Country music searches for new torchbearers
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 26, 2006 12:00 AM
The sound and image of country-music legend George Jones are unmistakable.
At 74, he's a reformed hell-raiser and the ex-husband of Nashville queen Tammy Wynette, delivering his songs with a sad warble. Such classics as He Stopped Loving Her Today have helped him fill concert halls and sell millions.
A larger-than-life personality, 50 years of solid music and an ability to connect with the masses combine to make him part of a group of living country icons that includes Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Porter Wagoner and Loretta Lynn.
But the superstars are entering the twilight of their careers. Legends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, June Carter and Wynette are already gone.
Who will replace them is the question asked by fans, performers and Nashville insiders.
Jones, who appears in concert in Mesa on Thursday, even wrote a song about it: "Who's gonna stand up tall / Who's gonna play the Opry or the Wabash Cannonball?," he asks in Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes.
Time will weed out those without staying power, but a handful of veteran artists and even a few newcomers are showing the potential to carry the torch.
"I'm more and more confident of the answer," says Pete Fisher, general manager of the Grand Ole Opry. "We have a wonderful crop of (younger) artists who are going to be around for a long time and who value the traditions of country music."
The next wave
To become a country icon, a performer doesn't have to take the rocky path blazed by Jones and his cohort. Growing up in a cabin and dealing with divorces, DUIs and drug abuse aren't prerequisites.
First and foremost, there has to be talent and a strong catalog of songs. Then there should be country credibility.
"You're singing from your heart. You're putting your whole life into it," says Jones, a 1992 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Jones lists three traditional-sounding singers who are becoming icons:
• Texan George Strait, 53, has led the pack of male singers in their 40s or 50s with his classic-cowboy looks and shrewd selection of songs written by others. Rodeo riding on the side adds to his image.
• Alan Jackson, 47, is another country hunk, and his Georgia roots give him good-old-boy credibility. He has written most of his hits, including the Sept. 11 anthem Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).
• Randy Travis, 46, led the wave of "new traditionalists" in the mid-'80s and became a favorite of the first President Bush with his expressive baritone vocals.
As they piled up the hits, none of the three strayed far from straight-ahead country. They also are vocal in their praise of the legends who have preceded them. Jackson and Travis have recorded with Jones; Strait visited Jones in the hospital after he had heart surgery in 1994.
Fisher mentions Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn. Opry star Wagoner likes guitarist Marty Stuart and bluegrass songstress Patty Loveless. Jay Orr of the Country Music Hall of Fame throws Emmylou Harris into the mix. And XM Satellite Radio programmer Jessie Scott mentions fiddler Alison Krauss and politically charged singer Steve Earle. Also off to strong starts are Gretchen Wilson and Shooter Jennings.
McEntire has become larger than life, mirroring the career of Parton, who inhabits the American pop landscape through television and movies. McEntire has starred in Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway and the WB sitcom Reba.
"(McEntire) is somehow connecting at another level beyond music that gives her a celebrity that is part of the mix for iconic status," Orr says.
Harris doesn't have a TV show, but she's featured prominently in the upcoming Neil Young concert film, Heart of Gold. She has taken a different route to her lofty perch by avoiding the Nashville marketing machine and focusing on music, which has cost her record sales but not the respect of fellow musicians. In recording a distinctive mix of folk, bluegrass, country and rock with artists as varied as Gram Parsons, Dave Matthews, Young and Parton, Harris has gone her own way.
"Legends are people who take some risks," says Aaron Walton of entertainment-marketing firm Walton-Isaacson in Los Angeles "Whether it's an actor or a music artist, they are willing to stretch and make us stretch with them."
On the horizon
What do the older standouts and younger guns have to do to attain legendary status?
Personality, attitude and an ability to connect with fans will help separate the legends from lesser stars, says country fan Tami Botta, 43, of Chandler. She predicts Brooks & Dunn, Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney will have staying power.
"They don't consider themselves larger than life. They consider themselves one of the normal people," Botta says.
Even though their celebrity and wealth make them far from normal, a performer's honest delivery is crucial.
When Jones sings a song, he says, "I get into the mood of the person that this could be happening to. And if it's happened to enough people, then it's going to be a hit for you."
Few younger stars grew up dirt poor like Jones and other legends, but a colorful life story still grabs attention, as Hank Williams III can attest.
Superstar Toby Keith worked the oil fields of Oklahoma and played semipro football before becoming the latest face of country's patriotism with the such songs as Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).
Redneck party girl Wilson, who has won Grammy awards for her first two albums, dropped out of school in eighth grade and tended bar before she landed a record contract.
Jennings was born to a pair of Nashville stars but cut his teeth in a California metal band. He now writes country-rock songs about doing drugs and partying with wild women, among other topics.
"If you have a compelling personal story, that helps," Orr says. "If people find you fascinating for your past, they'll be drawn to you."
More than marketing
Today's stars depend on sophisticated marketing machines to get their image and message to a wider audience.
Keith creeps further into America's consciousness as the "Ford truck man," while McEntire is just as apt to appear on the cover of Good Housekeeping as Country Music Weekly. But no amount of hype will turn a singer into a legend without outstanding music and a distinctive sound, Walton says."Look at musicians who are legendary, like Barbra Streisand or Bruce Springsteen," he says. "They started with real, honest, passionate talent that you couldn't manufacture."
Jones points to Garth Brooks, who brought flashy rock staging to country shows, as a superstar who may never be an icon because his music sometimes seems secondary.
"I don't go in for all this hype stuff," Jones says. "I don't believe that it takes that if you've got what it takes yourself. It's not real."
Lower-profile players, including Krauss, Stuart and Brad Paisley, who emphasize music and skip the fireworks, are given a better shot at becoming icons.
"Just forget about all that (marketing and celebrity) **** and come into it because you love it." Jones says. "And if you don't love it, get the hell out, because it's not going to do you any good."
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