There have been rumors of an acoustic music resurgence in this country for some time now and I'm here to confirm some of those rumors. There is a seemingly endless number of great singer-writers not only in Nashville but in Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other music centers around the U.S. Some of them have been signed to recording contracts and some are still "waiting their turn," as a song plugger acquaintance of mine once put it. Personally I don't believe in the "waiting your turn" philosophy. I believe you have to make" enough noise on your own to attract someone's attention.
Be that as it may, people like Beth Nielsen Chapman, Lyle Lovett, the up-and-coming Don Henry and a shining example, Tracy Chapman's 1988 hit "Fast Car" was the biggest breath of fresh air since Bruce Hornsby's 1986 debut, "The Way It Is." Before that, you'd probably have to go back to the late '70s.
By "acoustic" music I mean folk, blues, bluegrass, (some country-tinged), Latin, Celtic, jazz and all the other ethnic roots of folk. All of these, of course, have produced hybrids. All of the above mentioned artists have two or more of these influences in their music. When I use the word "country," I don't mean the imitators of imitators who are passing for country acts in some cases these days. I mean real country music.
These forms and mixtures of these forms, which seem to have been wiped from the face of mainstream radio since the late seventies, have never really been away. They've simply won back the audiences who were dying from lack of substance in their music, namely the babyboomer generation and their children who have been made aware of the sources of the music they've been listening to.
Thus we have a movement which is, hopefully, just beginning. It can be heard on country radio in the music of the multimillion selling Garth Brooks, who is a perfect example of great pop marketing with a country act. Other country artists such as Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea are both right out of the folk genre. Even Billy Dean, whose folky ballad "Somewhere In My Broken Heart"just crossed over from a No. 1 country hit to climbing the adult contemporary charts. Time magazine in its August 12 issue, contained a feature article on "The New Troubadours," highlighting some singersongwriters who have been around awhile (Richard Thompson and Irishman Paul Brady) as well as some new blood (Chris Whitely, Will T. Massey, Peter Himmelman and James McMurtry). McMurtry recently appeared at the Rudyard Kipling to a sold-out crowd. The write-up threw around names like the Eagles, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Karla Bonoff, saying the music of the new crop of troubadours is still a little hard to find, except on college, public, or alternative radio, concluding that it was "well worth searching out."
My question now is this: Why should it be so hard to find? Why should we have to hear about it by happenstance? Why do mainstream pop and country radio stations constantly badger listeners with the same twenty-five or thirty records over and over and over and over. If John or Jane Q. Public hears the same song enough times, they'll think it's okay after a while and even start humming it in their little brains, though they might have hated it the first couple times they heard it. Why not give John and Jane Q. a little more credit than that? Why not give them a few more choices? Why not ... EXPAND THE (fill in your own adjective here) *#l%+& PLAYLISTS!! You could still get in your ad spots. You'd probably gain more listeners, which would win you more of your precious ratings points!
Folk, bluegrass and jazz festivals have seen increasing attendance numbers in recent years. This is due largely, I think, to high-priced tickets to arena concerts that aren't all they're cracked up to be anyway. On trips to Los Angeles and Toronto in the past six months, I heard music played that they called country that. would freak out most Nashville A&R reps.
I'm a songwriter who has enjoyed the rewards of having a hit or two on these limited rotation playlists, but I still think there is a lot of room for additional records per twenty-four-hour period. If I were strictly a listener and consumer, I'd be hacked off at the small sampling of music that mainstream radio was spoon-feeding me.
Let's hope this re-awakening of music with melodic and lyrical content continues right on up through the cracks and back onto mainstream radio where it belongs. Left-field hits and even home runs aren't just luck, you know. They're made by swinging at the right spot at the right time over and over and over.
See you at the Rudyard Kipling on Saturday, September 28, with Roger "The Dodge Man" McVay on bass and vocals and some new songs suitable for at least three different radio formats.
(Alan Rhody was born in Louisville and is a successful songwriter and performer now living in Nashville, Tennessee.)