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.
(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.)