In its quest to be all things to a carefully dissected slice of the American listening demographic, country music appeals to some of the people all of the time without losing sight of its main quarry—everybody, or a statistical shadow of that elusive number. But who’s counting? Everyone involved, that’s who. And this year’s CMA Festival—four days, hundreds of artists and thousands of fans spanning the nation—comes at a fraught moment in music-business history. Along with superstars of the magnitude of Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam, the fan-frenzied event features up-and-comers and niche artists along with a smattering of Americana acts and the spookily named McDonald’s-Dr. Pepper Family Zone, which appears to be an area designed for relaxation.
These days, all new country acts pay tribute to bands critics have generally dismissed and fans have continued to love, such as The Eagles and Jimmy Buffett. Take, for example, the Georgia singer and songwriter Zac Brown, who is taking his music to country fans with his ﬁrst CMA appearance. He says he grew up on a diet of James Taylor and Southern rock, and discovered soul music at college. The Zac Brown Band’s debut, The Foundation, is so genial it nearly wafts away in its evocation of Buffett’s pleasantries, but songs such as “It’s Not Okay” and “Toes” display ﬂair and humor.
Like any number of ambitious young country artists, Brown speaks the industry’s preferred language of rugged individualism in all matters except one—the sacred song itself. “We try our songs out in the ﬁeld, we play live, and our actual records are how we perform live,” Brown says. “I really believe in the song more than I believe in a label that tells you what kind it is.”
That’s touching, but part of modern country’s shufﬂe is to feign indifference to marketing labels while thinking of nothing else. Just like the late alt-country magazine No Depression, which covered mainstream country in a serious manner, country is obsessed with its notion of authenticity. For No Depression, roots meant country-rock as humanist text; for mainstream country, roots mean country-rock as well, but humanism doesn’t enter into the equation. (Disclosure: this writer contributed to No Depression.) Country has a habit of applauding the sort of superﬁcial innovation that would have barely registered in any number of pop-music scenes, past and present.
For example, CMA veterans Montgomery Gentry—a big-selling duo whose music is an updated version of bar-band Southern boogie—decided they needed a break from Nashville, and went to Memphis to make the new Back When I Knew It All. They recorded at one of the most famous locations in the world, Ardent Studios, where ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin and Big Star made hugely inﬂuential records.
“We wanted to go to a historic studio, something not too far away,” Troy Gentry says. “We were either gonna go to Florida, Atlanta or Memphis, and Memphis just had so much history. Ironically, a lot of the guys we grew up listening to recorded some great albums there—Steve Earle, the Allman Brothers and ZZ Top.”
Back When I Knew It All sounds unlike any previous Montgomery Gentry record. Gentry says they took their usual session players to the Bluff City. “With all the not-so-up-to-date pieces of equipment in there, we were trying to get that live-band sound,” he explains. They got it: The title track features an introduction that could pass for one of Ardent’s celebrated British Invasion homages, as if the ghost of Big Star’s Chris Bell had put on a duster and hunkered down in the studio.
For all that, a lot of Back registers as pretty standard stuff—too overstated for its own good, with songs that no amount of canny sonics can carry. Montgomery Gentry make honest music that often rocks harder than that of, say, The Hives or Black Mountain, but the ideology of tunes such as “God Knows Who I Am” simply gets in the way.
At the other extreme, 18-year-old Taylor Swift makes music that seems unabashedly autobiographical, as if she were a ’70s singer-songwriter. Famously Internet-savvy, Swift is a sly stylist who identiﬁes herself as a country artist (“If I wear my cowboy boots...in New York City, that makes me country, don’t you think?” she laughs) without making a big deal about it. She’s the latest in a line of ambitious female country singers. “I really liked the ’90s female artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill, and then got into singers like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn,” Swift says.
Meanwhile, The Greencards—a trio composed of two Australians and an English ﬁddle player—represent another possible future for country. Making their ﬁrst CMA appearance, they’re coming off the success of 2007’s Viridian, a canny collection that combined Carol Young’s lustrous vocals with progressive bluegrass instrumentation by Eamon McLoughlin and mandolin player Kym Warner. In the best alt-country manner, their music reaches out to a wide audience while holding ﬁrmly to their roots.
“One might claim to have some sort of moral ground over the other,” McLoughlin says of the eternal struggle between mainstream and alt-country. “But I think there are parts of both genres that are attractive to the other camp.”
Jypsi is perhaps the best example of this mutual attraction. A sibling quartet signed to a major label, Jypsi look like a charmingly demented version of The Cowsills but sound fashionably old-timey, with tricky ﬁddle and banjo. At 16, Lillie Mae Rische possesses a calm, wonderful voice, but Jypsi is a perplexing debut—one song expresses concern that many people break some of the Ten Commandments, another is a pointless instrumental and yet another is the most boring cover of “House of the Rising Sun” in recording history.
Still, Rische has talent, and it’s not her fault if Jypsi is super-competent but lacking in point of view or ear for a fresh modulation. One thing modern country does seem to forget is that it often helps to actually have something to sing about—some experience that goes beyond the stale relationship songs that comprise Jypsi’s debut.
For point of view, and an auteurist bent that signiﬁes Nashville’s most dreaded phrase—artistic control—one can look no further than the work of Dwight Yoakam, who makes his ﬁrst CMA appearance in 20 years. Yoakam’s feel for country-music history has always been balanced by his refusal to play by Music Row’s rules, and his career embodies the kind of fusion of image and substance that represents country at its best.
“I’d always known Dwight had a little skepticism about Nashville,” CMA CEO Tammy Genovese says. She asked Yoakam to play the festival, but wasn’t sure if he would accept the invitation. “We walked out of our boardroom laughing, and I have never been so impressed with somebody in my whole life,” she says. “He has more history in his head about this business than anyone I’ve ever talked to—except maybe Marty Stuart.”
Yoakam’s appearance will likely be the festival’s high point for fans and critics alike. There are many other notable artists on the roster, such as the brilliant songwriter Eric Church, the oddly named Lady Antebellum and Jewel, who has—like the rest of the planet and half of Nashville—gone country for good.