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Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes? A Look At Country Music Over The Past 30 Years
The year was 1985...
Country Music was experiencing a series of good times then and George Jones, the old Possum asked a question that we in 2015 can now answer: Who's gonna fill their shoes? The intent behind the question was who is going to carry Country Music forward, building upon the foundation laid down by those who had gone before, the ground breakers, the innovators, as well as the purists of the music. Let's take a look at some of those he spoke of in the song/video and recall just what they meant to the genre, then take a look at who has come in the years since that question was asked. Who knows, we might even take a glance at who is carrying the flag today and moving into the next thirty years.
First, though, let's take a look at the video and remember...
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce. Buddy, that's a Hall of Fame list of solid country gold if there ever was one. There is some crossover, as it's called now, in Elvis, Jerry Lee and Conway, maybe a bit of Roy Orbison thrown in but by and large that's country music through and through. Let's take a look at the standard which was set by these artists.
Waylon Jennings, 54 albums, 11 #1 albums; 96 singles hit the charts with 16 reaching #1. I think my favorite Waylon song was Luckenbach, Texas. Just a great, great song.
Willie Nelson, singer/songwriter/legend. Can anyone total the number of hits this man has either for himself or others? Really? Some of his best works went to others such as Hello Walls and Crazy, although he later released this one for himself. Suffice it to say his fingerprint (and boot print) is firmly stamped in Country Music for all time. My favorite song of his is hard for me to choose. As a writer, Crazy is to me the greatest country song ever performed by a female and as a singer I can't get past My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys without a wistful smile and a tear.
Johnny Cash, the Man in Black. When you have a movie made about your life, I'd say you made it, wouldn't you? Considered by many to be one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, he is in three separate Hall of Fames: Country, Rock and Gospel. While he may have been a hell raiser in his youth as he aged he became like a fine wine, smooth, sure and comforting. Have you heard the recordings, done when Sam Phillips of Sun Records left the tape running as he, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins just began to jam and sing? Check out The Million Dollar Quartet if you haven't. In those days, a million was a lot of money; today that same group might be a billion dollar quartet or more. As for my favorite song of his, Folsom Prison Blues is hard to beat.
Merle Haggard, the Okie from Muskogee himself. I fell in love with his music as a kid and still love it today. A truly talented singer/songwriter who could play multiple instruments, The Hag is another of those cornerstone artists, one others measure themselves against. Whether he was singing about home in Okie From Muskogee or about prison in Sing Me Back Home he touched a special place in people across the country. But he didn't stop; not then not ever. He continued to release new material and continues to tour the country even today. To this point he has had 38 #1 hits. My favorite is one of those, Sing Me Back Home.
Conway Twitty, he of the fifty-five (that's 55) number one hit records. This record stood until George Strait surpassed it in 2006, and had King George not come along I can't think of anyone else who could approach it, much less break it, can you? Now, some of those hits weren't exactly my cup of tea, but what do I know. I do know that Hello Darlin' is a true classic as is It's Only Make Believe and That's My Job. The opening words to Hello Darlin' may be the best known song lyrics in the business, spoken in that quiet, graveley voice before rising to a pitch few can reach. Masterful!
More Country Classic Artists
Patsy Cline, she of the velvet voice that leaves me in complete awe. Crazy, as I stated is the best song EVER by a female artist, but beyond that lies Walkin' After Midnight, Leavin' On Your Mind and Sweet Dreams. Ahh, Sweet Dreams indeed! What a voice!
Carl Perkins, possibly the Father of Rockabilly; Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb were two of the cornerstones of the craft and of the Grand Ole Opry; Jerry Lee and Elvis turned music on its collective ear; Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow and Webb Pierce might be supporting the other corners of the art, and what can you say about Marty Robbins? Master showman, singer, songwriter, person. He was perhaps my favorite artist of all time and his songs speak to me in a manner that hasn't changed in fifty years now. I doubt they ever will.
And then, there's Hank Williams. Perhaps the greatest of them all, ol' Luke the drifter was gone far, far before his time. His songs about heartache and the pain of love are sad and his line from I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry (the silence of a falling star, lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are I'm so lonesome I could cry) is, to me, the most perfect line in all of music history. The image that line conjours up cannot be improved upon.
So, who's gonne fill those shoes? Well, let's take a gander, shall we?
The 80's saw artists like Lee Greenwood, Dwight Yoakam, and Dan Seals rise to the top of the charts. There was also Johnny's daughter Rosanne Cash and her Tennessee Flattop Box and Seven Year Ache; Alabama, The Judd's, Kathy Mattea, John Conlee and John Anderson who came into our cars and living rooms. John Anderson was The Black Sheep Of The Family while he was Swingin' and Mr. Conlee told of life on The Back Side Of 30 and looking through his Rose Colored Glasses. Loretta Lynn continued to be a strong force and her sister Crystal Gayle achieved stardom as well. Dolly Parton became perhaps the force of the decade by her songs and her acting. Suzy Bogguss asked the question on how to play poker (Aces) and David Frizzell and Shelly West let us know that You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma. All in all, a pretty good group.
