The country music sales charts have a different look these days. So do the playlists at country radio stations.
They include a rising prevalence of women. More specifically, young women. Even more specifically, young blond women, including several whose music careers got a jump-start in reality television: Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Nettles (of Sugarland), Kellie Pickler, Kristy Lee Cook, Whitney Duncan, Hillary Scott (of Lady Antebellum), Heidi Newfield (formerly of Trick Pony).
Golden hair and golden throats are feminizing the country music scene
Wednesday night, country music airs its most prestigious gala, the Country Music Association Awards, and you won’t have to wait long to see one of these princesses of country. Several are up for awards, and several will perform, including Swift, Lambert, Nettles, Scott and Underwood, who will co-host the show with Brad Paisley.
Before the show even starts, you can catch another rising star in the same category. Julianne Hough, best known as a professional dancer on “Dancing With the Stars,” will co-host the red-carpet gala 30 minutes before showtime outside Nashville’s Sommet Center.
This year Hough released a self-titled album and jumped aboard the Paisley arena tour as an opening act.
Is this eruption of the young, blond and pretty in country music a fad, a trend or just an odd coincidence?
“It reminds me of that period in the late 1990s when Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore and Willa Ford all broke out at once in pop music,” said Kurt Patat, country music editor atmusic.aol.com. “I guess now it’s country music’s turn.”
Mike Kennedy, program director and on-air personality at country radio station Q104 (104.3-FM) in Kansas City, said there is something more substantive to this surge than mere appearance. Good looks alone won’t cut it in country music.
“I think the ones you can count on being around for a long time - Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Jennifer Nettles - they have what’s required: the talent and the material,” he said.
Patat agrees: “The songs have to hold up. Country is much more driven by radio than by TV. You can’t be just a pretty face.”
Proof of that are artists like Lambert, who plays guitar and writes her own material, most of it about her south Texas upbringing.
“That’s a country girl with talent,” said TJ McEntire, the weekday afternoon host at Q104. “She writes killer songs, and it’s no act. She’s genuine. I know she was on ‘Nashville Star’ first, but she built her career the old-fashioned way: slowly. She went out and did radio, met fans and built her audience. The same with Jennifer Nettles.”
Nettles is half of the boy-girl duo Sugarland, one of the biggest acts in country music. Sugarland’s career got a boost in 2006 when Nettles sang a duet with Jon Bon Jovi, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” That single accelerated her career, bringing in some crossover rock fans, but success for her and Sugarland seemed inevitable with or without that song.
“You could tell from the beginning they were going big places,” McEntire said. “Since they started out, they have been about the music.”
His duet with Nettles, however, prompted Bon Jovi’s band to release its first ever country-rock album, “Lost Highway,” featuring guest appearances by LeAnn Rimes and Big & Rich. Such carpet bagging has become more common in country music these days, and the list of genre-switchers includes at least two young women who have hit the country charts recently.
One is Jewel, the former folkie who released her first country album this year, “Perfectly Clear.” She followed that by enlisting as a support act on this summer’s Paisley tour.
The other country crossover is Simpson, the former pop singer, reality-TV star and tabloid regular. This year she released “Do You Know,” a modern-country album. Simpson gets writing credits on every song, except the cover of Dolly Parton’s “Do You Know.” Skeptics ought to know that it’s a legitimate, respectable country album.
“I’ll admit: I didn’t want to like it,” McEntire said. “But it’s good. A lot of these songs speak to women. The new single is about domestic violence. Anyone who likes country music ought to give it a shot.”
Simpson is one of several women who came to country music with a certain amount of fame behind them, thanks to TV or movies. Her role as Daisy Duke in the “Dukes of Hazzard” film no doubt helped grease her transition into country music. So did her contributions to the film’s soundtrack, which put her in the company of Willie Nelson, Montgomery Gentry, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels. (Dating a bona-fide Dallas Cowboy doesn’t hurt either.)
Several others had some fame and popularity in their accounts when they broke into country, thanks to reality shows such as “American Idol” and “Nashville Star.” Or in Hough’s case, “Dancing With the Stars.”
Pickler epitomizes someone who parlayed fame on reality TV into music stardom. She finished an inglorious sixth on Season 5 of “American Idol” but has become that season’s second most-successful recording artist, behind Chris Daughtry. At least four others have done the same - launched a music career outside the TV show that made them famous.
Underwood, by far, is the most successful of those. In less than four years she has catapulted herself from “Idol” champ to one of the best-selling artists in all of music. And she’s only 25.
