Though they are both inherently conservative, tradition-bound mediums, country music and television have always had an edgy, awkward relationship. One big reason for this is that until very recently country was assumed to be a cult music that appealed to a far smaller segment of the audience than a mass communicator like TV wants to attract.
But the Country Music Association's annual awards show landed in the Nielsen top 10 earlier this year, and Garth Brooks' latest album, Ropin' the Wind, has gone to No. 1 on the pop charts and sold over 4 million copies, so country music is suddenly being welcomed onto network prime time. That such exposure should take the form of so glossy and prefabricated a package as Hot Country Nights doesn't lessen the show's significance: This is the first prime-time series since Hee Haw premiered on CBS in 1969 to assume that millions of people all over America are yearning for pure, unadulterated country-music entertainment.
Not that Hot presents itself as a groundbreaker. On the contrary, this show overseen by Dick Clark's production company does its best to remove the freshness and spontaneity from every moment. The series mixes relatively new artists such as Pam Tillis (daughter of country vet Mel Tillis), Clint Black, and Doug Stone with hoarily familiar acts like Kenny Rogers and Alabama. Each performer's number is shot on a big, minimally decorated stage designed to remind you of an awards broadcast Clark wants to make you think you're tuning in to that top-rated CMA awards show every week. There's no permanent host, just a parade of current country hit makers interspersed with middle-of-the- road comedians (so far the best of them being ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, whose grumpy dummy Walter aspires to be a Charlie McCarthy for the '90s).
The crucial difference between Hot Country Nights and earlier country TV shows is that Hot assumes there's nothing intrinsically rural or exotic about country music. Earlier attempts to put country music on TV Ozark Jubilee in the late '50s, variety shows starring Jimmy Dean and Johnny Cash in the '60s, and, most stereotypically, Hee Haw presented country as the work of grinning rubes whose preferred seating arrangement was atop a bale of hay. As insistently bland as it is, Hot Country Nights at least presents its performers as the self-conscious artists they are.
Hot Country Nights is certainly a gamble for NBC, which must remember the dismal flop of another recent Sunday-night country variety show, Dolly Parton's 1987 Dolly, on ABC. On the other hand, Hot looks like a better ratings prospect than NBC's previous time wasters in this hour, Man of the People and Pacific Station.
Then, too, another reason country music has become increasingly palatable to mass taste these days is that more of its younger practitioners share the same pop- and rock-music tastes as the baby-boomer TV generation. In interviews, Garth Brooks has expressed his abiding admiration for the craft of singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, and when Brooks was looking for outside material to cover on Ropin' the Wind, he chose a Billy Joel song, ''Shameless,'' howling its florid lyrics in an appropriately shameless manner.
Similarly, Clint Black took the opportunity of his appearance on the debut edition of Hot Country Nights to pay homage to the ultimate pop-folkie, James Taylor, drawling his way through Taylor's ''Sweet Baby James.'' (Black recently wed actress Lisa Hartman, beloved by millions of red-blooded Americans for her memorable portrayal of the navel-exposing would-be rock star Ciji on Knots Landing; Hartman is in fact an experienced singer who has made numerous failed attempts to launch a real-life career as a rocker. Here's betting that it's just a matter of time before Clint 'n' Lisa start an additional partnership: as a country-music duo a sort of upscale, less-depressed, '90s version of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.)
Hot country guests like Tillis, Dwight Yoakam, and Carlene Carter all evince clear pop, rock, and folk influences in their music, thus making them instantly comfortable presences on television. Even Hee Haw is responding to this new generation and its own sagging ratings by taking its stage set off the farm and filling it with fresh young faces to be unveiled in syndication early next month.
But no matter how Hot Country Nights fares, it's a sure bet country music will remain a pervasive TV presence. The Judds recently became the first country act bankable enough to rate a pay-per-view cable broadcast of their ''farewell concert,'' and country has also made a smooth transition into TV commercials, as an alluring soundtrack to consumerism: Billboard magazine recently reported that commercials for the 1992 line of Cadillacs will utilize the current hit single from up-and-coming country act Sammy Kershaw. Its title? ''Cadillac Style.''
If ad agencies and sponsors are trying to exploit it Clint Black is pickin' and grinnin' for Miller Lite these days surely the tart twang of country no longer strikes TV viewers as an off-putting or unsophisticated sound. Hot Country Nights may be tepid stuff, but it confirms that these days, country is both pretty common and pretty cool. C+