High Flying: Pop Goes Country

I wasn’t listening to Garth Brooks in 1991, but millions of people were. In 1990 and 1991, when he released his multiplatinum second and third albums, he became the dominant face and voice of country music. No Fences, his bestselling album overall, was released in August of 1990 and was still ubiquitous in 1991, with two of its four #1 country singles released in ’91, including the epic domestic drama “The Thunder Rolls”. In September of ’91, while I was buying Nirvana and A Tribe Called Quest albums, his follow-up, Ropin’ the Wind , debuted at #1 on both the country and overall Billboard album charts, and stayed there for a while. Its 1991 #1 single “Shameless”, a Billy Joel cover, seems especially representative of the direction country would take in the wake of Brooks: taking cues from ’70s and ’80s pop songwriting and, eventually, musical styles. Ultimately, the specificity of his songs, the way they rooted themselves in working-class rural life, and how strongly they tapped into the American psyche — the minds and hearts of those who felt their families were dysfunctional, and felt pride that they were surviving in the face of a deck stacked against them — haven’t been the biggest mark he left on the country artists he influenced, not as much as his stature as a superstar. Think of Brooks “flying” over the crowd, an indelible ’90s image, and you have the precursor to the many country stadium and arena tours that come through each major American city throughout the year, especially as record sales decline and artists come to see touring as their bread and butter. It’s easy to see Brooks as the country superstar most artists in the genre dream of being.

Brooks’ rise was such that he became an inescapable part of pop culture. You couldn’t completely ignore him, even if, like me, your mind was focused elsewhere on hip hop and alternative. I vividly remember how foreign his appeal was to me, when I watched his TV concert special with a Brooks-loving friend in 1992. The same goes for the other big commercial country hits of 1991, like Alan Jackson’s #1 single “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”. It was a big year for Jackson, his second album being a major success that cemented his status as a significant star. It was a big year, too, for Brooks & Dunn, whose debut album Brand New Man was released (though its single “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” wouldn’t become obnoxiously ubiquitous until 1992). Just looking at the names, the big stars of 1991, besides Brooks and a few others (Travis Tritt, Ricky Van Shelton), are mostly still prominent, or at least present, in the genre in 2011: Reba McEntire, George Strait, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis. From that perspective, 1991 seems like a successful but not landmark year for a lot of country legends whose careers have extended well beyond it — and before it — while at the same time it was an especially significant year for others whose stars grew significantly brighter. Above all, it was a significant, even historic year, for the genre as a whole, giving a strong indication of the direction it would take from then on to now. With the introduction of SoundScan bringing back surprisingly high sales numbers for country (and for hip-hop), it was also a year that the popularity of country among non-“country” audiences — middle-class suburbia — became especially evident. Brooks was the dominant face of that growth.

Meanwhile, those of us who felt we were too cool for Brooks and the like, were still paying more attention to country in some form, but to hipper goings-on, like Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s After Awhile album, which, along with the Flatlanders’ 1990 compilation More a Legend than a Band , introduced some of us Rolling Stone and Spin-reading teenagers to legends of Texas music; it was not just them, but by extension Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and a host of other songwriters. Closer to my hometown of St Louis, the Belleville, Illinois group Uncle Tupelo recorded and released its second album Still Feel Gone, polishing its Carter Family-meets-Minutemen sound into something closer to power-pop, a significant step in the progression of the “alt-country” sound that so many No Depression-reading youth would devote their attention to over the next decade or so.

Looking at 1991 from 2011, you can see the degree to which two supposedly competing strains of country music were shaped around the same time. Listening back, the gap between Alan Jackson and Uncle Tupelo doesn’t seem as huge as it did at the time (though Uncle Tupelo’s hearts were ready for the Stones, neither sounded like Billy Joel fans), or as it does now between fans of the hipper young country-ish bands and the most mainstream country radio bands. Even with the everything-now listening habits of the MP3 generation, the cultural and “coolness” gaps between those strains of country music seem to have only widened, as both of those genres have developed in some ways and seriously stagnated in others. If a Garth Brooks song sounded like a UFO to an Uncle Tupelo fan in 1991, I can only imagine a Jason Aldean song sounds as least as much like one to a fan of Drive-By Truckers or whichever even younger band the 2011 version of a No Depression-reading alt-country fan is digging, even in the moments when musically they’re not that far apart.