Country Music Has Changed Their Tune

A beautiful woman clad in skin-tight leather flings a leg over the seat of a futuristic rocket-bike. She leans forward and, guitars howling in the background, roars off into the stratosphere, singing in hard-edged riffs about needing a boyfriend-for-life.

Is this the latest pop single? Well, sort of. It's Shania Twain, and it is technically a "country" album but her record label is hoping it will crossover into airplay on America's pop stations, as well.

The same logic goes for the new Lee Ann Rimes single — a Britney Spears-like look and sound, quite a departure from Rimes' first hit album, Blue. Released five years ago, Rimes on Blue was purely reminiscent of Patsy Cline, with a perfect, lilting pitch and simple country melodies. No more.

While Rimes is still considered a "country" artist she, too, is being marketed to pop radio. Her songs are interwoven with techno-drum beats and pseudo-rap lingo. The radio stations and, more importantly, many country record labels are hoping to draw in a whole new category of fans: younger listeners who've never taken to country music before, but might be convinced to become fans of these crossover sounds.

And that has some in Nashville in quite a tizzy. Not that anyone begrudges Twain or Rimes their crossover success, but many in country music's capital believe mainstream country radio is pushing aside traditional artists in order to make room for the pop/country hybrids.

Not Much Country on Country Radio

Billy Block, a radio producer who promotes traditional, or "roots" country music, says it can barely get an airing on most country stations.

"I think a lot of the music that's being played on the radio sounds more like '70s pop than it does country music. There's room for that, but if you're going to call it country music, for God's sakes, let's hear some country," Block said.

But many record labels and radio stations no longer believe traditional country can sell, at least not enough to cover the costs of producing most hit records. The tab can run $1 million or more once all the production and promotion bills are tallied. Craig Havighurst, a music writer for the Nashville Tennessean, says record labels are looking for guaranteed winners.

"They're really looking for people, for stars who the public grabs onto and will buy in the multimillions. Because that's the only place that major labels with their high cost structure can afford," Havighurst said.

Even Dolly Parton's new songs have barely been heard on country radio. And Havighurst is among those who think they are some of Parton's best work ever. Recorded mainly with acoustic instruments, the songs feature primarily Parton's still-haunting voice — songs not loud or bold enough to push their way onto the charts, but certainly beautiful works of music.

That is discouraging to talented young artists like Rhonda Vincent, a celebrated musician whose talent is reminiscent of Barbara Mandrell. Vincent plays half a dozen instruments and bounds about the stage performing vocal acrobatics on country songs that often bring a live audience to its feet. But she can't get mainstream country radio to even listen to her albums.

"It's very difficult," she explains, curled up on the sofa of her band's bus. "The whole entire format has changed."

Vincent makes a living playing concerts, selling her CDs at each new venue. She has legions of loyal fans, many of whom hear her work on the handful of "alternative" or "roots" country stations that have cropped up in the United States the past few years.

That's where Jim Lauderdale, a popular Nashville entertainer, finds his audience. Lauderdale recorded a couple of albums for big country record labels, but was told his George Jones-like style was "too country." Lauderdale chuckles as he considers the irony. "It was so country that it wasn't country anymore."

Nashville ‘Better Watch Out’

Legendary artist Ray Price is still recording but he, too, cannot get an airing on mainstream radio. He has more than 100 tour dates scheduled next year and finds audiences can't get enough of traditional country. They complain to him they can't find it on the radio anymore, and Price says he tells them many music executives are squeezing the soul right out of country music.

"They've kind of put their foot on it. But they better watch out." A deep chuckle starts low in his throat, a smile spreads across his face and Price is laughing. "We'll sneak out from under that foot."

Perhaps. Some believe the enormously popular all-female country group The Dixie Chicks may move the momentum that way. The group recorded its last album independently, so it could return to traditional country music — complete with fiddles and a real swipe at Nashville's identity crisis. The trio's single "Long Time Gone" includes the lyrics "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin', but the music ain't got no soul."

Some argue that's not entirely true. There are other traditionalists enjoying success on radio, artists like Alan Jackson and Vince Gill and Travis Tritt. But many worry they, too, could be crowded out as record labels press for more of the big, bold pop sound they're hoping will become major sellers.

Ironically, one of the biggest-selling albums in recent memory was O Brother Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack to the movie the same name. Radio had almost no part in making it popular. Instead, fans fell in love with the pure, folksy traditional songs. Even when the album went platinum, most country radio stations continued to ignore it.

Radio may not be aware of it, but the genre enjoys a wide and very diverse fan base, obvious on the Earl Scruggs and Friends album released last summer. Fans of the legendary country musician who perform with him include Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, and Sting.

And on the video of Scruggs' performance of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", a closeup of one fiery banjo player pans up to reveal an intense Steve Martin — yes, the comedian — zinging through the song's tricky banjo solo. And over on piano is a jubilant Paul Shaffer, of David Letterman fame, clearly delighted to be part of the gang.

But you won't hear that song, or much of anything like it, on the big country radio stations today. And that, many believe, is a real loss.