On The Fringe
What is Countrypolitan Music?For many years, since its evolution from Southern folk music, country music depended mainly on the strings - fiddles and guitars - for its base. Different styles of country music have emerged: honky tonk, western swing, etc. However the most commercially successful of these was Rockabilly, which combines elements of country music with rhythm and blues.
In the 50's, Rockabilly was gaining in popularity to the exclusion of mainstream country music. Not wishing to be left behind in the commercial stakes, and wishing to expand its audience, mainstream country developed a commercial sound of its own. The sound began as the Nashville Sound but later evolved to be known as Countrypolitan. Possibly the best description of the new sound is expounded by Artist Direct Inc.:
Countrypolitan -- an outgrowth of the Nashville Sound of the '50s -- is among the most commercially oriented genres of country music. The Nashville Sound emerged in the '50s as a way to bring country music to a broad pop audience. Chet Atkins, who was the head of RCA Records' country division, led the movement. Atkins designed a smooth, commercial sound that relied on country song structures but abandoned all of the hillbilly and honky tonk instrumentation. He hired session musicians and coordinated pop-oriented, jazz-tinged productions. Similarly, Owen Bradley created productions -- most notably with Patsy Cline -- that featured sophisticated productions and smooth, textured instrumentation. Eventually, most records from Nashville featured this style of production and the Nashville Sound began to incorporate strings and vocal choirs. In the late '60s, the Nashville Sound metamorphosed into countrypolitan, which emphasized these kinds of pop production flourishes. Featuring layers of keyboards, guitars, strings, and vocals, countrypolitan records were designed to crossover to pop radio and they frequently did. The sound dominated the country charts in the '70s and stayed popular until the early '80s.Many artists became associated with the new style and include: Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Lynn Anderson, Don Gibson, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee, Kitty Wells, Charley Pride and many others. For a list of some of the better-known Countrypolitan artists, click here. The most noted countrypolitan artist of all time is, of course, Patsy Cline.
As seen in the 1985 motion picture, "Sweet Dreams," which chronicled the life and career of Patsy Cline, even the artists themselves were partially resistant to this new sound. One scene in the movie has Cline defying her manager, Randy Hughes, because she feared that the background singers would "drown her out." There is also a scene where producer Owen Bradley tells Cline to do it the way she always does, "Her own way." The great artists such as Cline, Lynn and Jones were able to produce this style of sound without sacrificing the country sound that they loved.
As the Nashville Sound moved to Countrypolitan, a number of country artists continued to cross to the new country/pop or Countrypolitan sound. They include Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich and John Denver. Denver took a lot of flack from country fans, country radio and industry insiders. His first successful pop crossover hit in 1971 was also his signature song, "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Not only did this sound allow country artists to cross over onto the pop charts, but pop artists were crossing over onto the country charts as well. The Eagles had a country hit in 1975 with "Lying Eyes." Olivia Newton-John and Linda Rondstadt also had some success in this respect. Rondstadt's country hits included "When Will I Be Loved" (1975) and "Blue Bayou" (1977). Of course, neither of these women was really accepted by the country music industry. Pop artists crossing over to the country side of the line usually aren't as easily accepted as their counterparts. The one artist that could easily be considered the exception to this rule is Anne Murray. She started out as a pop singer, but consistently crossed over the pop/country lines with ease and acceptance. Some of her greatest hits succeeded on both charts. For example, "Walk Right Back" (1978), "You Needed Me" (1978), "Could I Have This Dance" (1980), and "A Little Good News" (1982).
Even though Countrypolitan was at it's height in the 1960's and 1970's, it is still alive and well today. There are several young artists today who are endeavoring to gain success in country music utilizing the Countrypolitan style in some of their musical offerings. Some of the more notables are Allison Moorer, Junior Brown, Lee Roy Parnell, and the Mavericks. Even modern day Bakersfield exponent, Dwight Yoakam, includes Countrypolitan offerings in his repertoire, thus demonstrating the abilities of artists to present country music in a number of its styles. This, of course, includes the modern day artist whose music most predominantly displays the countrypolitan style - Mandy Barnett. Barnett's latest release, "I've Got A Right To Cry," was Nashville Sound pioneer, Owen Bradley's last work before he passed away in 1999. It is a critically acclaimed album that deserves to be in everyone's collection. Her interpretation of this style of music is the closest thing to perfection since the days of her predecessor, Patsy Cline. She has often been compared to Cline, but the only comparison to be made is in the musical styling and strong vocal talent that shine through in this amazing album. Everything else is just Mandy Barnett and it doesn't get much better than that.
Written by Michael D'Arcy and Sherry Anderson. January 2001, Countrypolitan.com.
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