For newer fans of country music, it’s hard to believe that anything came before 1989.
That was the year Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson all released their debut albums, and the "New Traditionalist" country movement was born.
The New Traditionalists sounded like nobody else on country radio in 1989, when the lingering "Countrypolitan" sound of the late ’60s and ’70s — heavy on string arrangements and slick, commercial production — was still clinging to the studios in Nashville like kudzu on a Georgia farmhouse.
Sure, there were a few artists who managed to break through with a hard country sound in the ’80s — George Strait, Dwight Yoakam and the late, great Keith Whitley had their share of hits featuring honky-tonk instrumentation and some serious twang — but Brooks, Black and Jackson were the first grouping of young artists who had more in common with hard-core honky-tonkers Merle Haggard and early George Jones than the smoother offerings of Conway Twitty and Don Gibson.
We all know what happened to Brooks (in case you pulled a Rip Van Winkle over the past 16 years, he’s the biggest selling solo artist of all time, in any genre), who took country to mass popularity with his stripped-down sound and rock ’n’ roll stage show.
Jackson has also managed a multiplatinum career, singing good, solid country songs with no fuss, carrying an amiable "aw shucks" humbleness and playing a no-frills stage show that features Jackson standing in front of a microphone and singing, which is all his fans want.
In 1989, however, it was Black who was primed to be "the next big thing" in country music.
His album, "Killing Time," scored three No. 1 singles and went multiplatinum, and the singer cleaned up at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards. His second album did pretty well, too, but by the mid-’90s, it was all about Garth. Black’s sales dropped drastically, and his music suffered when he offered up several slick records that went against the grain of new traditionalism, and finally bottomed out with 2004's woefully overproduced "Spend My Time."
With Brooks retired from performing (his new single, "Good Ride Cowboy," has just been released), Jackson maintaining a status quo and Black making bad records, the original wave of New Traditionalists has made its best work, and the subgenre is petering out.
Or is it?
Just when it looked safe to write Black off, the singer has just released "Drinking Songs & Other Logic," and it’s his best work since that fabled year of 1989. The record is shot through with twang, and Black’s pure country tenor, one of the best voices in the genre, is no longer fighting through strings and safe pop arrangements.
From the opening strains of the title track, Black makes it clear that this is a hard country record, the kind that his earliest fans have always hoped he’d return to, with soon-to-be honky-tonk classics like "Heartaches," "Too Much Rock" and "Longnecks and Rednecks" primed to kick up some dust on the dance floor.
In a sea of new country crooners like Jason Aldean, Keith Anderson and Craig Morgan, who may turn out to be "here today, gone tomorrow" footnotes in country music history, it’s good to have one of the masters back showing the kids how it’s done.