Are the 1990s Back in Country Music? Or Did They Never Leave?

As Garth and others pony up new music, we examine this newfound revival of contemporary country's golden age.

By Kurt Wolff

The notice first came last month (Oct. 18) via a cryptic email. “The sevens have aligned. It has begun… Thank you for believing . . . love, g.” Soon after, the news was out: One of the biggest superstars in country music, Garth Brooks, was making big new moves to re-enter the public spotlight. Specifically, he was appearing in a television special and, as fans learned shortly after, he was going to release a new box set.

Brooks may have been in “retirement” for the last decade or so, but it quickly became apparent that — nearly a quarter-century after he debuted and then dominated the country world with songs like “The Dance,” “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends in Low Places” — he was still among of the hottest properties in country music.

In a curious coincidence, the very same week that Brooks announced his television special, another country star who came to prominence in the 1990s, Tim McGraw, was racking up serious airplay for his then-current single “Southern Girl.” So much airplay, in fact, that the song wound up hitting No. 1 the following week.

And McGraw and Brooks weren’t the only veteran ’90s-era artists continuing to build new audiences and/or find newfound attention in 2013.

Joe Diffie, one of the biggest hitmakers of the ’90s, had his name chanted over and over again this year, in arenas and stadiums across the U.S., thanks to the Jason Aldean‘s “1994” and its famous ‘Joe Diffie chorus.’ Aldean, a huge Diffie fan, said he fell “out of his chair laughing” when he first heard the song as a demo.

Marty Brown, who released three critically acclaimed country albums during the early 1990s, re-emerged from obscurity to win national attention (and a whole new generation of fans) on the NBC reality competition America’s Got Talent.

Another ’90s superstar who recently re-entered the public spotlight is Shania Twain. Like Brooks before her, she chose to do so via a splashy big-budget Las Vegas show, Still the One, that is currently scheduled through early 2014. She’s also said she is planning a new album, which would be her first in a decade.

And let’s not forget Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Like McGraw, both are veteran artists who got their start in the 1990s (Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” hit No. 1 way back in ’93, whereas Chesney began charting heavily later in the decade, though he’s more closely associated with the ’00s), and both are as active today as ever. Like McGraw, both also draw huge crowds to their live shows and have plenty of songs in rotation on country radio — witness Chesney’s recent singles “Pirate Flag” and “When I See This Bar” and Keith’s “Drinks After Work” and of course “Red Solo Cup.”

Related: Toby Keith Talks Drinks After Work and “Red Solo Cup”

In addition, onetime stadium headliner Travis Tritt this year released his first new album in six years, The Calm After…, while other of the era’s biggest hitmakers including Mark Chesnutt, Lonestar and Clint Black also released new music–the latter with his album When I Said I Do. George Strait is still going strong, earning his 60th No. 1 single this year. And Dwight Yoakam — arguably an ’80s artist but one who peaked in popularity during the ’90s — has been back on tour supporting last year’s 3 Pears.

And of course there’s Diffie who, capitalizing on his moment in the spotlight thanks to “1994,” released a single of his own, “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun.”

So with Tim McGraw still topping the charts (“Southern Girl” was his second No. 1 this year and his 35th overall), Garth Brooks about to release new music, and all these other veteran artists returning to the spotlight, we have to wonder: Are the 1990s in the midst of a comeback? Or did they never leave?

Country music has had a wide array of superstars and sold quite a few records in its 90-plus-year history. Decade by decade, though, when it comes to sales figures, no era even comes close to the 1990s.

During that decade, sales of country music skyrocketed. And artists such as Brooks, McGraw, Twain, Faith Hill, Tritt, Black, Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson and duo Brooks & Dunn found their growing audiences included many fans far outside the typical rural and Southern parameters that had long defined the genre. In 1997, Brooks even triumphantly played for hundreds of thousands fans in New York’s Central Park. The latter event was described at the time as a “grandiose, sweat-pouring-out, smoke-‘n’-laser spectacle” that “reinvented the concept of a country-music concert.”

