LA DAYS : Trickle-down effect gives new view of country

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Anyone who lives in Los Angeles for more than a week will know that no other city on the face of the planet is more obsessed with the paraphernalia of popular culture and the power of mass communications. But there comes a time when even the most stalwart consumer of trash has had enough. For me, this happened during a visit to a gentlemen's lavatory.

Perhaps there are other restaurants in the world that also have television screens at eye level above the urinals, but this was my first experience of it. One can see a marketing mind at work: why not lay down a few images in the brains of consumers as they stare at the wall? After all, they are the ultimate captive audience.

The operators of the Country Star Hollywood restaurant would probably argue that they aren't selling anything, but merely satisfying the needs of music-lovers who prefer not to be separated from their idols, even for a few minutes. For we - the other gentlemen and I - were not watching advertisements as we stood silently in our stalls, gazing into the small colour monitors. It was a video of Garth Brooks, the country music millionaire, prancing around in a black hat, singing about hard-working, truck-driving, love-lorn Americans.

There are 104 video screens at the Country Star, next door to the Universal Studio complex, north of Hollywood. As we wandered in, through the giant multi-coloured jukebox-shaped entrance, we walked over three television screens set into the floor, as Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase - doyennes of country cable television in America - burbled on beneath our shoes.

Inside, the place was full of screens, interactive terminals, and CD- players with headphones for listening to the likes of Boy Howdy and Vince Gill. For the country fans - a mixture of tourists and Angelenos munching on their plateloads of ribs, or Old Hickory Lake Pig sandwiches - it must amount to an experience second only to heaven itself. Even the barman was singing along, as he pulled my glass of Pete's Wicked Ale.

When country music first surfaced among impoverished southern whites in the Twenties, Hollywood's reaction was epitomised by Abel Green, a writer for Variety magazine. It was, he chortled happily to his big-city readers, a favourite with the "illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons", the rude utterances of hillbilly "mountaineer types" from North Carolina or Tennessee.

Seventy years on, he could not be further from the truth. Country is the fastest-growing music in the United States, with a following which embraces metropolitan, grunge-weary, baby-boomers, middle Americans, the elderly, and rap-hating young whites. What was once the exclusive preserve of the white working-class, a form of music born of the trauma of a rural people migrating to industrial cities, is now a multi-billion dollar business controlled by a handful of vast corporations: MCA, Sony, Time-Warner.

Not everyone views this with approval. Not long ago the country star Willie Nelson said he no longer listens to country music on the radio because most of the nation's 2,500 stations are answerable to programmers in New York. It is not the same any more, he grumbled. Certainly the musicians have changed; many of the performers of the 1920s were railroaders, miners or mill workers; today's groomed millionaire stars include college graduates who have as much in common with the average farm worker as Joan Collins.

But perhaps all this is more important than a simple matter of the shifting sands of musical taste. Country ditties about love, trucks, women, families, and urban despair bear many resemblances to the agenda of the white conservative- leaning male, the section of the American electorate that is increasingly driving politics.

As Time magazine pointed out several years ago, modern country is the "musical equivalent of the urban escapism known as white flight". The millions of Americans who tap their toes to Garth Brooks singing about the excessive welfare paid by the "hardhat, gunrack, achin'-back, over- taxed, flag-wavin', fun-lovin' crowd" ("American Honky-Tonk Bar Association") have entered a world that is largely free of racial strife, affirmative action, gays or even liberals.

Is this too far-fetched? You're probably right, although one couldn't help reading some significance into the menus of the Country Star, which boasts of being "a family cafe dedicated to the American values of yesterday - a time of integrity, honour and morals''. Bill Clinton could do worse than start tuning his guitar (saxophones have no place in country music).