Thursday, 21 October 2021 01:52

WYNN - Country Music Memory Lane - 1981

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Last week I wrote about 1986 and how it was central in our transition in the 1980's as we marched towards 1989.  1989 was of course the huge historical year in country that shifted the balance of musical power directly to us well into the 90's.  BUT there was one more year that was the genesis of change to country, and that year was 1981.  These three years gave us the success we have today.

1981 is not 1986 or 1989 commercially or economically for us.  But musically, it was the match that lit the flame on the country music candle and gave us a glimpse of what "could be"  if Nashville was open to it and if fans were for patient for it. It wasn't easy as there were newer artists and the older stars starting to duke it out, but seismic change seldom is easy.  But in my view and in my memory, 1981 was absolutely necessary, and in the end exceedingly important.

Eddie Rabbitt - 1981  - Pop Country Legend


There were basically three sets of artists in country then as I remember it.  There were the radio popular Urban Cowboy acts like Johnny Lee, Mickey Gilley, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Ed Bruce, Eddie Rabbitt, Dolly, T.G. Shepard and others.  They were recording good music that tended to be more poppy in nature and not as country as some would like, but it was the successful trend at the time. And in fairness, it got us noticed by many new fans, but was not overly loved by traditional fans. And all phases have a shelf life, just like Bro-Country did more recently.

Urban Cowboy Legend And Anthem  - 1980


There were the very established icons too, Conway, Waylon, Willie, Tammy Wynette, Merle, George Jones, Loretta, Don Williams and many others.  They were caught between their roots and giving in to the UC sound.  They had tons of fans no doubt, but because of time they were not going to bring us a lot of new or younger fans that we wanted and needed.  Many held on to their roots and that served them well. But as great as they were, there was a ceiling on where they could take us going forward.

The Great Conway - An Example Of The Icons Looking For A Niche  - With The Osmonds - 1983


Then there was a new generation that was outside of the other two.  They were younger, different, more marketable, and the brand of country they were recording was more country, but not completely void of the current style.  Alabama, George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Reba, Earl Thomas Conley, John Anderson, Hank Jr. and others.  They were going to lay the initial groundwork for the rest of the decade. It was country, but had more thump, and all of these artists would become highly influential for the next wave, as they were brave enough to start it.

Alabama 1981 - They Helped Change A Lot Of Things


Alabama was enormously popular and showed us where we could go as they were everywhere. They sold millions of albums, tickets and dominated the charts.  Strait was instantly loved for his deep country style musically and in his terrific image. He shot to the top of the popularity charts incredibly fast and stayed there for 30 years.  Skaggs was very country and those wanting that deep, deep sound found him and loved him.  Reba was new and different as she was unapologetically country from Oklahoma and highly relatable and likable. 

George Strait - 1981  Became An Instant Star With This Debut Song


ETC was a new sound with terrific songs and deep albums that many younger fans instantly loved as his sound was a bit more daring and bigger. Hank Jr., had been around a good long while, but The Pressure Is On  album (his 33rd)  in my view reinvented him and gave us a country anthem, Country Boy Can Survive, and set his career on a newer path for the rest of the decade that fans loved. His success was incredible with a ton of highly imaginative songs.  And Anderson was just flat out the polar opposite to Urban Cowboy.

Ricky Skaggs - 1981 - Left No Doubt He Was Country - First Of His 10 #1's in 5 years


This was the class that became the basis and the influence to what was next.  They did it even being highly limited by the era itself as there was no internet, not really any TV exposure except for Alabama, no YouTube, almost no videos, not much of anything to showcase these stars.  Just the radio, heck in many areas no country music on FM radio, (just AM)  and when fans found us, they found them.  The stations I was working for were playing all three kinds of acts.  There was some real contrasts in styles and sounds, we were inconsistent. And fans were hot and cold with the format and country in general.  I felt that because we had no clear singular direction.

Reba 1981 - She Broke Through Big Time - Very Country


There was a tug of war going on, and I always felt that the new wave would emerge as the new way to go. And in the long run it did but it wasn't easy as change never is.  It would be a few more years before Randy Travis in 1986 and others really solidified the new younger wave.  The world changed too with more far more platforms for artists to get real exposure including the advent of country music videos and a more universal acceptance of country music in general.  Then by the end of the decade a new course was set and we've never looked back.

Earl Thomas Conley -1981 Highly Influential Album And Song - First of 20 #1's


The Class Of 1981 was extraordinarily important in the eventual boom in country music.  Their real gift was their terrific music and influence on the artists that were to come. Someone has to cut the path that others will eventually travel and that's what they did. Just as they walked down the road grated by Conway, Merle, Tammy, Loretta, Cash and Jones. They also were the class that found a whole new kind of listener and fan that viewed country differently than previous.  That we weren't some twangy, stereotypical silly format, and that we were talented, marketable and ready for mainstream attention.

John Anderson -  Extremely Influential To The Traditionalists On The Way


There was a streamlining of artists successes too.  Many of the UC acts slowly faded as did the rest of those who hung their hat on the pop country rack as we moved to a more traditional country sound.  Plus the clock picked up speed on many of the older acts that had dominated the radio for many years.  This was the start of the movement, and as in any movement there are casualties and those who come out on top.  Even though they may not have known it in at that moment, this group became the inspiration and influence for so many stars ahead. 

Hank Jr. - 1981  - A Country Anthem Still -  For A Couple Of Generations


Just as the amazing artists before them -  were theirs.  That's how country is and has always been, and more than likely -  always will be.

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