We’re a country country | AspenTimes.com

We’re a country country

Meredith L. Cohen

The East and Left coasts have selected their latest cause celebre and it has nothing to do with an election, a disease, third world debt or natural disasters. Nope, the latest fad is Nashville. Country music is the new pop.

While country music has always been beloved (according to the Recording Industry Association of America, Garth Brooks shares only with the Beatles, Elvis and Led Zeppelin the distinction of having shipped more than 100 million albums), lately it’s also become hip.

The mainstream spotlight shone briefly on country music in the late ’90s, most notably with dual Canadian/Swiss passport holder Shania Twain and Mississippi’s favorite daughter, Faith Hill. However, purists will likely argue that songs like “Breathe” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” are less honky-tonk and more hot air hogwash.

Real country music is storytelling at its finest. Real country music isn’t afraid to tackle in a three-and-a-half minute song love, Jesus, heartache, illegitimate children, indigestion, fishing, hangovers and driving a pick-up truck with a tail-less three-legged, one-eyed dog in the passenger seat.

As recently as last year, country music was solely the soundtrack for Monday Night Football, Budweiser commercials, Fox News and President Bush’s inauguration ” it wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to fill the iPods of Manhattanites and Los Angeleans. But New York City was a hot bed of activity for all things rockabilly this fall. To commemorate its 80th year, the Grand Ole Opry chose Carnegie Hall as the spot for its only anniversary show outside of Nashville. The Country Music Association adopted Madison Square Garden as the home for this year’s awards program. (Joan Rivers even two-stepped down to the red carpet for live arrivals coverage on the TV Guide Channel.) Lincoln Center hosted a “Broadway Meets Country” event featuring classic Broadway songs interpreted by country music artists and classic country songs performed by Broadway stars. And the second most successful music duo of all time, Brooks and Dunn (Simon and Garfunkel lead the pack of pairs), rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange along with the mayors of New York City and Nashville.

One of the surest signs that country has trickled from the red states into the blue is its high profile female following. Three women in the top five of The Hollywood Reporter’s annual 10 Most Powerful Women list have recently aligned themselves with country music.

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Oscar winner Renee Zellweger dated, married and split with country crooner Kenny Chesney in a tidy nine-month span earlier this year. Chesney had already made a name for himself in Nashville before hooking and breaking up with the Bridget Jones star, however there’s no doubt that their wedding photo on the covers of People and US Weekly will help keep his name in lights for many more years to come.

Another Oscar winner, Nicole Kidman, has recently been seen with a multi-carat diamond ring on the second finger of her left hand, reportedly an engagement gift from fellow Aussie, country soon-to-be superstar Keith Urban. It is not widely believed that Urban’s record sales will suffer as a result of their relationship.

Reese Witherspoon is garnering Oscar buzz for her star turn as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” which has raked in over $70 million since it opened last month. (The Man in Black will also be making a splash on the Great White Way when “Ring of Fire, The Johnny Cash Musical” opens on Broadway early next year.)

Another one of 2005’s most talked about films, “Brokeback Mountain,” is in line with the country-western trend, although ranch hands and rodeo and bull riders might not flock to see the flick. It remains to be seen if the heartland can be wooed to see a movie also known as the Gay Cowboy Film. While critics say “Brokeback Mountain” could earn several awards from the entertainment industry, it might not be rewarded at the box office given the extensive disapproval of same-sex unions.

There is no ambiguity, however, as to whether country music record labels are profiting from the newfound Southern vogue. So far this year, four albums have crossed over from the country charts to the number one spot on the Billboard 200. Following the CMA Awards, four of the top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 were country titles. And this week, 13 of Billboard’s top 50 albums are country as well. The latest American Idol winner, country singer Carrie Underwood, debuted on the Billboard 200 chart at number two (only Madonna sold more CDs the week that Underwood’s album was released). According to Nielsen SoundScan, year-to-date country albums account for 11.3 percent of U.S. album sales, compared to 10.5 percent for all of last year.

The crossover goes the other way, too. Big-haired New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi hit the country charts last month following their CMA performance of the song, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland.

Listening to the vintage twang sounds of Willie Nelson and Hank Williams has undoubtedly always been fashionable, but the Mandrell Sisters and Kenny Rogers are probably wondering if now isn’t the time to strike while hillbillies are hot and releasing greatest hits collections.

Just as long as mullets, bolo ties and Billy Ray Cyrus aren’t next in line to seep out of the South into the rest of the country, the bucking bronco bonanza might have some staying power across all 50 states beyond its current 15 minutes of fame.