Country music is back
Taylor Swift and our own Nathan Carter are part of a new wave of country singers ruffling old-school feathers, writes Ed Power
You probably haven't heard of Nathan Carter -- unless, that is, you are one of the thousands who have bought his chart-topping 2012 single 'Wagon Wheel' or plan on attending his forthcoming tour (an instant sellout).
Such bewilderment is understandable -- though his vaguely Top Shop-y name suggests a brylcreemed X Factor debutante, Carter is actually a rather traditional sort of Irish star: a country rocker from the depths of Donegal with a twanging voice and butter-wouldn't melt grin. He's got a guitar and a bellyful of woe and, like it or not, you're about to hear all about it.
With a number one record under his stetson and two gigs next week at Dublin's Olympia, Carter is undoubtedly a major commercial force in the making. More than that, it is clear his breakthrough is part of a wider phenomenon: Garth Brooks is saddling up for a world tour (a Croke Park stop-off is rumoured); Brad Paisley returns to Dublin's O2 for a two day festival in March. Shudder in your boots, order a long stiff drink -- do whatever you need to. The facts are indisputable: country music is back.
In a sense it never really went away. It is a little commented upon fact that Shania Twain, perhaps the first Nashville singer to realise how far a little pop gloss would take you, released the biggest selling album of the 90s while Dixie Chicks were not exactly inconspicuous through the 2000s. Generally, however, the past 20 years were a period of retrenchment for country -- the genre was alive and swinging with both fists and yet did little to trouble the world beyond its boundaries. Now that's changing.
The fightback, it can be contended, began with Taylor Swift, who has transcended her roots and is today among pop's biggest properties. Arguably, she has done so not by denying her country background but by staying true to it. It's a cliche that country singers are storytellers first, songwriters second -- that is undoubtedly the case with Swift, who populates her material with gushing romantic anecdotes (usually autobiographical) -- which has proved irresistible to her tweenage fanbase.
She does not exist in a vacuum. In her wake, there has been a mini upsurge of country acts (rock music, for its part, sulks in the background, half forgotten). As with Swift, artists such as The Band Perry, Sugarland and Lady Antebellum specialise in no-strings wholesomeness and briskly upbeat melodies, qualities that mark them as successors to the cheesy mainstream of country as initially embodied by Brooks and Twain.
"The lines between pop and country are increasingly blurred," the Band Perry's Kimberly Perry (an all sibling trio from rural Tennessee) told me. "We don't think too much about where we fall in terms of genre. It's about making music audiences want to hear."
Of course it would be a mistake to assume a genre as venerable as country music exists as a monolith and it is fair to state that, within the community, there is a push against the slick distractions served up by Taylor Swift and her acolytes (a club that demonstrably includes Nathan Carter).
Many in country are aghast at what they see as the steam-roller commercialisation of the closest thing America has to an indigenous sound (excluding rap, which is perhaps every bit as American, though in a completely different way).
Speaking to me recently, Laura Rogers of the 'old time' country duo The Secret Sisters says chart performers of the sort we adore in Ireland were destroying the genre.
"If you live in Nashville and make music, you are going to be put through that grinder. People will say 'you need to go and write with these writers, you need to have that kind of hair and write these kind of songs'. They know what gets on the radio...We [need to] redefine what country is, to bring it back to what it used to be -- and away from the shiny cowboy boots and Nashville sound."
Likewise, among more discerning music fans it is reasonable to state that country -- the chart-bestriding variety at any rate -- has a sullied reputation. We see footage of Garth Brooks at Croke Park in 1987, the crowd a surge of straw-hats and naff jeans, and oh how we cringe (and bask in what we believe to be our superior sensibilities). But maybe we're just myopic and small minded and should be open to new musical experiences. Like it or not there are plenty coming down the track.
NATHAN CARTER PLAYS THE OLYMPIA, DUBLIN, ON JANUARY 17 AND 18