Styles & Forms | New Country & The Neo-Traditionalists

New country took many years and miles of travel before its current evolution – not least the new traditionalist movement of the 1980s, which returned country music to its roots. Garth Brooks (b. 1962) did it far more quickly, but that’s a different story.

Sometimes it seemed like these artists were chipping away at a mountain with nothing more than an ice pick – change and the loosening of old restrictions came painfully slowly. The music is at its best when two idioms collide and the listener doesn’t immediately realize it – as in the work of Dwight Yoakam (b. 1956), Ricky Skaggs (b. 1954), Suzy Bogguss (b. 1956), Rodney Crowell (b. 1950), Emmylou Harris (b. 1947) and even Patty Loveless (b. 1957), who, after an exciting run as a top Nashville mainstream act, moved towards the revival, where she took her distinctive sound right back to the bluegrass roots of her rural background.

Unbroken Circle

During the 1970s, Waylon Jennings (1937–2002), Hank Williams Jr. (b. 1949) and Willie Nelson (b. 1933), among others, had threatened that it was time for a change. Waylon’s ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?’ was virtually a mission statement, and things duly changed – not least when Tompall Glaser’s (b. 1933) Nashville headquarters, familiarly known as ‘Hillbilly Central’, became a focal point for artists and songwriters wanting to do things their way. It was during this period that young acts emerged from bands that had experimented with country rock.

When Vince Gill (b. 1957) appeared, bringing genuine craft to singing, his talents as a song stylist were recognized by the Nashville establishment, which hired him for many years as host of the annual CMA Awards show. Gill has played a vital role in encouraging new talent, as have many others. One of the most influential has been singer-songwriter Guy Clark (b. 1941), who like Gill (but nearly a decade earlier) had been signed to RCA. Gill was signed by Tony Brown, whom he first knew as a fellow member of Rodney Crowell’s Cherry Bombs. Others who have made their mark include Texan Lyle Lovett (b. 1957) who, like Clark, has never bowed to commercial demands, and was chosen to accompany Dire Straits on their world tour. Working at their own pace, Lovett and Clark view songwriting as a craft; both of them demonstrate a minimalist, Hank Williams-like approach. The multi-talented Terry Allen (b. 1943) arrived in the mid-1970s with his uninhibited mini road-movie-like songs. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s imposing 1971 triple LP, Will The Circle Be Unbroken, saw the removal of barriers and was to country music what Woodstock was to rock.

The Roots Of The New Traditionalist Style

Much of the new traditionalist music came – and still comes – through acts who learned their craft playing acoustic music, often bluegrass, as children at festivals, school and church gatherings. Pickers like Skaggs, Keith Whitley (1955–89) and Marty Stuart (b. 1958) all gained experience...

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


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