Worth Reading: A Modern Country Music History, Part Two: They Don’t Have Cash and They Don’t Sound Haggard (1996-2005)

Country Universe writer and founder of The Musical Divide Zack Kephart continues his deep dive into the history of Modern Country Music:

Historians argue it was around this time that, because of well-scrubbed performances and radio consolidation, the genre suffered from “sound-alike syndrome.” Indeed, country album sales declined about 20 percent in 1996. The women of country music hadn’t received the memo about the genre’s demise, though. Between 1994 and 1997, album sales by female country artists more than doubled. In 1998, 52 percent of Billboard number-one country hits were performed by women. In 1995, country music women began performing together in package shows, starting with Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, and Carlene Carter. Then Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Kim Richey. Lacy J. Dalton, Juice Newtown and Janie Fricke, too, as “Ladies of the ‘80s,” a nod to K.T. Oslin’s breakthrough hit, “’80s Ladies.” Martina McBride even spearheaded a Girls Night Out country tour in 2001 with Reba McEntire, Jamie O’ Neal, Sara Evans, and Carolyn Dawn Johnson. By far the biggest female success story, though, was Shania Twain, as well another one of her contemporaries who received the same criticisms she did as her star rose.

Women shine in this section, until they don’t.   Many of my favorite years are included in this section, but the ending will always bum me out.

But what doesn’t bum me out is Zack’s excellent writing.  Head on over and enjoy Part Two!


  1. This is such a great read! Again, very well written, and it’s probably the first time I’ve read an article that goes into such detail for a period that often seems overlooked in country music’s history. I especially love the variety of artists you spotlighted here, along with focusing on the resurgence in popularity for bluegrass due to Oh Brother. Also love that you gave a nod to AJ’s accomplishments during this era, especially the whole Pop A Top/Choices incident.

    As much as I really like this period in country due to nostalgia, the major success of female artists, and a still fairly healthy balance on the radio between contemporary and traditional, this article was also a sad reminder of the many things that occurred in the era that would have such a negative impact on the genre that would lead to where we are now (Telecommunications Act, auto-tune, TNN going away, banning of The Chicks, women eventually getting played less, etc.). I knew The Chicks were treated horribly, but this article really goes into detail just how bad it was. It is indeed a real embarrassment to the genre to this day, and the loss of many more successful years for the band still really stings today.

    Once again, very well done!

    • Thank you, Jamie! This one was tricky to pull together, mostly because, as you said, there’s just not a lot out there on it. Most books usually stop around 2000, but it’s really more like 1995-ish (I mean, I only found one good source for information on Shania Twain. Shania freakin’ Twain!). And if they do delve into the 2000s, it’s usually just to discuss the Chicks in a fairly safe manner.

      I hear you on the nostalgia aspects. I started listening to country in 2007 and didn’t even know about the Chicks or the incident until years later. Musically, I have a soft spot for the era, but part 2 is probably the last “good” era. Things get dark in parts 3 and especially in 4, haha.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks to you, Kevin, for spotlighting it again!

  2. Reading Part 2 of what I gather will be such an exhaustive study about the recent history of country music, I am put right back in mind of just how great a twelve-year period, from 1991 to 2003, it was for the womenfolk in the genre, including Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride, to name just two. It is difficult to think that this all came crashing down the way it did because that quote of Natalie’s, taken so deliberately out of context, was so incendiary and the reaction it spawned only helped to resurrect the notion that country music was a reactionary, politically right-wing (but not necessarily truly patriotic) genre. Not since John Lennon’s infamous (and also taken out of context) claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus had something a musician said had the ability to get people up in arms like that.

    But this also points out just how much of a corporate business country music had become by then. And in the opinion of Linda Ronstadt, to whom the 1990’s female country music explosion owes quite a lot, it pretty much started when the Grand Ole Opry moved out of the Ryman in 1974: the path from country music being about a way of life, to a lifestyle choice, then to an industry (in the late 1980’s), and to the arguably cold-blooded business that it is now.

    Parts 3 and 4 of this study, however dark they might get, should be quite enlightening.

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