But staying power? Most drifted away to some degree, not continuing to dominate the way the preceding group of artists did. But there was this guy from Texas, this young cowboy who came to dominate the charts in a manner like no one else. George Harvey Strait arrived on the charts in 1981 and stayed around for a long time. I suppose he is one of those we can say has carried the torch. We'll make him the artist of the 80's to fill a shoe.
Ronnie Milsap was another who performed tirelessly, wrote wonderful songs and did his job to make sure Country stayed true to its roots. Beyond that, there aren't many who've continued in the string of those who came before and had that long-lived career.
Then came the 90's and a group of artists who molded Country Music once more. Garth Brooks stormed onto the stage and brought in a whole new mass of people who weren't Country before with him. His rough and tumble style combined with a soulful side to open new doors to the people. Ranging from If Tomorrow Never Comes to The Thunder Rolls to Friends In Low Places Brooks brought his fun loving swagger to a part of America that didn't know they were country.
Alan Jackson hit the scene in 1990 with Here In The Real World and his easy, down home manner struck a chord with Country Music lovers. He continued his strong beginning throughout the decade and is one of those who carried on the sanctity of the music genre: pure country. No big flash, no hopping around on stage, no crossover hits (well, none intentionally) just country music at its best. He even gently jabbed at those who felt Country was an easy way to the money in his song Gone Country. But to me, his best work was done after our country's greatest tragedy when he performed Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning. That song struck me right in the heart and the fact that the proceeds from the song were given to charities directly associated with the Twin Towers tragedy just made it even better. When asked about the song and how it was written, Jackson replied "I think it was Hank Williams who said "God writes the songs, I just hold the pen.". That's the way I felt with this song." Another of his songs that I hold dear is Remember When. The story he tells of a couple going through Life together and recalling it in the latter stages of togetherness is one of the most heart touching songs I know of. Here's to you, Alan. Thank you.
So, I will add these to performers to the mix on who's gonna fill some shoes in Country Music.
What decade held your favorite Country Music?
As we move into the new millennium, the pure, sweet waters of Country Music are becoming a bit muddy. For all of Garth Brooks' good intention, he brought a bit of the rock/pop/other into its cleanliness and as a result Country wasn't Country anymore. Just ask George and Alan, when they sang Murder On Music Row. Fiddles cannot be heard anymore, nor other focal points of the genre heard such as a steel guitar played. It saddened me to realize it but my favorite music wasn't music anymore in the eyes of Nashville. It had changed; morphed into a new form of country which I generally didn't like. Oh, there are a few such as Craig Morgan, who I saw singing for my dinner one year in Kansas City at a WalMart convention early in the 2000's but by and large there are a very select few who carry the Country tradition. His song That's What I Love About Sunday is pure country, speaking about life, love and family to perfection. And if you sing a song about International Harvester, well buddy that's country! I first heard that song on a little two lane highway while driving behind an International Harvester trying to get around. I was the fifth car in line behind it and thar jes' waren't no gettin' 'round that thar thang! But I laughed at the perfect timing and how true to life that song was. And if you have a wonderful wife, then you know the truth behind his song Tough.
Rascal Flatts is pretty good, as is Brad Paisley. Alison Krauss is an amazing performer and her traditional Bluegrass is amongst my favorites. Tim McGraw is acceptable as long as he is Country and not Pop; I can't stand Pop. Toby Keith is a strong performer but at times he verges on something other than Country, although if you do a duet with Willie you can't be too pop.
But Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift aren't Country to me; sorry. And Keith Urban may appear Country but I think he crosses the line a bit too. Carrie Underwood is more Pop than country as well so cannot be counted to carry the torch moving forward.
So, In Conclusion...
Although there were some mighty big shoes to fill, there are some performers who have done well in the intervening thirty years since the Possum asked his question. Stars such as Waylon, Johnny, Merle, Conway and Hank have passed the torch to George, Alan, Garth, Craig and Brad. Songs like I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry are supported by Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning. My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys became I Can Still Make Cheyenne, while Crazy became Amarillo By Morning. All standards of the Country Music genre, and still going strong today.
I fear now who's gonna fill this generation's shoes. Who will be the next George and Alan? Who will maintain Country's sanctity and purity, not allowing it to become Pop/Country or Punk/Country? Or even something worse? Who will carry the Bluegrass torch and be the next Allison Krauss?
Is anybody out there? Only time will tell and some other soul will have to pick up where I leave off because I doubt I will be able to tell the tale in another thirty years or so.
Good luck to you! But for now I'll leave you with a song I just heard; it's a good one and tells a story that I can relate to.