The others: Lambert, who finished second on “Nashville Star” in 2003; Whitney Duncan, who finished fifth on “Nashville Star” in 2007; and Kristy Lee Cook, who finished seventh on “Idol” this year. Cook recently released the ironically titled “15 Minutes of Fame,” the first single off her brand-new album, “Why Wait.”
The song is “getting some traction” on country radio, Q104’s Kennedy said.
“Things could work out for her,” he said. “Getting all that exposure on ‘Idol’ helps for sure. But her country ties are genuine. She has those real barrel-racing roots.”
Of all the young ladies on the country charts, none (except Underwood) has the vast commercial potential of the youngest, Taylor Swift. Only 18, she has already accumulated an impressive passel of awards and honors, including a CMA Horizon Award, its version of rookie-of-the-year.
Her debut album, “Taylor Swift,” is headed toward 4 million in sales; and 105 weeks after its release, it remains in the top 40 on the Billboard 200 chart.
A large part of her huge success is due to her vast crossover appeal. She has six Top 10 singles in country; four of them have also landed in the Top 25 on the pop charts.
Unlike other teen pop stars, like Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus, Swift has managed to appeal to teens without forging an adolescent made-for-TV identity that she would eventually have to shed, ignore and forget. That explains why adults like her and her music, too.
“I was in Rhode Island visiting a friend, and that song ‘Teardrops on My Guitar’ came on the radio,” Patat said. “My friend turned it up and started singing along. He’s not necessarily a country fan, but he likes the song.”
“Her label moves quicker to crossover to pop than most labels,” Kennedy said. “Her latest single was on our station for 10 weeks when they took it to pop radio. That’s fast.”
“She is a teen icon, not just in country music but with teens in general,” McEntire said. “She writes her own music, she has her own line of clothing.”
McEntire said this infusion of young female talent is as much the consequence of a shift in country radio as it is about what these ladies look like and how they are presented in videos, on TV and anywhere else.
“On country radio today, you can still hear songs by good old boys singing about drinking and their trucks,” she said, “but there’s also room for an 18-year-old who’s as pop as Miley Cyrus.”
Talent and songs are vital, but whether you’re male or female, a good presentation doesn’t hurt either. To celebrate her 41st birthday, country superstar Faith Hill recently posed in a bikini for the cover of Shape magazine. Consider it a reminder to her younger colleagues that she is still in the game.
“She’s a great role model for anyone,” McEntire said. “She’s happily married with three kids, and she does all this charity work, and she still manages to do Pilates and look like that. I say ‘You go, girl.’ “
Rock and pop stars are among those who have found a new country home:
The Eagles: They have always lived along the country-rock border, especially early in their careers. But their most recent album, “Long Road Out of Eden,” was pushed hard and directly to country radio with great success. The video for “How Long” was named “Wide Open Country Video of the Year” at this year’s CMT Music Video Awards. The band was named country music vocal group of the year by the Academy of Country Music, and they are nominees for vocal group of the year at Wednesday’s Country Music Association’s award show. The band also will perform on the show.
Robert Plant: His most famous band, Led Zeppelin, tinkered with mystic-country sounds, but last year Plant navigated the transition to Americana and country blues. His collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and Alison Krauss produced one of the best albums of 2007, “Raising Sand,” and one of the best tours of 2008.
Darius Rucker: The lead singer for Hootie & the Blowfish signed to Capitol Records Nashville. This summer he released a country album, “Learn to Live,” which contained the single “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” That song hit No. 1 on the country singles charts in September, making Rucker the first African-American solo artist to top the country singles charts since Charlie Pride in 1983 (for “Night Games”).
Bon Jovi: In 2006 the New Jersey rock band had a country hit, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” a duet with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. In 2007 Bon Jovi went to Nashville to record “Lost Highway,” a country-rock record that featured duets and collaborations with country stars LeAnn Rimes and Big & Rich.
Sheryl Crow: She has worked closely with several country artists, including the Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn. She has also put two singles in the top 40 of the country singles charts: “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” her country remake of the Cat Stevens song; and “Picture,” her duet with Kid Rock.
Kid Rock: Even before his blockbuster “All Summer Long” became a staple, Rock had staked out a corner in country music. He has put three songs in the top 50 of the country singles chart: “Summer,” which reached No. 4 this year; “Pictures,” his duet with Crow, which reached No. 21 in 2002; and “Single Father,” which reached No. 50 in 2003. And his “CMT Crossroads” episode with his longtime friend Hank Williams Jr. drew a record 2.1 million viewers to the country music network.
Kelly Clarkson: When her own solo tour tanked, she teamed up with country queen Reba McEntire for the Kelly Reba tour, filling arenas with rock fans who like country (and vice versa).
The Country Music Association Awards Show airs from 8 to 11 p.m. EDT Wednesday on ABC.