The Past Is Never Past: How Country Music Remembers

George Strait

Each year brings a slew of rock 'n' roll reissues or tributes, celebrating the anniversary of landmark albums from the past. Country music, however, tends to view its past differently.

Trying to learn from what’s behind you / and never knowing what’s in store.”

-- Garth Brooks, “The River”

Each year brings a slew of rock 'n' roll reissues or tributes, celebrating the anniversary of landmark albums from the past. With its singles-and-stars focus, country music as a genre is less concerned with celebrating classic albums on their birthdays. When it happens, it’s generally with albums that the rock/pop industry and experts (Rolling Stone, for example), have canonized as relevant beyond the genre: the 40th anniversary of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, for example, or the 25th anniversary of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger.

When it does come from the country-music industry, it’s a country tribute to a star, like the 2009 George Strait tribute TV special, where other stars honored his legacy. The focus isn’t on particular albums, but on the artist having a body of hit songs. For example, a 2010 press release proclaimed, “Superstar Alan Jackson is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his debut album with the release of 34 Number Ones, a career-spanning double-disc collection.” Legendary status in country is about how many hit songs you’ve had, how much you’ve built up your name as a brand that can be trusted to deliver.

Albums are still the most common carriers of songs, even in our download era. Country fans are still likely to think of them that way, to have certain albums that mean more to them than others, albums that represent landmark moments in their minds. Country audiences listen to the radio and to greatest-hits collections, but not only to them. If country music did pay tribute to albums, which significant anniversaries would be celebrated in 2011? What albums of the past, with milestone birthdays this year, are most present, by influence, in country music today? What relevance do these albums have to the country music of today?

In 1981, 30 years ago, Strait Country, George Strait’s debut album, was released. It began the reign of the musician who has had more #1 hit singles than anyone else, in any genre. Listening to it now, it becomes clear how big a role consistency has played in that success. The musical difference between what Strait did then, what he’s doing now, and what he’s done in between is in some ways negligible. Most of the songs are co-written by Dean Dillon, someone Strait consistently works with to this day.

Album: Strait Country

Artist: George Strait

Image: Country put an upbeat face on the old heartbreak-song template, with sentimentality but also no-nonsense qualities, rooted all the while in the fiddle-and-steel guitar sound, with touches of Western swing and the persistent presence of his native Texas. The characters in the songs are honky-tonk barmaids, couples fighting (and doing more damage to themselves than they realize), drunks drinking away the memory of someone, separated lovers getting along separately, or not. This approach is exactly what Strait has ridden to the top of charts time and again since.

That ride is one of the big stories in country music over the past few decades. His success has affected the posture of other male country stars since. Look at the way country fans, and media, breathlessly ate up Easton Corbin’s vocal similarity to Strait in 2010. Today, Strait is treated as a holy figure in a way, his gift the ability to wave his arms and push a few songs up the charts, every few years. Strait Country is a reminder that it all started somewhere, even though the consistency of approach it represents is almost eerie.

Five years later, 25 years ago, marked the debut album by another male singer categorized as a “traditionalist”: Randy Travis. With two number #1 hits, the multi-platinum Storms of Life seems very representative of the year in country music 1986, but holds too as an example of country singers carrying on the tradition of singing sad songs about existential crises. He’s stuck between two women, or between what he’s done and the consequences of it. He can sing about these crises sullenly, or as sprightly swing numbers, like “My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)”. There’s a stoic, serious quality to his singing – dare I call it gravitas? – that is largely absent from the country singers of today, even as the themes he’s singing about remain.

Album: Storms of Life

Artist: Randy Travis

Image: of the #1 hits, “On the Other Hand”, lends a vivid image to the age-old question of infidelity, that of a man looking at a hand on his mistress and the ring “on the other hand”. It was recorded first by Keith Whitley, who was halfway through his short career in 1986, though he didn’t release it as a single. (If Jamey Johnson’s version of Whitley’s essentially unreleased song “Lonely at the Top” didn’t spark a Whitley resurgence in 2010, the 2011 anniversary of a song Travis had more of a hit with probably won’t either. Perhaps it’ll come in 2014, the 25th anniversary of his death.)

Travis isn’t as omnipresent now as he was in the ‘80s, though he’s still making albums occasionally, and they’re mostly still produced by Kyle Lehning, who produced Storms of Life. More present on radio these days is Reba McEntire, for whom 1986 also was significant. McEntire released her first #1 album that year, Whoever’s in New England, and followed it up later in the year with another #1 album, What Am I Gonna Do About You.

Album: Whoever’s in New England

Artist: Reba McEntire

Image: to 2010, and she’s still prominent on the charts. She had both the first #1 country single of 2010 (“Consider Me Gone”, from her 2009 album Keep On Loving You) and the final #1 single of 2010 (“Turn On the Radio”, from 2010’s All the Women I Am). If these past couple years seemed like yet another upward surge in McEntire’s 35-year career, the 1986 albums may have seemed that way, too. There were the 10th and 11th studio albums of a career that began in 1976. The 1986 and the 2009-2010 albums both have sounds representative of their eras, the former tinged with soft-pop balladry and the latter marked by the current trends towards incorporating ‘80s arena pop-rock anthem-ry.

Yet all four albums showcase McEntire’s charisma and the versatility of her voice, and all have songs navigating the classic country themes of heartbreak and betrayal, of lovers’ fidelity and lack thereof. The lines of connection between her songs of 25 years ago and of now are not nearly as tenuous as it seems on the surface. Her discography in its own way seems as consistent in tone as Strait’s, though its way more varied in style and sound.

Less present on current country charts, but still omnipresent in the current sound of country music, is Garth Brooks, who released his third album Ropin' the Wind in 1991, 20 years ago. Brooks is currently riding a wave of past-hits celebration through shows in Las Vegas and occasionally elsewhere. Twenty years ago he had his first big crossover moment, when Ropin' the Wind debuted at #1 on both the country albums chart and the overall Billboard albums chart.

Album: Ropin' the Wind

Artist: Garth Brooks

Image: defiance in the opening song, "Against the Grain", is less about Brooks as a rebel figure, more about pushing his big, boisterous sound out to music audiences. It's a crossover album that's much more rooted in cowboy culture than the crossover acts of today (Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Taylor Swift). He sings about rodeos, wagon trains, and solitary men following the lonely path they feel that they have to. Ropin’ the Wind is also a crossover album more interested in the tough lives of the working poor. Put Lady Antebellum's glitzy "Stars Tonight", for example, next to Brooks' songs about families fighting each other through life ("We Bury the Hatchet", "Papa Loved Mama"), and the difference seems huge. Yet like those groups of today, Brooks, too, built his sound on influences outside of country. Ropin' the Wind is where he put his love for pop singer-songwriters of the '70s and '80s out in the open, by covering Billy Joel's "Shameless". Of all of these pieces of the past, that moment might be the one most relevant to today's country music.

The anniversary that we’re likely to hear the most about from country singers, or at least from country DJs, in 2011, doesn’t have much to do with George, Randy, Reba, or Garth, or with music at all. 2011 will bring the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. Time will tell whether country music will "remember" by revisiting the reaction songs released in the wake of the attacks -- unfortunately, Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" might be a more likely candidate than Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” -- or by writing new memorial songs.

Or instead of memorial songs, will it be songs of war and revenge that take center stage, furthering the still-common lie that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are continued acts of retaliation against the enemy that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks? However it's used or manipulated, our collective memory of 9/11 has a power stronger than any of these other memories. A question for 2011 is, How will we remember, or be encouraged to remember? Is the memory of 9/11 more likely to be used for commercial purposes in 2011 than any of our musical memories?

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