Nashville Revival Goes Hollywood, Returns to Roots

Country music reached the peak of its popularity six years ago, when it claimed 18.7% of the recorded-music audience. Since then, it has steadily declined to its present 14.1%, according to the Recording Industry Association of America's 1998 Consumer Profile. Reasons for the decline include the increasing crossover of country stars into pop and rock styles, a phenomenon that has broadened many artists' reach and made acts like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain household names among folks who may not previously have paid much attention to country. Crossing over, unfortunately, also dilutes the support of traditional music fans. Apart from the twang in the vocals, much current "country" music sounds amazingly like the rock and pop of 10-15 years ago.

One Nashville response to the decline is "back to basics"—the move to take the popular genre back to its roots, a trend pioneered by traditionalists like Randy Travis in the mid-1980s. "There are many, many people out there who love the traditional music," says veteran George Jones. "I hope it's coming back." Hot acts with a traditional sound include not only Travis—himself now a veteran—but relative newcomers like Chalee Tennison, Brad Paisley, Jerry Kilgore, and Matt King. Iris DeMent is another traditional performer whose raw emotion and simple, elegant lyrics have won her legions of loyal fans.

Paradoxically, country music is getting a new lease on life not merely from "going home," but also from going Hollywood. Nashville stars are heard more and more often on movie soundtracks, and in some cases appear in the films themselves. On September 14, Arista will release its first country soundtrack, Happy, Texas, from the upcoming Miramax comedy. A new feature from Fox, Anywhere But Here, with Natalie Portman and Susan Sarandon, has a theme song by country teen idol LeAnn Rimes. Rimes has already starred in her own made-for-TV Christmas special, and is reportedly considering a lead role in an as-yet-unnamed feature film.

Singer Mark Collie is also taking the acting route. I Still Miss Someone, a 17-minute independent film about country legend Johnny Cash, has Collier singing Cash's vocals. Director John Lloyd Miller said the concept "was to make an audition tape of Mark as Johnny Cash. It turned out to be much more than we dreamed." Collie has since moved on to scriptwriting. His Pulp Country is in the early stages of development. Dwight Yoakam, who had a pivotal role as an abusive husband in the Billy Bob Thornton classic, Slingblade, is directing an upcoming feature called South of Heaven, West of Hell. Thornton himself has just finished Daddy and Them, with John Prine in an acting role and a soundtrack by Marty Stuart.