Country singer Holly Dunn probably thought that the song "Maybe I Mean Yes" would be another in her
growing list of Top 10 singles. The tune had a catchy melody and cute lyrics about a woman who can't
decide whether she wants to go out with a man. But some people thought the song was an invitation to
As soon as radio stations started playing the song last July, they started getting complaints. Female
listeners objected to these lyrics:
When I say "no" I mean "maybe"
Baby, you don't know me yet
Nothing's worth having if it ain't hard to get
So let me clarify so you won't have to try and guess
When I say "no" I mean "maybe"
Or maybe I mean "yes"
While feminists have complained about songs before (NOW wanted stations to pull Bruce
Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" a few years ago because he called the object of his affection "little girl" in
the song), the Dunn controversy was unusual. It wasn't a planned campaign by some organization but a spontaneous outpouring of phone calls by country-music fans.
"I've never seen such an immediate negative response before," said Tim Murphy, program director at
Seattle's KMPS, in an article in the Los Angeles Times.
Dunn at first argued that the song had been misinterpreted. Eventually, she asked radio stations to pull
the song in order to avoid offending people. "I think this song is a victim of timing," she said. "A few
years ago, a record like this wouldn't have raised an eyebrow."
Dunn is right. The country-music audience has grown tremendously over just the last few years.
As recently as the early 1970s, a country album was considered successful if it sold 70,000 copies.
Today, Top 10 albums go platinum (1 million copies sold). Garth Brooks made country-music history in
September when his third album became the first by a country artist to hit number one on Billboard's
pop chart. The album debuted in the top slot.
But the country-music audience is not only growing, it's changing. New listeners are forcing their tastes
on the business, and Dunn got caught by the changes. A few years ago, listeners would have taken
the song for what Dunn intended: "a cute lighthearted story about courtship and flirtation." Today's
audience listens to the music with different preconceptions and concerns than the audience of, say,
"There's no question that big changes are occurring in the audience and the music," says Gene Bridges, program director at Los Angeles country-music station KLAC. "The audience is certainly bigger than it has ever been, but it's also broader—younger, more urban, probably even more liberal." It's also more feminine. "It used to be that the audience at a typical concert would be 60 percent men, 40 percent women," says Bridges. "Now it's more even. Some of the really popular male singers may even draw 60 percent women."
What the new young listeners seem to most want to hear is a type of country music known in the
industry as New Traditionalism. Fiddles, steel guitars, and twangs so thick they should drive anyone born north of the Ohio River from the room are suddenly hip. And after disappearing during the 70's, cowboy hats are once again ubiquitous among young male singers. Indeed, the biggest of the young stars—Clint Black, Ricky Van Shelton, Dwight Yoakum, and Garth Brooks—are collectively referred to as the "hat acts."
This is all ironic because for at least 30 years record companies have been pushing a syrupy middle-
of-the-road sound scarcely different from the usual pop ballads. The crossover appeal of New
Traditionalism seems to have caught them by surprise.
Dwight Yoakum, one of the purest of the New Traditionalists, has said many times that the "suits"
in Nashville told him his first album was too country. They even forced him to change the title from
Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music to Guitars, Cadillacs, etc., etc. because they didn't think people
would buy something with hillbilly in the title. Then the record went gold and spawned several hit
singles. The suits let Yoakum call his second album Hillbilly Deluxe.
The record companies didn't anticipate the impact that music videos would have on their business. "The Nashville Network has done a lot to expand country music's audience," says Cheryl Daily, a spokeswoman for the eight-year-old cable channel.
Indeed, younger artists consistently cite exposure on TNN as a boon to their careers. Available to 53
million cable households (almost as many as MTV), TNN has brought country music out of the rural
South and into virtually every city in the United States. With 18 hours of programming to fill each day,
TNN has plenty of room for new artists.
Many of the younger artists who grew up with television know how to play to the camera. While Holly
Dunn, Patty Loveless, the Judds, and Clint Black have undeniable musical talent, they are also good-looking people with a flair for making interesting music videos. Ricky Van Shelton has a strong voice, but he may be more famous for taking his shirt off in most of his videos. And Dwight Yoakum's impossibly tight jeans get mentioned in every profile written about the singer.
Of course, the greatest marketing tools in the world are of no use if there's no market for the product.
Fortunately for country music, there was an audience just waiting for it. As baby boomers get older,
they seem to yearn for simpler times. The most successful shows on cable are sitcoms from the '60s. Westerns are showing up on movie screens again. Nostalgia is hot, and country music is nothing if not nostalgic.
But if the sound of the music is traditional, the lyrics often aren't. Just as Kevin Costner used the form of a traditional Western to preach '90s values in Dances with Wolves, today's young song-writers use familiar three-chord songs to tell modem-day stories. Not surprisingly, young artists can't always leave behind their preconceptions and concerns, their '90s sensibilities. And even when they can, their audiences can't, as Holly Dunn found out.
The younger artists talk about more than the traditional country subjects—momma, prisons, trains,
trucks, and getting drunk—and they often treat the old subjects in new ways. A few years ago, for
example, John Anderson answered 70 years of drinking songs with "When You Get on the Whiskey (You Better Let Somebody Else Drive)."
The biggest change is the way the younger male artists treat women and romantic relationships. From the beginning, male country singers have performed countless songs about the women who left them and did them wrong. Relationships never seemed to work out, and it was always the woman's fault. The titles said it all: "Your Cheatin' Heart," She's Acting Single, I'm Drinking Doubles," and "Oh, Lonesome Me."
But last year, Garth Brooks and Clint Black—maybe the two most important singers to emerge in the
last three years—turned the clichés on their head. In their debut albums, both men included wistful songs about romantic relationships that ended on friendly terms. Black's "A Better Man" is a song even Phil Donahue could love. While the singer is sad to see his love go, he's convinced it's for the best, and on the whole he will cherish the memories of the relationship: "Things I couldn't do before now I think I can/ And I'm leaving here a better man."
That isn't how country-music relationships are supposed to end. A man's supposed to get drunk
when his woman leaves him, maybe even do something worse. The hero of Willie Nelson's mid-'70s
Redheaded Stranger album is a preacher who hunts down and kills his wayward wife and her lover.
That sort of casual attitude toward violence against women probably wouldn't sit well with Brooks. One of the most controversial singles from his debut album was a song about a battered wife "The Thunder Rolls." This time, the cheating, drinking husband is clearly a bad guy. When his wife dares to complain, he beats her. The video for the song depicts the husband's violence—and the wife's retaliation—so explicitly that some stations refused to run it.
Of course, previous generations of country-music singers didn't glorify wife beating, but they didn't
condemn it either. They didn't talk about it at all; it just wasn't of their musical world.
Some longtime country fans complain that their music is being yuppified. In fact, it's just changing to
keep up with the times. Garth Brooks may not be Hank Williams. But this isn't 1951.
Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Music: The New Country".