September 12, 2011
But the fact is that country music was changed as well. Here are the four biggest ways that it did, for better and for worse.
1. Alan Jackson Becomes a Legend
He was still getting solid radio airplay and record sales in 2001, but it seemed like his glory days were behind him. Then, he stepped on to the CMA Awards stage and debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to a stunned industry crowd on national television.
It was the perfect song by the perfect artist at the perfect time, and it launched an amazing return to the head of the pack. The commercial success was great, but it’s worth noting that “Where Were You” served notice that he was undergoing an artistic renaissance as well. The big hits that followed – “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” and “Remember When” – were the best of his career. Heck, of anybody’s career.
On the same night that Jackson performed his instant classic, Toby Keith just sang his latest hit, the novelty number “I Wanna Talk About Me.” But the following spring, he came out with the next quintessential post-9/11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
While it didn’t lead to nearly the same level of artistic growth that Jackson experienced, it did launch Keith into the rarefied air of country superstardom. For most of the next decade, he’d be an instant add at radio. And if some of those hits made us wince, it was still great to see the finest male vocalist of his generation get his due. For those of us who thought that he was robbed at radio and industry award shows in the nineties, it was rewarding to see him have his day.
National unity began to fade in the run up to our invasion of Iraq, and country radio picked a side, much to the detriment of the format. The shamelessly jingoistic “Have You Forgotten?” became a seven week #1 for Darryl Worley, while a criticism of President Bush wiped the Dixie Chicks off of the radio dial.
The upshot? Country radio sent the message that if you weren’t on board with the Bush Administration, you better keep your mouth shut. Then again, with Worley’s career fading soon after “Have You Forgotten?”, opening it was no guarantee for long-term success, either.
This was the worst of it. Country record sales exploded in 2002, and the industry credited it to traditionalists Jackson and Keith. Radio drew the conclusion that listeners didn’t want any more pop-flavored country, despite the fact that two of the biggest selling albums of the year were by Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
Both ladies struggled at radio with their top-selling projects, and the careers of Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy nearly ended. Even ten years later, with the top-selling artists being Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, most female artists are still struggling to get radio play.