Amid the coronation of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Mary-Chapin Carpenter at the recent Country Music Association awards, the plaintive howl of George Jones all but stole the show. "I don't need your rockin' chair, your Geritol or your Medicare," he sang defiantly. "I do my rockin' on the stage; you can't put this possum in a cage."
The performance cut to the core of country music's schizophrenic attitude: Nashville has long been more comfortable with easy-listening conservatism (from Eddy Arnold through Kenny Rogers) than with the ornery individualism (from Hank Williams through Dwight Yoakam) that embodies the best of country's traditional values.
It is plain that the sleek, shiny models marketed by modern Nashville have won unprecedented favor with a larger and younger public beyond country's typical constituency. Domestic sales of Garth Brooks's Ropin' the Wind are at 8 million (rivaling those of Michael Jackson's Dangerous and Nirvana's Nevermind combined), while his latest album, The Chase, went to Number One in its first week of release. The smoke, lasers and hydraulic lifts of a Brooks performance have taken country glitz far beyond the spangles of a Nudie suit to the arena-rock spectacle of Kiss or ELO.
After many dismissed Garth-mania as an isolated phenomenon, Nashville created an even bigger commotion with the ponytailed prancing of Billy Ray Cyrus, whose "Achy Breaky Heart" spurred sales of his debut album to more than 4 million copies. Wynonna Judd and Trisha Year-wood also found platinum acceptance for a new generation of female artistry, while the folkish strains of Mary-Chapin Carpenter have proven popular with country and pop fans alike.
The face lift and fresh blood of its recent image makeover represent a blessing that is as mixed as Nashville's ambivalence toward its musical history. This is, after all, the same Nashville that deleted the western from country & western, cringed with embarrassment at the hillbilly-music tag and exchanged the Ryman Auditorium for a slicked-up Grand Ole Opry theme park. For all the lip service -- or hat service -- that country currently pays to tradition, it is easier for a young hunk such as Sammy Kershaw to top the charts with a George Jones sound-alike ("Cadillac Style") or Alan Jackson to score big with a Jones tribute ("Don't Rock the Jukebox") than it is for Old Possum to escape the too-wrinkled-for-video scrap-heap. Even a modernist throwback such as Jimmie Dale Gilmore finds himself in the paradoxical position of being too country for country.
But while the scariest words in Nashville remain urban cowboy, a reminder of the bust that followed the last crossover boom, country's resurgence risks a new rut of suburban cowboyism, recycling the soft rock of the Seventies into the new country of the Nineties. listen to a dozen (any dozen) of the bands of polished harmonizers on the country airwaves, and you'd swear we're in the midst of a Firefall revival. Aren't Brooks and Dunn simply Loggins and Messina in cowboy costume? How come country embraces Billy Joel's "Shameless" balladry as crooned by Garth Brooks after rejecting K.D. Lang's homages to Patsy Cline?
If country's current popularity is to be more than another round of mechanical bull, Nashville needs to commit itself to a creative renewal. The audience is wide and the hunger is deep for emotional directness and song-oriented craftsmanship. The raised-on-rock generations of the Sixties and Seventies, now paying mortgages and raising families, no longer see their concerns reflected in computerized dance beats or heavy-metal cartoons. They hear in Wynonna what they love in Bonnie Raitt; identify with the bluesy, blue-collar populism of Travis Tritt as the honky-tonk equivalent of Lynyrd Skynyrd; appreciate in the tunefulness of Trisha Yearwood what they previously prized in Linda Ronstadt (while particularly enjoying the duets with Don Henley); and find their Elvis (or at least their Elton) in the boy-next-door sincerity and concert razzle-dazzle of Garth Brooks. As the music centers of New York and Los Angeles service a younger constituency, Nashville could become the creative center for music that is truly adult contemporary (i.e., more than a euphemism for easy listening). Rarely have conditions been riper for Nashville to develop the next Bob Dylan, the next Bruce Springsteen, the next Rolling Stones, as well as the next Merle Haggard or Emmylou Harris.
Such a renaissance would require that Nashville support risky originality rather than submit to the strictures of country radio (which is slicker and tighter than Top Forty ever was). The audience that is turning to country for integrity and maturity won't be satisfied for Ions with formula. It will quickly tire of Nashville's assembly-line efficiency: the same musicians recycling the same licks, the same songwriters pushing the same emotional buttons. The same hats.
While the calculations through which Nashville manufactures and markets its product may be cost-effective in the short run, the long run belongs to the rambunctious creativity that corporate conservatism fears most. Today's country traditions were forged by yesterday's firebrands, embodying the sort of radical spirit that Nashville does its best to stifle. As Urban Cowboy proved, country music can't afford a crossover boom at the sacrifice of its soul. And if it requires a reminder of where that raging soul lies, it need listen no further than George Jones.