This is a tale of two Nashvilles, and both of them can be found in the studio of WSIX, one of the city’s two leading country stations. The old Nashville can be found on the studio’s back shelves — rows and rows of tapes by Merle Haggard, George Jones, and other country legends who don’t get much airplay anymore.
The new Nashville lies in the stack of releases in front of stocky, amiable disc jockey Hoss Burns. ”Who’s hot?” Burns says, swiveling around and scanning the pile of most-requested songs. ”Wynonna’s hot as hell. Hal Ketchum. Sammy Kershaw. Garth Brooks, of course. Tanya Tucker. Alan Jackson. Patty Loveless. And they’re all young. Five years ago, not a damn one of ‘em was out, except for Tanya. It’s amazing.” Thanks to such new acts, the station is within gunning distance of WSM, its Grand Ole Opry-based archrival, and it’s receiving more advertising than ever from corporations like Anheuser-Busch, which finds country the perfect way to reach beer-guzzling 21-to-35-year-olds.
WSIX isn’t the only place interested in friends in low places. At times it seems that America is a country gone country. The revival that started in the mid-’80s — with the rise of New Traditionalism, the sparse, rootsy music of George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, and later, Randy Travis — has slowly, steadily worked its way into the mainstream. Once widely disparaged by pop and rock fans as gauche, cornball Americana, country is enjoying an unprecedented windfall much bigger and deeper than the short-lived Urban Cowboy fad. (A mere mention of that era causes the most cordial Nashville music professionals to scowl as if they’ve just discovered cow dung on their boots.)
More country albums than ever — 35 during the week of March 7 — dot the Billboard Top 200 album chart. One of them, Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, a blend of singer-songwriter ballads and honky-tonk lite, has become an outright phenomenon. Released last fall, the album has sold 6 million copies, has kept Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from holding on to the No. 1 slot, and in conjunction with Brooks’ razzle-dazzle concerts and recent best-sellers from Clint Black and Travis Tritt, has made pop fans realize that country is no longer equated with overalls and bales of hay. In all, country is now estimated to be a $3 billion-a-year business, with record sales alone estimated to top $700 million annually.
Not surprisingly, the country bandwagon is getting mighty crowded. Major record labels like Elektra and Giant are opening Nashville offices, as have Entertainment Tonight and the star-heavy Hollywood talent agency CAA. Winterland Productions, one of the leading rock merchandise companies, says it will ship $25 million in country merchandise this year. Country is such a hot financial commodity that the latest young hunky-tonk act, Tracy Lawrence, had lined up five sponsorship deals — from Wrangler jeans to Chevrolet pickups — by the time his first single, ”Sticks and Stones,” hit No. 1 on the country chart in January. The genre even has its own Las Vegas in Branson, Mo., where aging acts like Roy Clark and Mel Tillis give concerts in their own theaters, contributing to the town’s $750 million in annual revenues.