Media Viewpoint: Music to slash your wrists by
Wednesday 31 August 1994
That's probably the view of most British people (including myself) who have yet to catch up on the great country music phenomenon sweeping the world. Reared on Tammy Wynette standing by her man, we have never been formally introduced to the changing face of the music and its stars: people like Garth Brooks, who apparently sells more than Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen combined.
The revolution, however, is now upon us, and tomorrow sees the launch of Britain's (and Europe's) first country music radio station. Country 1035, which will formally begin broadcasting at 10.35am, will initially be heard only in Greater London (in the M25 area) but already there are talks about going national. The station's chief executive, John Wellington, is aiming for an audience of 600,000 in the capital, where research has revealed that country is the most neglected music format.
In America, however, where it is the fastest growing, it now accounts for 16.5 per cent of the record market. Even that well-known Arkansas saxophonist Bill Clinton is a fan and has sent a personal message of support to Country 1035.
Wellington says that country music today has moved 'way beyond the traditional 'Western' image' and has enormous appeal to people of all ages and types. So, attempting to put prejudices aside, I locked away my razor blades and listened to one of the test transmissions currently being broadcast.
It did not make cheerful listening. First there was a man whingeing on about a woman he'd lost. 'I hear she's really doing well now,' he droned, 'I hear she's picked herself up off the ground.' Sorry to be pedantic, sonny, but how did she get to the ground in the first place? Probably because you pushed her there. Next came a woman: 'I take my chances every chance I get.' Sadly, there wasn't much evidence for this in the song, which told only how she watched CNN and smoked cigarettes.
The men are certainly the least happy. One claimed that 'lonesome feelings got a hold on me', when he set to thinking about who his woman was with (very big on wondering who their women are with, are the men). 'Bound to start thinkin', bound to start drinkin',' he sang - clearly already making excuses for the fact that he's going to get drunk and beat her up when she finally does get home. The man who followed him wasn't much chirpier: 'Love can mess with your mind/Love can stop on a dime,' was his experience. Philosophers they ain't.
The male singers seem to outnumber the women by three to one and tell the women how they should run their lives. 'Don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys,' sang one. And why not? 'Cowboys like smoky old pool rooms.' His advice was simple: 'Make 'em be doctors and lawyers and such.'
If this is typical of the station's output, surely it will be nothing new: just the same old self-indulgent dirges, romanticising pain and misery, and carrying the message that we really should feel sorry for men because they can't help being such monsters, poor darlings.
For those unconvinced by such dubious joys, Country 1035 will also provide 'country- influenced rock 'n' roll', which means the likes of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers can be slipped into the schedule. In an attempt to widen the audience still further, it will also feature singers 'who have been influenced by traditional country artists and whose music reflects that influence' - the Eagles, Dire Straits and Elvis Costello.
It sounds like a very large sprat to catch an unappealing mackerel. These stars may have been influenced by country music, but they are hardly representative of it.
Wellington disagrees and says this is a genuine means of attracting new enthusiasts. 'Many people are first attracted to country without realising it,' he says. 'They'll hear something from artists such as Elvis Costello or Mark Knopfler, who have been heavily influenced by country in the past, and are now recording their own country songs.'
Wellington believes the interest in country music will be like the surge in popularity for opera at the end of the Eighties: 'More and more people are looking for something new. Johnny Cash is now appealing to the 16-30 age group; country is really opening up.' Whether it will have the energy to open up the coffins of the people it's sent to an early grave remains to be seen.
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