The overlooked beauty of it all is something that would manifest throughout the next decade, and that’s the pure variety offered within mainstream country music – not in the underground or on the fringes of anything else, but within Nashville itself, on country music radio dials. Still, there’s a yin-and-yang element to the entire story. While the film Urban Cowboy did spur an interest in country music attire in the early ‘80s – thanks to its depiction and glorification of a late twentieth-century honky-tonk lifestyle – it would also make stars out of, among others, Johnny Lee and Mickey Gilley, acts that ushered in a wave of easy-listening, adult-contemporary-leaning country music on the airwaves. Country record sales in general increased, however, and veterans like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson received talk show appearances as well as movie deals.
On the other hand, and on an unfortunate note that would only be amplified throughout the ‘90s, other legends, like Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette, saw a decrease in their respective commercial statuses. By the end of the decade, more acts, like Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings, joined them, either by jumping ship completely from their record deals or finding new ones. It’s believed to be part of why, in September 1985, music critic Robert Palmer published a piece in the New York Times announcing country music’s death. His main sources of evidence were country music’s decreased sales in the aftermath of the Urban Cowboy boom and how the genre had failed to attract younger listeners, along with the aforementioned phasing out of prominent legends.
On the contrary, country music wasn’t so much dead as it was undergoing a change, and not just on an artistic front. Sales were down – even compared to before the Urban Cowboy days – but country music was ready to handle the change. If you’ve ever wondered why artists like George Strait, John Anderson, or bluegrass prodigy Ricky Skaggs broke through the Urban Cowboy fad, it’s because it was one part of a larger change within Nashville. On the business end, a wholesale shift in leadership behind the scenes essentially created new gatekeepers – ones willing to take riskier chances on country artists in search of a new sound (or an old sound made new again). Names like Tony Brown (musician, MCA label president, and producer), Kyle Lehning (producer for Randy Travis) and Garth Fundis (producer associated with acts like Alabama, Trisha Yearwood, and Keith Whitley), among so many others, came from New York and Los Angeles with unconventional attitudes toward the Nashville system and changed it for the better.
Now, on paper, I get why that doesn’t sound as enticing. This could have, after all, very well backfired and contributed to country music’s demise, indeed. Nashville is a traditionally closed-off town when it comes to new ideas and perspectives, but we also have to question how much that says about us as fans and thinkers, or if that attitude has potentially saved us from something bad. Thankfully, it did turn out for the better. For one, unlike other typical scenarios, country music’s commercial low point of the mid-’80s led to a focus on a diversity of acts, rather than just a flagship act or two. And with the addition of new names on the business front, pared-down A&R staffs were simply more open to fresh ideas. Plenty of new acts were introduced – which we’ll get to – but veterans like Rosanne Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell found real breakthrough points during this period, thanks to having more promotional muscle behind them that also allowed for greater creative control in the studios. Reba McEntire even recorded a “back to her roots” album through 1984’s My Kind of Country.
And as for who was new … well, the aforementioned Strait, Anderson, and Skaggs are part of the story, but to call it a neotraditional era wouldn’t quite tell the entire story. Not to discount its impact in toppling the Urban Cowboy sound, or to discount the acts that engaged with the sound, though. Along with those acts, we heard from names like Keith Whitley, Patty Loveless, and Randy Travis. Vern Gosdin started his career late in life and found a breakthrough in the ‘80s off of a hard-edged, honky-tonk sound, proving that older artists still had a chance at radio. We also received a wave of songwriters who looked to challenge conventional songwriting rules and make material that could spur listeners to engage with riskier material, like the recently departed Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, and Lyle Lovett. And then there were those acts hard to pigeonhole, a melting pot of their influences, like k.d. lang, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr., Pam Tillis, and the Desert Rose Band. The variety was arguably the best part of it all, at least for fans. Even pop-crossovers had room in the format, through acts like Exile, Anne Murray, and Gary Morris, and veterans like Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell. Any true reason for a conflict within country music history has never been about one side versus another; it stems from a lack of variety and diversity that allows for only one popular sound to dominate until it grows stale.
Now, if I’m being honest, this group of artists didn’t completely revolutionize country commercial standards as was likely intended, and many of those names just mentioned had only a brief time to introduce themselves to audiences and even less time to really establish themselves. The real change wouldn’t come until a decade later, but I believe I’ve already written about that, haven’t I? The change in newer artists, producers, and label management did, however, bring in new fans. It didn’t all work, but enough of it did. That aforementioned McEntire album became a platinum success. Alabama became country music’s first million-selling band and took the decade by storm, and several more success stories followed. If anything, the greater diversity in style helped country music gain a stronger hold in the national media. Rolling Stone, for example, wrote more about Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam’s blend of country and rock than they did, say, Randy Travis’ more traditional country sound. These acts also had help from two new cable networks dedicated exclusively to country music coverage, CMT and TNN, which brought interviews and stories about these stars to fans. The rise of music videos allowed for another technological revolution in reaching fans, though this is also something that wouldn’t be fully realized until the next decade.
Again, whether or not it was all worth it when veterans had to exit for the newer artists to have a space is up to you. But I think of another New York Times article, published in 1987 and discussed in Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Country Music in America, that states how country music had turned itself around for the better. I think of how even though Cash was dropped by Columbia Records, his spirit carried on, thanks to daughter Rosanne Cash, who herself was an individual soul who constantly followed her artistic muse.
The ‘90s carried country music’s boom period, but it’s because the seeds for it were planted a decade prior.