January 30, 2005
Like many native or nearnative Arizonans, I grew up with the sounds of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and George Jones coming out of my dad’s crummy AM radio.
Back then, I would never admit to my punk-rocker friends that — after catching The Specials on the old "Saturday Night Live" ripoff "Fridays" — I would tune in with my family to watch Buck Owens and Roy Clark pick and grin on "Hee Haw" the very next night.
It was all just music to me.
When I heard Dwight Yoakam in 1986, I really got the country bug. I thought it was very punk rock in its own way, and I came to appreciate Cash, Jones and Merle Haggard as the punks of their generation. Punks with pedal steel players in their bands.
I took the next step by tuning into country radio once in a while, going back and forth from KNIX (102.5 FM) to The Key, a forerunner of KEDJ (103.9 FM), where I could listen to my beloved punk music.
Unfortunately, the country music I heard on the radio bore little resemblance to the old school honky-tonkers I loved. Where were the fiddles? What were synthesizers doing in country music?
Then, in 1989, three debut records got the country music genre out of its rut: Garth Brooks’ self-titled disc, Clint Black’s "Killin’ Time" and Alan Jackson’s "Here in the Real World."
All three records were unabashed honky-tonk, creating a movement called "New Traditionalist" country.
I started digging country music again.
But Garth Brooks, who listed Billy Joel and Journey as influences, broke out big with a rock-influenced stage show and music to match. Brooks sold nearly 100 million albums in a decade, routinely debuting at No. 1 on both the pop and country charts.
Suddenly, so-called "hat acts" inspired by Brooks dispensed with the fiddles, added rocking guitar solos. And I was hating country music again.
Sure, George Strait was still great. Alan Jackson was still great. But I didn’t have the patience to sit through 20 terrible tunes masquerading as country songs to get the real dope.
By the late ’90s, things had gotten even worse. Shania Twain — with her synthesized faux-fiddle tracks and glossy backing vocals — was the rage. I almost gave up.
But I kept holding out for country music’s redemption, for a day when twin fiddles and pedal steel again reigned supreme in Nashville.
Then, in 2004, Gretchen Wilson’s "Redneck Woman" came out of my car radio and made sweet love to jaded ears. I got the album. I loved the whole thing.
I wasn’t alone in my joy. Wilson’s "Here for the Party" has gone triple platinum, which must be a real kick in the butt for the suits in Nashville who believed that to sell a bunch of records, it had to appeal to pop audiences, a la Twain and Faith Hill.
Less than a year later, pedal steels and fiddles are all over the Billboard country chart.
Sure, pop boy band Rascal Flatts is still there, masquerading as country singers, and atrocious light popsters Lonestar also are present, but take a listen to Brad Paisley, Jackson, Darryl Worley and former crossover offender Tim McGraw.
Wilson’s current hit, "When I Think About Cheatin’," just may be the best country song mainstream radio has embraced in years.
Twain’s and Hill’s last records were disappointments, both musically and in the sales column, as was Garth Brooks’ last record before his self-imposed exile.
As a longtime fan of country music, I hope the suits in Nashville are listening.