“Garth is bigger than country, just like the Beatles were bigger than British rock and Michael Jackson is bigger than R&B,” said William Flanagan, a vice president of VH1, in a New York Times preview of the Central Park show.

And that enthusiasm still resonates today.

“I definitely think the ’90s was one of the coolest times in country music — the ’80s and 90s,” said Keifer Thompson of country duo Thompson Square, during a recent interview with Radio.com. Brooks in particular, he said, “was one of those guys who changed the face of country music, really opened up a lot of doors for a lot of new artists. And brought a lot of new fans to country music, who thought it was just country and western and we were with rhinestone suits and doing that stuff still.”

In other words it was Brooks who, perhaps more than any other single artist in the history of the genre, helped country go mainstream.

At the time, many attributed country’s newfound popularity to factors such as the rise of CDs (in addition to new music, fans often re-bought previously owned LPs on CD) as well as the newfound power of music videos. The latter served to place new songs in front of fans more quickly than ever, and in more places than ever, not just big cities. In the process this helped blur the distinctions between genres, so that many pop and rock fans began to realize country maybe wasn’t so bad after all — in fact, it was kinda catchy.

The key element in country’s popularity surge, though, came in 1991, when Billboard began using SoundScan, a new means of tracking album popularity via actual sales (this vs. the old method of calling stores and hoping that what the numbers they gave weren’t off base or, worse, bald-faced lies).

Clint Black was one of the initial artists to see this change firsthand — and reap its benefits. “When I came on the scene in 1989, country music wasn’t credited with the popularity that it enjoyed,” he told Radio.com in a recent interview. “There were so many country radio stations, and so many sales, but it wasn’t reported accurately. In the midst of that, SoundScan came along, and suddenly country music is high up on the Top 200. And everyone said, ‘Wow, country music has a big audience.’ It’s something we always knew and felt, but it wasn’t until there was an accurate accounting of sales that everyone else knew it.”

Related: Clint Black on Songwriting and Past Successes

Garth Brooks, though, may have gained the most from the new accounting method. The week SoundScan was introduced, Brooks’ album No Fences shot to No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard 200 — a massive jump at the time for a country album. Even more significantly, Brooks’ next album Ropin’ the Wind debuted at No. 1 on the same chart. This was a first for any country album, and immediately it ushered in a new era for the genre. County was no longer a marginal genre; anyone and everyone could be a country fan, whether they live on a farm, in the suburbs, or amidst a downtown high-rise.

From that point forward, said Black, “we saw a surge in country music and sales that was so huge, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again. The sales in the ’90s and the popularity of country music dwarfed everything form the past. And depending on how our industry evolves, it may never be repeated.”

But it wasn’t just sales figures that showed country was ‘breaking’ into mainstream America. The sound of the music itself was changing. Appealing to pop-music audiences has been an ongoing trend throughout the genre’s history, and little by little, elements that had long defined country music — pedal-steel guitar, fiddle, a nasal twang — were being played down in favor of a sound that appealed to a wider range of radio listeners. In the 1950s this was defined by the countrypolitan sounds of Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline; later it was artists like Ray Price, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Barbara Mandrell who came to represent the “uptown” direction — and crossover potential — of modern country music.

In the 1990s, this pop-friendly direction was defined by strong beats, slick production and flashy stadium shows. It wasn’t a coincidence, for instance, that the bulk of Shania Twain’s million-selling songs were produced by Mutt Lange, her husband at the time and a guy who’d previously worked with artists like Def Leppard, Foreigner and Bryan Adams.

