At a Country Music Association awards show in the late 1970s, Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel showed up wearing a stetsons. He and the similarly behatted and long-haired Charlie Daniels and John Anderson were politely asked to remove their headgear. But as the rhinestones faded, the Stetson would become an obligatory sartorial item in the country fraternity. We might credit the mercifully brief Urban Cowboy movement — spearheaded by John Tavolta’s Honky Tonk Night Fever movie — for popularising the cowboy hat, which had been sported by many people over the years but never was standard apparel in country.
Ironically, the Urban Cowboy soundtrack featured mostly AOR artists, such as Boz Scaggs, The Eagles, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt (who was yet to revisit her country roots). Country, the genre portrayed in the movie, was marginalised, reduced to the presence of The Charlie Daniels Band, Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee (whose Looking For Love from the soundtrack became a million-seller). The movement the film described moved country away from its roots, crossing over into middle-of-the-road rock, adult pop and easy listening with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Juice Newton, Crystal Gayle. Even Dolly Parton got in on the act, as did Willie Nelson, who contributed to the mush of MOR by duetting with Spanish housewives’ favourite and übersmoothie Julio Iglesias.
The Urban Cowboy hype didn’t last long. While the faithful Outlaws — Jennings, Kristofferson et al — were falling out of the charts, there was a vacuum. It was partially filled by credible artists such as John Conlee, but it took the breakthrough in the early 1980s of George Strait and Ricky Skaggs to lend country a new identity.
Strait, Skaggs and others, like the less successful John Anderson, were spearheads of a wider movement driven by innovative new producers and executives (perhaps taking to heart Waylon Jennings’ 1975 call to country revolution in You Sure Hank Done It This Way). Their influence was profound: with their initial success they returned country music to its traditional foundations — the honky tonk of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and the bluegrass of Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers — while maintaining a commercial sound which could sustain such a renaissance. Had their formula flopped, who knows where country would have gone. Skaggs, who went on to become the biggest selling country artist of the 1980s, was an alumni of Emmylou Harris’ backing band; the stetsoned Texan George Strait went on to score a record number of country charts toppers.
In their wake artists who had battled along for years — Rosanne Cash, Hank Williams Jr, Reba McIntryre, Rodney Crowell — began to flourish, and important new blood emerged in numbers unseen since the 1950s: Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Holly Dunn, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Pam Tillis, Ricky van Shelton, Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vern Gosdin and so on. Not a few of these were songwriters who would help inspire the alt.country movement of the 1990s and 2000s.
So it was all the more strange when the New York Times in a front-page article (on what must have been a morbidly dull news day) by the critic Robert Palmer declared country music dead. The mainstream country music of the 1970s was indeed fading, but the evidently poorly premised and slothfully researched article exaggerated the demise of the genre. To his credit, Palmer later embraced some of the acts who would prove him wrong. Two years later, the New York Times covered how country “had turned itself around”.
As always, this mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes homebrewed cover artwork. Be warned that the final track is lacking in anything that is defensible. Let the musical assault that is God Bless The U.S.A. be representative of all that gives country music such a bad name.
1. Charlie Daniels Band – The Devil Went Down To Georgia
2. Johnny Lee – Lookin’ For Love
3. Ronnie Milsap – Smoky Mountain Rain
4. George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today
5. Willie Nelson – On The Road Again (live)
6. Hank Williams Jr. – Kaw-Liga
7. Alabama – Old Flame
8. Merle Haggard – Big City
9. David Allan Coe – The Ride
10. The Oak Ridge Boys – Elvira
11. Barbara Mandrell & George Jones – I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool
12. Roseanne Cash – Seven Year Ache
13. Dolly Parton – Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
14. Skeeter Davis – Crying Time
15. Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers – Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)
16. John Conlee – Common Man
17. Ricky Skaggs – Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown
18. George Strait – Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
19. Earl Thomas Conley – Holding Her And Loving You
20. Don Williams – That’s The Thing About Love
21. The Judds – Mama He’s Crazy
22. John Prine – People Puttin’ People Down
23. Waylon Jennings – America
24. Lee Greenwood – God Bless The U.S.A.
Previously in A History of Country