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Pop Goes the Country

When she first stepped onto the national stage almost a decade ago, Trisha Yearwood was seen as a representative of country's new breed. An interpretive artist whose personality shone through the songs she decided to perform, she was blessed with a rich, robust voice combining technical mastery with an emotional delivery that called to mind the chanteuses who'd preceded her to Grand Ol' Opry fame. But much of her material didn't twang like the tunes of Patsy, Tammy and the others. Her initial single, "She's in Love With the Boy," which topped the country charts for two weeks back in 1991, was, for better or worse, a pop song decorated with a scrap or two of country calico, and "How Do I Live," an Oscar-nominated ditty from the brain-dead 1997 action flick Con Air (no doubt one of Nicolas Cage's proudest moments), didn't have even that much of a connection to her chosen genre; it was written by shlockmistress Diane Warren, for God's sake. So even Yearwood is amused by reviews of Real Live Woman, the fine disc she's just released, that describe her as one of the last holdouts against a swelling pop tide threatening to finally drown country music once and for all.

"It's really interesting," she says, laughing, "that I'm all of a sudden going to be the savior of traditional country."

Whether that's true or not is another question. Compared to Yearwood platters such as Where Your Road Leads, from 1998, Woman is more subtly produced, with considerably less studio clutter placed between her pipes and your ears; when she bellows the words "Where are you now" on the song of the same name (co-written by Kim Richey and Mary Chapin Carpenter), the raw majesty of her gifts is downright jaw-dropping. In addition, the instrumentation is simpler and rootsier than is the norm in Nashville these days, and when she pulls out the strings for the Linda Ronstadt/Andrew Gold chestnut "Try Me Again," she uses them in relatively austere fashion. But the overall sound of the disc is less a throwback to the days when Hank Williams Sr. still trod the earth than a return to the country-tinged rock of the early '70s that was roundly rejected by country purists of the time. In other words, what many contemporary country scribes are touting as a straight shot of uncut C&W more closely resembles what the music's gatekeepers once regarded as the stuff of Southern California pretenders who wouldn't know gen-u-ine country music if it knocked the cocaine right out of their spoons.

This reaction says oodles about the current state of country music, as Yearwood readily acknowledges. "What was considered progressive when I started is now considered pretty traditional. Because country music has gone in such a pop direction, far beyond what I've done."

Damn straight -- but considering the substantial slump in which country is presently mired, the music's willingness to incorporate pop may have reached the point of diminishing returns. Sure, singer/makeup spokesmodel Shania Twain is enjoying unprecedented mega-sales (her Come on Over has moved more than 17 million units) thanks to tracks that have stretched the definition of country further than Merle Haggard could ever have imagined. But Garth Brooks, the man most responsible for the country explosion of the '90s (and for launching Yearwood's career), has seemingly gone off the deep end; his recent rock project, in which he portrayed a singer named Chris Gaines, has been the subject of unremitting scorn among his country peers. Other big-name performers have watched their sales plummet as well, dragging the numbers generated by the style to levels well below the peaks of just a few years ago.

"Everyone's kind of panicking," Yearwood concedes. "They're like, 'What do we do now? What's going to sell? What's going to be a hit?'"

Given this atmosphere of uncertainty, Yearwood opted to alter her approach -- but not in the ways most observers anticipated. "Everyone assumed that I'd go more and more pop and that every album would be more and more pop, because that's what the trend is and because 'How Do I Live' and some of the albums I've made over the past few years have been slicker and more pop- oriented. But that wasn't what I wanted to do. I don't want to be one of those artists who thinks, 'Well, my last album sold a million copies and we've got to sell a million albums this time, so what kind of album do we make so we can sell those records?' I don't want to play that game. So I decided to take a breath and take some time off the road for the first time in nine years of touring and go, 'Okay, if you could make any album you wanted, what would it sound like?'"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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