Vital Signs

Selling the Farm: Country Music in the 80's

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

For 30 years country music has alternately ignored and embraced that small truth, always bouncing between the apparent threat of extinction and last-minute rescue. And now, after a decade of "evolution" and "transition," the country music industry again is surprised that the real thing was good enough all along; that, indeed, the real thing may be the only thing. In spite of losses (Ernest Tubb is gone; Tammy Wynette hasn't had a hit in years) and distractions (country music videos), the line separating traditional and contemporary music is obvious once more.

A path of musical influence and affection and homage can be followed backward from John Anderson to George Jones to Hank Williams; from Emmylou Harris to Kitty Wells to the Carter Family; from Ricky Skaggs to Bill Monroe; from Merle Haggard to Lefty Frizzell; from Willie Nelson to a whole lot of people. But a trip backward from Barbara Mandrell ends up at Wayne Newton. Kenny Rogers is a Nashville version of Perry Como, and Alabama is a rock group for people who don't like rock. This is the Too-Easy Listening School of country music, and its popularity has given new meaning to the term crossover, obscuring the essence and function of country music with a mechanical blend of down-home showmanship and uptown talent. While there is no law against success, there is something sad and ridiculous...

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