Styles & Forms | Neo-Traditionalists | Country
From the urban cowboys came the neo-traditionalists, who offered a stark and welcome alternative. Their music, with its resolute devotion to earlier styles like honky-tonk, bluegrass and old-time country, bristled with the vitality and spirit of innovation that urban cowboy lacked.
Emmylou Harris, a lovely, ethereal singer, came of age in the country and bluegrass clubs of the greater Washington, DC area and was briefly a protégée of pioneering California country rocker Gram Parsons. Harris was almost reverentially steeped in the 1950s and 1960s hard country traditions – her first Top 10 country hit was ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’, an inspired reprise of an old Louvin Brothers ballad. With her warm, sweet singing style she was able to revive rustic honky-tonk and old-time country gems by Buck Owens and The Carter Family in a way that was vital and meaningful to a new generation of youthful urban- and suburban-dwelling music fans. In recent years, Harris has remained faithful to her love of tradition, while also embarking on adventurous projects like Red Dirt Girl, a highly autobiographical 2000 album, and 1995’s atmospheric Wrecking Ball. The latter album was produced by Daniel Lanois, best known for his work with U2 and Bob Dylan.
Revival Of The Old Masters
Another key new traditionalist is Ricky Skaggs, a Kentucky-born former bluegrass child prodigy who did stints in the bands of both bluegrass king Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris before pursuing a solo career in Nashville. With No. 1 hits like ‘Uncle Pen’ (Skaggs’ revival of an old Bill Monroe bluegrass chestnut), ‘Heartbroke’ and ‘Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown’, he tastefully retro-fitted and subtly electrified the traditional bluegrass sound.
George Strait, a shy south Texan heavily steeped in the musical traditions of western swing king Bob Wills and the consummate honky-tonk/country jazz sound of Merle Haggard and his band, The Strangers, quietly slid into Nashville and went politely against the grain with his superlative Texas neo-honky-tonk-style sound. Strait has since emerged as one of country’s all-time most popular stars, with 50 No. 1 records at last count. His best-known songs include ‘Unwound’ and ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?’.
Other figures like John Anderson, a Florida-born former hard rocker turned twangy honky-tonk balladeer (‘Wild And Blue’, ‘Swingin’), also held the hard country line during the urban cowboy explosion and, in so doing, paved the way for a neo-traditional renaissance that unfolded in the mid-1980s. Kentucky-born former mortician and DJ John Conlee also helped to keep the traditional spirit alive with hearty, countrified late-1970s and early 1980s chart-topping ballads like ‘Rose Colored Glasses’, ‘Backside Of Thirty’, ‘Lady Lay Down’ and his Top 10 cover of Ray Charles’ ‘Busted’.
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