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."

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