Among the Carrie Underwood clones and Kenny Chesney knockoffs, country music has gotten interesting again — and, as has happened so often in the past, a bumper crop of brash young Texans is right in the thick of things.
Lindale native Miranda Lambert's fire-breathing 2007 LP Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, produced by former Houstonian Frank Liddell, won Album of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in May, upsetting more established nominees like Chesney, Brad Paisley and Rodney Atkins. Lambert recently notched her first Top 10 single with "Gunpowder & Lead," and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been certified gold (sales of at least 500,000) by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Woodlands native Hayes Carll's Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway) is one of the year's biggest hits on the Americana charts, notching heavy radio play and consistent sales since its release in April. Carll's labelmate, West Texas-raised Ryan Bingham (who now lives in Austin), has had similar success, making many year-end best-of lists with last year's debut, Mescalito.
Hayes Carll performs, with Ray Wylie Hubbard, 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 8, at the Showgrounds at Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Pkwy. West, 281-807-8700.
More are lurking around the corner as well. The self-titled sophomore Mercury Nashville release from longtime Lone Star dancehall/honky-tonk circuit veteran the Randy Rogers Band — whose Just a Matter of Time reached No. 8 on Billboard's Hot Country Albums in 2006 — is due in September. Denton-based country-rockers the Eli Young Band, who released debut Level on Liddell's Carnival Records in 2005 and whose first album for Universal/Republic is likewise due in September, was hand-picked to open several summer dates for the Dave Matthews Band, including next weekend at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Almost since what we call "country music" came into existence, Texans have had a long, illustrious history of influencing the Nashville tides, from both within its established music industry and without. "Texas Troubador" Ernest Tubb was a pillar of the Grand Ole Opry for years, and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop around the corner from the Opry remains a Music City landmark. Scarcely a week went by in the late '50s and throughout the '60s when Texans Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and Roger Miller weren't somewhere on the charts.
Of course, in the '70s, the "outlaw" movement, led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and fueled by the works of songwriters like Waco's Billy Joe Shaver, turned Nashville on its ear by infusing classic honky-tonk with a stiff dose of longhaired rock and roll attitude. A few years after that, folk-influenced artists like Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and Kelly Willis (all onetime regulars at local clubs like Anderson Fair and the Old Quarter) were all pegged as Nashville's Next Big Things before going on to have successful careers everywhere but mainstream country — pop, folk, triple A, Americana, etc.
Most recently, Texas standbys Pat Green and Jack Ingram graduated from regional stardom to Top 5 country albums and singles in the middle of this decade. Both Green and Ingram's latest releases were less successful, however.
"If you look at the broad scope of where talent pools have been, Seattle had a pocket, Athens had a pocket, Atlanta's had a pocket, Nashville has had several little pockets, New York certainly has, but Texas has always consistently produced," says Lost Highway head of A&R Kim Buie. "To say, 'Is this new?' or 'Is this building back up again?' — I don't know that it ever didn't."
So now we're back up to the present. However, while the artists behind this latest uprising do share at least some musical common ground — namely, '70s and '80s rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Mellencamp being more influential than Nelson, Frizzell or Jerry Jeff Walker — that's about it. Unlike the Outlaws or Lovett/Griffith/Earle cadre, this bunch doesn't socialize regularly or share a common background. They're all Texans, indisputably, but even how much that has to do with their current success is open for debate.
Lambert scored her record deal in the most show-business manner imaginable — as a runner-up on the first season of reality TV show Nashville Star. While her success on the show gave her a certain amount of visibility, Liddell — brother of Houston singer-songwriter Lise Liddell and husband of Jacksonville-born Nashville star Lee Ann Womack — says Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would have been a much different album had she actually won.
"She would have gone into the studio and made a record immediately," he says. "Having lost, it got her a record deal, it got her some fans and she had another year and a half to grow up, write songs and think about, 'Okay, who am I as an artist?'"
Although Carll's sound probably bears the most resemblance to songs by classic Texas songwriters such as Guy Clark (who himself has lived in Nashville since the early '70s), Lost Highway's Buie says his provenance was essentially a nonissue in the label's decision to sign him, as well as the reaction to Trouble in Mind everywhere but the Lone Star State.
"It's funny. I've definitely seen with Hayes where the articles that have come out in national magazines where his geography doesn't seem to have relevance, but I've seen a lot of articles from Texas where his geography has relevance," she says. "I find it really interesting to see the difference."
Perhaps the biggest way Texas has influenced Nashville recently, Liddell speculates, is that the time-honored Texas tradition of artists growing their fanbase show by show and city by city is gradually emerging as an alternative career-development path to executives who previously tended to rely solely on the radio lottery. Radio remains crucial to any country artist's success, but Liddell points out that both the Randy Rogers Band and Eli Young Band landed their major-label deals after independent radio promoters broke them in cities like Denver and Kansas City.
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"Somebody came to [the labels] in both Randy's case and Eli Young Band's with proof that this could possibly work," he says. "I still don't think you have anybody in Nashville running down to Texas trying to find the next Guy Clark. If somebody like Guy Clark came along, they'd probably have to make ten records and have a cool A&R guy somewhere go, 'God, I've always loved that guy. I want to sign him.'"
And, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, some things will always be bigger than Texas. Especially in Nashville.
"If somebody shows this town that they can make some money, then this town will run after them," Liddell says. "To me, these big companies basically carry around big cans of gasoline. They don't have any matches, but if they can find a spark somewhere, they've got all the gasoline in the world."