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Country goes mainstream

Country music artists find success not limited to American borders

By Jason Caesar Consolacion
Co-Entertainment Editor

Is country music entering the pop scene with more force than ever now? Can fans use the word "mainstream" with their favorite country artists?

It’s possible to think so, but this is nothing new. In 1956, Elvis Presley broke onto the mainstream with his hard-hitting brand of rhythm and blues. Back then it was called rock n’ roll. These days it’s called country.

Presley’s rockin’ trio (Elvis on guitar and vocals, Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar) toured the southeastern part of the country in the late 1950s, promoting what eventually became rock music’s first taste for mainstream listeners. Country music was already one of the most popular genres of the time, but Presley added what was known then as the "black" sound.

While country was renamed rock ’n’ roll on a temporary basis, Presley led a handful of wannabes onto the Nashville scene to record rhythm and blues-filled country songs, most of which turned into hits.

Ricky Nelson, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis followed Presley’s lead and country music became everyone’s favorite sound.

Throughout the early ’60s, rock ’n’ roll would create its own identity, spreading beyond American borders and leaking out into Mexico and Europe. Country music stayed in Nashville, sticking to its roots while allowing Elvis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones take rock ’n’ roll to new heights.

It wasn’t until the mid-’80s, however, that country music made a minor comeback using artists like Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to promote its twangy, laid-back sound.

Shania Twain is one of many country music artists who entertain fams of both country and pop music.

Timothy White/Mercury Records

As the years progressed, so did the sound. Country artists fed off the successes of rock music by using more hard-hitting beats and unconventional chord progressions in their recordings.

In 1991, country music introduced the world to Garth Brooks. A hard-rockin’ twanger from Oklahoma, Brooks blew everyone away with his debut release, No Fences.

Today, Brooks’ albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. He sells out shows for every city in which he plays. He sold out five shows in Houston. When in Vancouver, Alanis Morissette, a Canada native, played only one show at General Motors Place while Brooks sold out three.

Even from an international standpoint, Brooks is a superstar. He packs shows in England, France, Australia and China. Still not convinced? Just picture a five-foot Asian kid wearing a cowboy hat. If that can happen, country music must be doing pretty well.

Brooks might as well be recognized as the man who brought country music back to the mainstream audience. With seven albums under his hat, he is one of the top recording artists of all time, along with Michael Jackson and Presley.

But there’s more on the way for country music. Artists like Faith Hill, Deana Carter, The Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, Bryan White and LeAnn Rimes are bringing a pop twist to Nashville’s recording studios.

The queen of mainstream country would have to be Shania Twain. This product of Canada has brought a strong pop influence to country music. Of course, it could be the other way around. Maybe she’s bringing a strong country influence to pop music.

Twain made a strong impression with her debut, The Woman In Me, which was produced by hard-rocker and eventual husband Robert John "Mutt" Lange. When she released Come On Over last year, critics accused her of sounding too "pop." Twain’s response: "So what?"

The formula works. Twain’s arena tour has been selling out night after night. Her songs have reached the mainstream airwaves and her videos are on MTV. Is she losing her country audience? At most, she’s losing the country purists — people who fear change in country music.

The problem is that country music, pop music and their respective artists are always changing. Ever since a young man from Tupelo, Miss., picked up a guitar and showed the world that a country boy can be soulful, music has gone through a plenitude of changes.

Country music has entered the mainstream. To put a bigger stamp on the statement, Billboard Magazine recently merged its country chart with its pop chart, something they should have done a long time ago since Twain and Brooks have been all over the Billboard 200 chart.

Will the ever-growing genre turn completely pop? Probably not, but artists will always find ways to merge pop and country. It’s a winning combination. I guess the next thing to do is have Puff Daddy produce Brooks’ next album.

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