Music: From Nashville to Hollywood with a bullet

They used to be a joke, but now movie soundtracks boast both kinds of music - Country and Western.
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IT SHOULDN'T surprise you to learn that Nashville has never considered itself a hick town. One of the major education centres of the South, it even built itself a replica of the Parthenon to symbolise its role in learning. This was, of course, where the final scene took place in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville, a warts-and-all poke at every aspect of the city's life - in particular its role as the manufacturing centre of country music. In addition to Altman's epic, the Tennessee capital and its music have had a rough ride from Hollywood.

Think of country music in a film, and jokes spring to mind. "We play both kinds of music here - Country AND Western" is one such line from The Blues Brothers. Also kitsch: think Dolly Parton in 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Neither Burt Reynolds nor Clint Eastwood enhanced the genre's credibility in Smokey and the Bandit and Every Which Way But Loose. And then there was the 1980 box office smash Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. Its soundtrack comprised mundane MOR country, and started the irritating Urban Cowboy Movement, launching the likes of the excruciating Mickey Gilley and Ronnie Milsap to stardom.

Of course, there were genuine high points, such as Coal Miner's Daughter from 1980, with Sissy Spacek playing the role of Loretta Lynn - a woman who came out with at-the-time revolutionary sentiments, such as the self- written "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)", and "The Pill", the latter a song from 1975 celebrating the use of contraceptives.

But Lynn, now ignored by country radio, was depicted as a hillbilly, and hillbilly is not the slick image Nashville music chiefs want anymore. Like any other corporate entity, they want to expand their market. They want the white collars in middle America to pick up their records in the strip malls and gas stations, but need more than country radio and television to achieve the crossover.

It was relatively easy for them to look west to Hollywood and see that soundtrack albums are big business, and can build artists. Last year, around 50 million such records were sold in the US alone. This year, largely thanks to the Titanic soundtrack, which topped the charts for over three months, the figure will be much higher. For Nashville, there's a risk involved in paying out money to elevate an artist beyond the country fold, but they know that if someone loves a movie there's a good chance of them buying the soundtrack, clicking into a particular artist, and buying their records.

The first success this decade was 8 Seconds, starring a bull-riding Luke Perry. The soundtrack, featuring Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn and other contemporary country icons, went platinum. Then, at the end of last year, Celine Dion was originally slated to do a song for Con Air, but as the song was set in Alabama, the film makers felt that a Nashville artist would be more appropriate. Two cuts were made of "How Do I Live"; one by teenage sensation LeAnn Rimes, and the other by the more polished but less enigmatic Trisha Yearwood. It was Yearwood who got the nod from the filmmakers but in many countries, including Britain, it was Rimes' version that hit the Top Ten. Thanks to their unlikely bedfellowship with Hollywood, Nashville was now able to cross over two whitebread divas to rival Dion and Mariah Carey in the pop market.

This year sees no less than five significant movie tie-in CDs with a distinct Nashville aroma. The critically-acclaimed The Apostle, starring and directed by Robert Duvall as a southern preacher, features a gorgeous mix of gospel, country, and contemporary Christian music, with Johnny Cash, the Carter Family and Emmylou Harris among those credited. Black Dog, starring Patrick Swayze, Randy Travis and Meat Loaf, boasts an album of hard-driving trucker songs from the likes of Steve Earle, Patty Loveless and exciting newcomer Chris Knight.

The forthcoming DreamWorks big-budget drama Prince of Egypt has two "music inspired by" albums out later in the year. One is R&B, the other features multi-platinum country heavyweights, including Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Wynonna, Clint Black and Randy Travis - a significant figure as he was the first signing to the new DreamWorks Nashville record label.

Travis has around 20 movie acting credits, and his deal with DreamWorks Nashville prompted suggestions that the firm's Hollywood connection was a major reason for his signing. To date, both camps have denied this, and Travis maintains that there's no mention of movie work in his DreamWorks contract.

Hope Floats is a sugary-sweet, romantic, smalltown drama starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr, due for release here in October. Don Was might have been the executive co-producer but it's slush for the most part, with the 15-song soundtrack bookended by Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. However, in America, it's spent almost two months at the top of Billboard's country chart.

By far the best of the five is The Horse Whisperer, which opens in the UK today. Although its soundtrack is not in the same commercial league as the Hope Floats cheese, its story reveals plenty about the relationship between Nashville and Hollywood. In essence, it's a mix of Nashville's best mavericks, overseen in hands-on style by the film's star and director, Robert Redford, who sought to pay tribute to what he calls "the uniquely American sound of traditional western music". Some artists, such as Dwight Yoakam and the avuncular Texan yodeller Don Walser, covered classics from yore, while others wrote new material in fitting with the movie's sentiment. Steve Earle turned in "Me and the Eagle", one of the best songs he's ever written. Another standout track on the album is by Lucinda Williams, whose career was dormant for the best part of a decade; her track on The Horse Whisperer certainly helped to raise her profile sufficiently to make her new album easily her biggest record ever.

The most incredible, indeed Hollywood-like, story involves newcomer Alison Moorer, who is the only artist to actually perform in this love story set in Montana. Until last year, Moorer's extraordinary voice was being used only for harmony back-ups (most notably on the alternative country classic by Lonesome Bob). According to Tony Brown, MCA Nashville chief and one of the movers behind the soundtrack: "For Alison to get an opportunity to have her first release on a soundtrack and also get to sing in the movie - I mean, this is like an artist development dream. And guess what: we didn't hustle it."

Brown did, in fact, half hustle it. Redford had asked for a Joe Ely track and, according to Moorer, Brown just stuck on her song at the end. The reply from the Redford camp was "yeah, we like the Ely song, but who's the girl?". The rest will soon be history as Moorer is heavily tipped to be the first girl from the wrong side of the Nashville musical alley to make it big in the country charts and possibly beyond.

It's the kind of thing that would probably bring a smirk to the face of the double-dealing protagonists in Altman's Nashville. This year has also seen a Nashville delegation going to LA to show the film world what they've got on offer. Brown reckons "we'll see more directors coming to Nashville and shaping a movie soundtrack around some of the mainstream music here. Maybe the more edgy mainstream". The edgier the better, really.

While The Horse Whisperer is an excellent conceptualized compilation, there's still the likes of Hope Floats around and if, say, Tim McGraw or Faith Hill, the crassest country pairing Nashville has on current offer, get a foothold, then even the horrible Urban Cowboy deal would not have seemed too bad.