Styles & Forms | Mainstream Country

At the beginning of the 1970s, the influences in mainstream country music continued to originate from a wide spread of sources, the most dominant being the Nashville sound, which now had strong pop overtures alongside a greater distortion of country music itself.

On the other hand, an innovative breed of songwriters were about to be heard, bringing fresh lyricism to country music and attracting new audiences. Their presence helped counteract the pop sensibilities now being created by Nashville’s industry.

The New Face Of Country

Heading up this new breed of songwriters was Kris Kristofferson (b. 1936), the son of a US Air Force major general and Oxford Rhodes Scholar, who flew helicopters before arriving in Nashville where he worked as a janitor, among other jobs, while pitching his songs around Music Row. Many people still recall that evening at the 1970 CMA Awards when sections of the audience were aghast as this ‘long-haired hippie’ took to the stage to collect the Song Of The Year for ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, a No. 1 when recorded by Johnny Cash. Conservatism reigned in Nashville back then: even Waylon and Willie were clean-shaven and short-haired.

Of course Kris Kristofferson wasn’t the first to change the method of creating a Nashville song. Back in the mid-1960s an equally innovative free spirit named Roger Miller (1936–92) changed the rigid structure of the country lyric with mapcap wordplay. Kristofferson was much more the sensitive lyricist and Johnny Cash’s plaintive vocals ideally complimented the writer’s moody ‘Saturday Morning Coming Down’, though Cash wasn’t the first to record a Kristofferson song. That credit is due to Roy Drusky (1930–2004) and Miller, who gave the writer his debut chart appearances with ‘Jody And The Kid’ and ‘Me And Bobby McGee (co-penned with Marijohn Wilkin) respectively. Alongside the Cash success, Sammi Smith (1943–2005) created a sensual rendition of ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and Ray Price (b. 1926) secured one of the biggest records of his post honky-tonk period with ‘For The Good Times’. Both records collected Grammy Awards.

Kristofferson’s substantial influence cannot be overstated and an influx of young writers, with a new level of adult lyricism, came to the attention of Nashville’s music publishers and recording executives. Among them were Guy Clark (b. 1941), Chris Gantry (b. 1942), John Hartford (1937–2001), Mickey Newbury (1940–2002), Billy Joe Shaver (b. 1939) and Townes Van Zandt (1944–97). As the decade progressed, another important contributor to the this new music growth, Shel Silverstein (1932–99) frequently hung out at Hillbilly Central (a.k.a. Glaser Sound Studio) with several of his songs set to contribute to the Outlaw movement. Tompall Glaser (b. 1933), along with brothers Chuck and Jim, had caused attention in Nashville circles by creating their own music publishing and studio complex, business not previously association with an artist.

Crossover And Controversy

While the new breed of songwriters fitted alongside established peers like Harlan Howard, Jerry Chesnutt (b. 1931), Hank Cochran (b. 1935), Dallas Frazier (b....

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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