Thursday, June 28, 2007

Not all '90s Nashville country sucked
Welcome to the debut installment of a new Back With Interest feature, Not All '90s Nashville Country Sucked. I'll be sharing some of my favorite tracks from a time when many music lovers wrote off the Music City and its wares -- and, indeed, started a genre in response, alternative country. (It was about the third or fourth time a country genre has been founded in response to what was coming out of Nashville's mainstream.)

I came of age in Nashville in the 1980s, and at the beginning of that decade country music was having one its recurring commercial peaks, thanks to the crossover success of artists like Kenny Rogers, plus the national boot- and hat-wearing fad inspired by the film Urban Cowboy. As things quieted down, though, it seemed to me that Nashville music was coming to be dominated as never before by thoughtful singer-songwriters like Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, Hal Ketchum and Suzy Bogguss, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. Which was a good thing. Yay thoughtful singer-songwriters!

Enter Garth. After Garth Brooks' eponymous 1989 debut and, especially, his 1990 sophomore effort No Fences, Nashville music changed. Thereafter country stars melded soft-rock arrangements and arena-rock histrionics, and often the only thing identifying the artists as country was their cowboy hats. It was, for fans of traditional country music, a grim time, and in many ways it is still with us.

I've performed what I guess you would call alternative country for many years, and I can't tell you how many times a sneering audience member has come to me during a break to specifically decry Garth Brooks (as well as Shania Twain, about whom I'll have more to say later). And I sympathize. Anyone who loved Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson was perfectly justified in being depressed by the state of Nashville country in the 1990s.

But I never have forgotten the fact that Garth Brooks actually recorded some very fine country songs, which is one reason he was so successful. His knack for authentic-sounding twang secured him an audience of traditional country fans, even as his ass-shaking antics broke new demographic ground for Nashville.

Yes, Garth put out some good tunes, and so did other '90s Nashville artists. You just have to know where to look.

Thus I give you the Garth Brooks song that made me pull the car over the first time I heard it, back in 1990. It's the #1 hit "Friends in Low Places," penned by Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Budd Lee. This is simply terrific country music, what with the snappy hook, the crisp internal rhymes, the wailing pedal steel, the smirking class politics. You can often tell a great tune from its great opening line, and this one's a classic: "Blame it all on my roots: I showed up in boots."

Side note: I believe this is the song that bequeathed us the now-ubiquitous Nashville trope of the boozy sing-along choir (cf. Brad Paisley, "I'm Gonna Miss Her"; Gretchen Wilson, "Redneck Woman"). Correct me if I'm wrong.

Garth Brooks - Friends in Low Places

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