When Seymour Stein, president of the U.S. label Sire Records, first heard K. D. Lang play—at New York’s Bottom Line club in 1985—he kept scrawling requests for classic country songs and sending them to her onstage. Afterward, while arranging to sign her to a record contract, Stein told Lang, “You are what country music would have been if Nashville hadn’t screwed up.” In the 1960s Nashville producers tried to win a wider audience for country by ridding the industry of its image: toe-tapping tunes for rural folk.
The result was songs with sentimental lyrics, lush string arrangements and such easy-listening stars as Kenny Rogers. What had once been the white equivalent of blues was transformed, acquiring so thick a gloss of corn that songs of heartache became music to snicker to. But now, thanks to a new breed of artists including Alberta-born Lang, country is hip, not hick. Declared New York’s fashionable weekly The Village Voice: “Country music is more exciting than rock and roll.”
In fact, country albums are topping mainstream charts. Already Trio, a collection of down-home country ballads by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, has sold 1.3 million copies in North America, making it one of this year’s best-sellers. And following the surprise hits of country stars Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and Randy Travis—and the success of such other U.S. artists as The Judds, Ricky Skaggs and Reba McEntire—record companies have rushed back to country sounds.
In Canada, WEA Music has signed Blue Rodeo, a young Toronto countryrock band and is now grooming it for international stardom. Meanwhile, Alberta rancher and former folksinger Ian Tyson has just secured a U.S. dis-
tribution deal for his authentic brand of cowboy music. And Toronto’s durable Murray McLauchlan now has Nashville-based management. The country trend goes beyond music: big-city
clothing stores now proudly display
such once-scoffed-at items as string ties and cowboy shirts.
What the new artists have in common is a willingness to handcraft their sounds from everything in country’s homespun grab-bag of styles: honkytonk, hillbilly music, western swing and even polkas. Canadian bars feature dozens of new country acts, from Prairie Oyster and Rang Tango to Three O’Clock Train and Joanne Mackell & the Yahoos—all striving to capture country’s authentic spirit.
And then there is K. D. (for Katherine Dawn) Lang. A drugstore owner’s
daughter from Consort, Alta. (pop. 672), Lang, 25, helped pioneer country’s new chic by bringing it in the back door of high camp. She originally performed tongue-in-cheek, claiming to be the reincarnation of country great Patsy Cline and declaring that she was “having fun with country, not at the expense of it.” A gifted vocalist capable of full-throated gymnastics one moment and yodel-yelping theatrics the next, Lang is one of the brightest rhinestones in country’s crown. In reviewing Angel With a Lariat, her debut album on Sire, Rolling Stone called her a “legendary” performer.
And with country’s newfound respect, Lang can abandon her camp pose. “I’m taking my music a little more seriously,” she told Maclean’s, “and being more relaxed onstage.” Gone are the horn-rimmed glasses, brush-cut hair and frenetic performance style. In concert she has even appeared in a blue sequined evening gown and long white gloves. “Change is the essence of growth,” said Lang. “You must take a look at where you came from, but keep z moving ahead.” That S same attitude is shared 1 by country’s other y emerging stars, g Dwight Yoakam dresses as he plays: with strict attention to the classics. His embroidered powder-blue suit is made by the western designer Manuel, and his needle-nose boots are handmade in El Paso, Tex., from the leather of the hornback lizard. Whether performing the old styles of Buck Owens or his own honky-tonk tunes, Yoakam sings with a good old-fashioned nasal twang. And his albums, last year’s debut Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and this year’s Hillbilly Deluxe, prominently feature fiddles and the whine of that classic country instrument, the pedal steel guitar.
But Yoakam is sharply critical of
Nashville’s middle-of-the-road sound. Describing his own traditional style, he said, “You won’t hear any string sections, choral arrangements on the vocals, no Nash-trash schlock bull that they have played up for the last 20 years.” That sort of brazen talk has earned the 30-year-old Kentucky native enemies—including some Nashville record company executives.
