Thank God he's a pretty boy

Ty Herndon is country music's latest hunk of the month. But is he for real?

Rather, he points to the likes of Connie Smith, Marty Robbins, Cowboy Copas, and Sonny James as influences--all perennials on country's list of benchwarmers and waterboys.

Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas (who died in the same plane crash in 1963 that claimed Patsy Cline) was a long-time performer on the Grand Ole Opry whose modest career was marked by such half-baked fodder as "Hangman's Boogie," "An Old Farm for Sale," and "Tragic Romance"--trite, sentimental corn-pone redeemed only by Copas' decent voice and his fine flat-top playing. Connie Smith--who, like Herndon, was discovered at a talent contest--achieved brief, modest fame in the 1960s singing country ballads, then later, in a move that predated Garth Brooks by a good 20 years, began performing James Taylor material that stalled what little momentum she had going for her.

Sonny James ranks among one of the best-selling country artists of all time, which only proves how undiscriminating country audiences have been throughout history. He was, as writer Colin Escott has noted, among the first country artists to cross over to the burgeoning "bubble-gum" market in 1956 with the lousy "Young Love." From there, he spent the rest of an unremarkable career ruining songs by the likes of Roy Orbison and Jimmy Reed, making him the Pat Boone of country.

And though Marty Robbins owns a modest amount of credibility by way of "El Paso" and "Devil Woman," he, too, was a fad-hopper who possessed an innate ability to read audiences like a blind man reads Braille, jumping from rockabilly to country to folk to rock to Hawaiian ballads with each shift of the commercial winds. "Given a choice between country music or pop music," Escott wrote, "Marty Robbins would probably have opted for pop."

Herndon, then, is their progeny--a country musician more pop than honky-tonk; his music slick, commercial, sentimental, sweet, silly, hummable, and instantly forgettable; his fate forever sealed by how wonderfully mediocre he truly is. Like Sonny James or Marty Robbins, there's nothing offensive about Herndon, nothing there that makes him easy to dismiss; and all three possess decent enough voices, Herndon's being a deeper and gruffer variation on Garth Brooks'. But like James and Robbins, there is nothing that distinguishes Herndon from hundreds of other modest talents whose sole purpose is to sell records.

He's just an awfully nice guy who thanks Jesus for his success, loves his wife (a nurse for the terminally ill), and talks a lot about living his dream and how all this is just "destiny" taking its course. And he is, at his core, a mighty fine image: he doesn't wear a hat, sports a five o'clock shadow, and dresses like Banana Republic's idea of country (suspenders holding up his jeans, button-down vests covering denim shirts). On his album, he extends a special thanks to "everyone in promotions, marketing, and media...you have simply wowed me"; and his Epic Records press biography fails to mention that he worked at the Opryland theme park for five years covering the top country hits.

"It's not embarrassing to me," Herndon says of the omission. "Just theme parks, I guess, like 'Star Search.' I enjoyed it. It was a great paycheck, but the danger is you get comfortable."

Though he does not reek of the same calculation that surrounded Ricky Lynn Gregg, Billy Ray Cyrus, or a whole host of other current country faves--all of whom will be forgotten by yesterday--Herndon (like Gregg or Cyrus)ultimately underlines all that's truly wrong with country today.

Unlike other local boys who've busted hump for years--guys like Liberty Valance's Donny Ray Ford or Cowboys and Indians' Erik Swanson, men who approach the microphone with their heart in one hand and a history book in the other--Herndon crafts a brand of country for audiences who wouldn't otherwise listen to or know Neal McCoy from the Real McCoy. In its attempt to be all things to all people, modern country music has the roots of a twig, easily pulled from the ground. It's soul like Michael Bolton is soul (Herndon, at times, sounds very much like Bolton), pop like Bread was pop, country like Brooks is country. And its emotions stay even closer to the surface, each sentence the sort of cliche that blurs the line between simple and stupid.

Throughout the '70s and early '80s, purists complained that country had fallen into the hands of the enemy--performers like Olivia Newton-John (who won the Grammy for best country female vocal in 1973) and a has-been folk-rocker named Kenny Rogers. Theirs was a brand of country slicked up and toned down for the urban cowboy and cowgirl who had never stepped into the honky-tonk, an audience that approached country with the same condescension it attracted in the '30s, when it was considered bassackwards hillbilly music.

The sterile sound was known as "countrypolitan"--that is, part rustic and part city, but all pop--and had actually been born with Patsy Cline around the time she recorded the sickly sweet pop hits "You Belong to Me" and "The Wayward Wind" in the early '60s. It damn near killed country and buried it with its boots on. In the 1970s, among the top-selling country artists were Dolly Parton, John Denver, and B.J. Thomas; in the early '80s, Juice Newton and Anne Murray and Ronnie Milsap were celebrated.

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