True, many artists wore their western shirts and cowboy hats proudly (many of the men during this time were lumped together as ‘hat acts’), but the overall sensibility of these artists had little in common with the “hillbilly” veneer of classic country acts like Hank Williams, Kitty Wells and Lefty Frizzell. Garth, Shania, Reba, Faith Hill — they were as much pop stars as country’s marquee names — and they finally had the sales figures to prove it. For the first time ever, country music was in the mega-sales league of artists like Michael Jackson, Billy Joel and Elton John.

So what happened following that golden age? Basically, the trend hasn’t slowed down much at all. Taylor Swift plays stadiums the way Brooks did in the ’90s. Along with the likes of Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum, Swift maintains mass appeal to music fans outside of country. Furthering that mainstream infiltration, we see country stars like Blake Shelton and Keith Urban becoming well-loved television personalities on The Voice and American Idol, respectively, as well a new crop of country artists turning out to be some of the most successful winners on those shows (Underwood, Scotty McCreery, Danielle Bradbery and Cassadee Pope are all recent winners).

That thread through country music that runs from the 1990s to the present day is certainly solid — it’s there in the stadium shows, in the crossover appeal of so many young country artists and certainly in the continuing popularity of veteran artists like McGraw, Brooks, Chesney, Twain and even the Dixie Chicks (they played a handful of dates this year, their first in quite some time).

At the same time, though, it’s also true that country music has continued moving in new directions.

In a recent conversation with Radio.com, Clay Walker (another ’90s-era artist famous for hits like “Rumor Has It,” “Dreaming with My Eyes Wide Open” and “Live Until I Die”) said that, while there’s still “a large enough fan base out there who still likes that ’90s sound,” nowadays the songs and styles in country music are “not just different [but] drastically different than anything that we’ve seen before.” The 1990s, Walker felt, was “the most innovative time in country music since probably the ’60s,” and “what you’re seeing now is the most innovative since the 90s.” However, he said, “they don’t look anything alike.”

Witness, for instance, the pop production that highlights much of Taylor Swift’s recent album Red; the hard rock that powers recent songs by Aldean, Brantley Gilbert and Eric Church; and the hip-hop influences in in the music of Colt Ford and on songs like Aldean’s “1994” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night.”

Related: Eric Church, Zac Brown & the Increasingly Blurred Lines Between Rock & Country

Walker’s got a point. The neo-traditional ‘hat act’ era that dominated so much of the ’90s is mostly gone, for instance. And certainly no country fan back then would have likely predicted the huge popularity of a song like “That’s My Kind of Night” or the Nelly remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” — two recent hits that represent new sonic directions for the country mainstream.

Yet when you step back and look at all that country is today, Walker is only partially correct, because the 1990s have most certainly left an indelible mark on the country landscape. Artists like Swift and Bryan may not sound exactly like Brooks, but they, too, are appealing to a far wider cross-section of music fans than ever before — exactly as Brooks and others such as Shania Twain did. And the massive Red Tour Swift undertook this past year is clearly an outgrowth of the high-energy stadium shows Brooks pioneered two decades back.

On top of that, the music’s crossover appeal continues to grow. Artists like Swift, Underwood and Hunter Hayes get regular attention now from pop audiences. And many hard-rock fans these days are increasingly paying attention to the guitar-forward sounds of performers such as Aldean and Church. The latter, for instance, played to enthusiastic crowds at normally non-country events such as Lollapalooza and Metallica’s Orion festival.

“The great thing about country music now,” McGraw told Radio.com during an interview earlier this year, “is not only do we honor our past, but there’s also a great variety of music within our genre. I think you can listen to country radio and you can hear so many different styles and influences of music. And I think that even when you listen to pop radio now, you can hear how country radio has influenced that.”

So as fans line up to buy Brooks’ box set (it goes on sale Black Friday) and await further news on his re-emergence (there’s still one mystery element yet to be revealed on his website), and as Twain builds her upcoming album and McGraw preps his next single, it’s clear that the 1990s aren’t going anywhere fast. The influences and changes the artists of that era brought to the genre are still very much present.

 


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