Still, few can deny Yoakam’s success. His albums have sold more than 1.3 million copies and have been among country’s best-sellers, with top singles on both rock and country charts. His roadhouse songs feature lonesome drifters, wounded hearts and drunken binges, and have strong appeal among college listeners. When he sings “It won’t hurt, when I fall down from this barstool,” he recaptures the essence of country music: humor mixed with resignation.
But Yoakam’s hard-line insistence on tradition irks other rising stars.
When Texas-born Steve Earle appeared on the same bill as Yoakam two years ago in San Francisco, he was enraged to hear Yoakam tell the crowd that his country music was the genuine article. Recalled Earle: “I had to be locked in my dressing room that night. He thinks that country music is an art form and he its only true purveyor.” To Earle, 32, country has less to do with pedal steel guitars than with what he calls “finding beauty in the dark side of things.”
He has also mastered the art of straddling country and mainstream rock. Performing in Toronto last spring, Earle coralled as many fans wearing union caps and baseball jerseys as stetsons and collar clips. His current album, Exit 0, furthers his double-barreled aim. One song, I Ain't Ever Satisfied, plays on rock radio stations; another, Nowhere Road, is gaining country airplay. A self-described folksinger who lists Gordon Lightfoot among his influences and admires
Bruce Springsteen’s socially conscious rock, Earle remains committed to country. “I’ll always record and work in Nashville, and I’ll always stylistically be a country singer,” he said in classic Texas drawl, “because I’ll always talk like this.”
Randy Travis, 28, may be the closest thing in country’s new ranks to a heartthrob: his intense gaze, deep resonant voice, square-set jaw and polished white grin suggest Hollywood rather than Nashville. But along with Yoakam and Earle, Travis is in the vanguard of what the music press has dubbed “the new traditionalists.” His first album, Storms of Life, sold more than 100,000 copies in Canada and more than one million in the United States — a rare achievement for a country album and one that his latest record, Always and Forever, could surpass. This year Travis swept the Country Music Awards winning everything from top album to best singer. “I was introduced to country music because Mom and Daddy were such fans,” he said. “It’s all I listen to and all I’ve ever done.”
Born in the small farming community of Marshville, N.C., Travis was eight when he picked up a guitar and began learning the songs of Hank Williams Sr. By the time he was 14, he was playing in clubs where he was legally too young to drink. One employer was Lib Hatcher. When she moved to Nashville and began managing the Palace, a club across the street from the Grand Ole Opry, she put Travis to work-in the kitchen. Recalled Travis: “I worked singing for about 3 Vi» years. The whole time I was washing dishes and cooking catfish.” But he persevered and hit his musical stride just in time for country’s comeback. Added Travis: “I always believed it would happen. Maybe it was lack of sense.” For its part, Blue Rodeo is stretching the boundaries of country music in Canada. There are no sobbing steel
guitars in the Toronto band’s city sound, no contrived southern accents. Instead, the five-member group blends everything from folk music to power pop with the twanging strings and passionate vocals of singer-guitarists Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, creating their own country style. Cuddy, 31, and Keelor, 32, friends since high school, share singing and songwriting duties as freely as they trade guitar licks.
In 1984 they teamed up with keyboardist Bobby Wiseman, bassist Bazil Donovan and drummer Cleave Anderson to form Blue Rodeo. The band has opened shows for Kris Kristofferson and released a debut album, Outskirts, in April. Its songs are often heavily influenced by American culture. Indeed, the title track is an ode to the late David Kennedy, son of the assassinated Robert Kennedy, and contains such pointed lyrics as, “So tell me where you can hide/when this whole world knows your name.”
But like the best country artists, Blue Rodeo has a strong sense of roots. Whether giving the music a contemporary twist or sprucing up its vintage sounds, a new generation of artists has spurred country back to life. And by reclaiming the original values that gave the music its distinctive charm, they have restored respect for its authenticity. This summer, some of the sweetest sounds can be heard in good old down-home music.
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