Pop Cowboys

I have a half-baked theory that a recurring upsurge in the popularity of country music in the United States is a reaction to the increased weirdness of mainstream pop music.

Country’s first major inroad to the pop charts came around 1970. My theory is that the weirdest aspects of the counterculture got just mainstream enough by that time to cause pop fans (and pop radio) to go looking for something straighter—and so records ranging from Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” and Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” to Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” got pop airplay and sold to pop record buyers. This music was a softer country sound, with more strings and whispery backup singers and less twangy guitar and yodel-y vocals. This “countrypolitan” style had begun to dominate the country field in the early 60s, although it took a few years for it to gain full-fledged pop appeal. By the late 60s, it was everywhere, particularly on TV.  This was the era of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Johnny Cash Show, and Hee Haw, remember—although you could argue that it was country on TV that spurred the music’s higher pop profile and not the other way around. The variety of country acts that hit the pop singles chart in this period was impressive, not just Cash, Anderson, and Pride, but the Statler Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Conway Twitty, too. And Freddie Hart, who’s largely forgotten now even by country fans, but who scored a string of monster country hits in the early 70s, and whose “Easy Loving” made the pop Top 20 near the end of 1971.

Country’s second surge came in the late 70s with the rise to pop stardom of country singers like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and the soundtrack of the movie Urban Cowboy, which seemed to me like a pushback against the popularity of disco. This sort of country twanged even less than countrypolitan had. Radio formats were becoming more rigid by the late 70s, so the crossover potential was less, but Rogers especially found a way, as did Anne Murray. Nearly all of the songs on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack got airplay on various formats (Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love” was the biggest hit, going Number One country and Number Five pop), and less than a year later, Parton and Eddie Rabbitt would score back-to-back Number One singles on the pop chart with “9 to 5” and “I Love a Rainy Night.”

The third surge came at the end of the 80s, although this one seems qualitatively different, because two distinct strains gained popularity at the same time—a traditional sound epitomized by Randy Travis, and the rock-oriented sound of Garth Brooks. In Brooks’ case, there’s a plausible argument that “country” was more marketing term than stylistic label. His vocals had a country honk, but his arrangements were pure rock and roll. Brooks’ style—which was perfected by Shania Twain and her husband/producer Mutt Lange, who had produced the likes of AC/DC and Foreigner—went on to conquer contemporary country entirely. (Turn on your local mainstream country station today and it’ll sound a lot like a Top 40 station of 20 or 25 years ago, minus the synth-pop and the R&B.) But by the time of Brooks’ rise, radio formats were not so much rigid as they were segregated—Brooks was never going to get on Top 40 radio no matter what—but better accounting of record sales meant that country albums would ride the pop charts in unprecedented fashion, often debuting at Number One like the latest rock or hip-hop rages frequently did, and they still do.

Today, the slivering of the radio audience over the last 20 years makes the very concept of a “mainstream” seem rather quaint, so I’m not expecting this pattern of pop weirdness and country pushback to continue—if it ever really existed in the first place. Like I said, my theory’s half-baked. If you think it’s unbaked, or you have some ideas for baking it further, head for the comments and tell me. I won’t be offended. I wrote this post mostly for an excuse to put up “Easy Loving” anyhow.

“Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart (buy it here)
“Lookin’ for Love”/Johnny Lee (buy it here)

(Due to a week that has been crazed, my regular posting schedule has been pretty much FUBAR’d. There’ll be a bonus post here on Sunday, and come next week, I hope to get back to whatever passes for normal around these parts.)

7 thoughts on “Pop Cowboys

  1. Yah Shure

    During the ’80s, at least, there was always a strong rock undercurrent at country shows. When Alabama would slip in a cover of “Takin’ Care Of Business” and John Anderson sang “Under My Thumb,” you knew ‘twarn’t all hats and boots. And the country audiences knew those songs.

    Segregated, indeed. It’s as easy now NOT to ever hear the #1 country hit as it is to NOT ever hear the #1 pop hit.

  2. Very good post indeed. Of course, one might argue that Elvis was a country singer — much as he drew influences from R&B, he was managed by Hank Snow’s manager, appeared on the Opry and regularly on the Louisiana Hayride, and was as much influenced by the Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams and Snow as he was by Arthur Crudup or Wynonnie Harris.

    Interesting that two of the three early-70s hits you mention were vastly inferior versions of those made by their writers (Rose Garden, Help Me Make It…)

    And Yah Shure makes an excellent point in the final para. Much as I love country, the current crop of mainstream is just as corporate as the current crop of “R&B” and hip hop merchants. Though I do like Tim McGraw, for my sins. The sub-culture of current country — Merrit and Lambert and their likes — is quite wonderful.

  3. jb

    On further review (more cooking of the half-baked theory), there’s a plausible argument that the late 80s boom was also sparked in part by people who grew up on the country rock of the 70s–kids who listened to Skynryd, for example. Garth Brooks was one, Travis Tritt was another. But since country rock as a genre was dead by then, their record labels had little choice but to position them as country acts.

  4. I listen to a fair amount of Brooks & Dunn, and I’ve commented from time to time that they often sound – instrumentally, at least – like the Rolling Stones ca. 1972 with an occasional fiddle added to the mix.

  5. Steb3

    I agree that the definition between pop and country has narrowed. How, for example, is Taylor Swift considered country? I believe it really is in the marketing and where they want to position it. Of course it has to have some of the characteristics of the genre but it is all in where the record company wants it placed. What do you consider the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss Raising Sand album? Could be pop, country, rythym and blues, rock, country rock. Some music is just hard to define.

  6. JP

    actually, there was a country-crossover era that was earlier than 1970…the pop charts in the late fifties and early sixties were loaded down with country records: Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean, Stonewall Jackson (“Waterloo”), Claude King (“Wolverton Mountain”), Webb Pierce (“I Ain’t Never”), Dave Dudley (“Six Days On The Road”).

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