The New Brand of Country The music drops the working class and takes up with the malling class, leaving its substance behind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By their very nature, entertainment awards ceremonies tend to be self-congratulatory affairs. But seldom has the crowing been louder than it is now, on the eve of the annual Country Music Awards show Wednesday night at 9 on WBAL (Channel 11).

And why not? In the past year, country has become the fastest-growing form of music in America. No matter what medium you turned to, the signs of the boom were evident: On radio, stations with country formats soared in the ratings; on television, a regular broadcast show joined two cable networks devoted to country; in print, country music commanded cover stories in Time and Entertainment Weekly, among others.

The growing popularity of country music is also evident at the cash register. Sales of country tapes, records and CDs increased by nearly a third of a billion dollars over the last year, while those of other forms of music remained essentially stagnant.

What seems most pleasing to many artists, critics and fans is that this increase in sales and attention has not come at the expense of the music. Rather, it is argued, it coincides with a time when country is returning to its roots, from the 10-gallon hats worn by many newer stars to the plaintive pedal steel guitars heard on many new records.

As a longtime listener to country -- one who for many years heard others deride its singing as too twangy, its lyrics as too sappy and its message as too conservative -- I wish I could join in the celebration. But I find myself feeling far from festive about what's been happening in country music. In fact, far from being a Brave New World of Music, today's country is more like the Last Hurrah of Hillbilly Heaven.

While many of today's artists have mastered the traditional sound of country music, they have shorn it of much of its substance, all but cutting it off from its ties to the disenfranchised working class in favor of forging a new link to the demographically desirable well-to-do. In short, they are threatening to take what has been called "white man's blues" and turn it into another variation of Tin Pan Alley.

To hear the extent to which a music characterized by songs like "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Sixteen Tons" has been compromised, just listen, as I did one recent weekend morning, to a local radio country countdown show of the week's top-rated songs. What you'll hear is all manner of songs about romance ("I Still Believe in You," "I'll Think of Something"), country songs about country music ("Warning Labels," "Cowboy Beat") -- and precious little about the economic condition of the common man.

Or listen, as I did recently to "Ropin' the Wind," the latest album by Garth Brooks, the reigning superstar of country music. The sole song with a working-class framework on Brooks' album is one that plays off some of the baser working-class stereotypes. The song is "Papa Loved Mama," a ballad about a truck driver who, upon returning home from the road and discovering his wife was cheating on him, deliberately drove his rig into the local motel. It's a song that's reminiscent of the early 1970s television caricatures of Vietnam veterans as drugged and violence-prone monsters; its presence on an album by the biggest name in country music, who has traditionally shown great empathy for the problems of working-class people, is disconcerting to say the least.

Of all the recent hit songs, only Travis Tritt's late summer single, "Lord Have Mercy on the Workin' Man," seems in touch with country's blue-collar roots. And its sentiment is more predictable than poignant.

A lack of concern

What's most disturbing about country's lack of concern, not to mention stereotypical dismissal, of the working class is that it comes at a time when a lingering recession and high unemployment are dominating the public agenda. Indeed, it is symbolic of the state of country music today that 1992's biggest hit has been Bill Ray Cyrus' near-novelty "Achy Breaky Heart."

The significance of country music's abandonment of its working-class orientation can best be understood by a brief look at the history of what began as "hillbilly music."

Derived from folk ballads brought from England to America, country music was nurtured in mountain hollows and rural farmlands; it became the music by and for cowhands, railroad crews, millworkers and miners. As historian Bill C. Malone, author of "Country Music U.S.A." and the foremost authority on country music, has noted, "The number of social comments in recorded hillbilly music make up a tremendous percentage of the overall total."

Jimmie Rodgers, the father of modern country music, emboldened the tradition with his songs about underclass drifters and criminals in the 1920s and 1930s. Like other country singers of his time, Rodgers didn't have to search far for his material: The son of an itinerant railroad worker, Rodgers himself worked as a brakeman until illness forced him off the lines.

Socially, country music was often ahead of its time. Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon," recorded in 1947, spotlighted the hazards of coal mining long before black lung and mine safety became notable issues:

It's dark as dungeon

Damp as the dew

Where the danger is double

And the pleasures are few.

Meanwhile, Loretta Lynn became the poet of the plight of working-class women left at home through songs like "One's on the Way." As writer Joan Dew pointed out, Ms. Lynn became a spokeswoman for every woman who "felt trapped by the tedium and drudgery of her life."

Songs like these provided the overall context for such traditional honky-tonk songs as "There Stands the Glass" and "Walking the Floor Over You." The allure of alcohol and utter despondency over broken love affairs were logical reactions for a working-class audience that had few resources to draw upon.

A conservative heritage

Country's concern with the working-class poor reached its modern apotheosis in the 1960s and early 1970s. In keeping with its conservative heritage, most of the lyrics were plaintive laments rather than overt protests, and were more powerful as a result. The body of songs is as impressive as the artists who recorded them: Merle Haggard's "Hungry Eyes," a resigned, almost documentary look at life in a labor camp; Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," about the regret of a convict; Mel Tillis' "Detroit City," about the loneliness and isolation of a worker who moved from the South to work on an automobile assembly line.

One of the most enduring songs of that era was Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors," a folkish ballad about a daughter's fond remembrance of a mother who made a coat for her out of rags. Compare this to Lorrie Morgan's "Something in Red," one of this year's biggest hits, a song about a woman shopping for an appropriate dress. Country moves from the mountains to the shopping malls.

Even through the late 1970s and early 1980s -- a period as roundly castigated by critics and some listeners as the 1990s are celebrated -- country maintained its social focus through such songs as Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," Mr. Haggard's "Big City," even Ms. Parton's pop-ish "9 to 5."

One reason today's country artists may be less concerned with the working class is that fewer and fewer of them come from working-class backgrounds. Ms. Lynn was a coal miner's daughter; Mr. Haggard grew up in a converted railroad car. By contrast, Vince Gill, one of today's more popular country crooners, is the son of a lawyer; Trisha Yearwood, country's hottest new female singer, is the daughter of a banker.

Even for those who began with a feel for the working class, the riches that await those who succeed in country's new environment quickly distance them from the working class. When Ms. Lynn, who would become a Country Music Hall of Famer, cut her first record three decades ago, she drove from radio station to radio station promoting it. By contrast, Billy Ray Cyrus, with a fraction of her talent, has sold more than 3 million copies of his debut album in today's expanded market.

ISO upscale suburbanites

Of course, to reach those sales figures, and to sell out concerts at $25 a ticket, country doesn't need to reach a working-class audience. It needs to reach the affluent, white-collar suburbanites -- the same market department stores are after.

Is there, then, nothing there today for those who grew up liking country music for what it said as well as what it sounded like? Not quite.

A new country group called the Mavericks takes on the subject of economically and emotionally impoverished kids in "Children," song off their self-titled debut album. Country star Alan Jackson has a little-noticed ode called "Working Class Hero" on his mega-selling "Don't Rock the Jukebox" LP. And Mary-Chapin Carpenter, whose latest single was "I Feel Lucky," confronts the problems of a housewife whose marriage breaks up on a song off her recent "Come on Come on" album titled "He Thinks He'll Keep Her":

For 15 years she had a job and not one raise in pay

Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage.

When songs like those begin to get more airplay and attention, and become more than just lonesome voices in the wilderness, then country music will indeed have some thing to celebrate.

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