Thank God he's a pretty boy

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

It was the oft-heard rallying cry in the mid- to late 1980s that George Strait, Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam had rescued country from the tepid pop that had defined the Nashville sound throughout the 1970s. They were heralded as the New Traditionalists, celebrated in the music media like hired gunmen brought in to clean out a lawless town and make it safe again for the God-fearin' and the righteous.

They possessed the right points of reference--Hank Williams, George Jones, Bob Wills, even Buck Owens--and crafted music that contained faint echoes of the '50s. But it was Garth--this child of the '70s, as much a fan of Kiss and James Taylor as of the two Georges (Jones and Strait)--who'd eventually become king of the road, crossing over into mainstream pop, becoming a superstar where Strait and Travis were only popular. Ty Herndon is just the latest young man to soak up some of Brooks' spill-over, drinking from a hat filled not with rain, as the song goes, but the champagne of success.

Speaking to the Observer last year, Waylon Jennings--who likewise came to country from the rock and roll tradition 40 years earlier, once sharing the stage with pal Buddy Holly--dismissed the fodder clogging up country radio as "songs we threw away in the old days." He said this without a trace of the bitterness one might associate with an old man radio had long forgotten, but with the wisdom of a someone who understood the link between rock and roll and country and had his share of "pop" hits, but without ever selling out one style for another.

"I've been out with some of these groups, and I've kinda watched them, and some of them are bad rock and roll," Jennings said. "That's what it amounts to, and onstage it gets even more rock and roll. And I love rock and roll--my roots are from rock and roll--but the thing is if you're gonna do something, do it good."

The best you can say about Herndon--or, given such low expectations for country radio, maybe it's the worst you can say--is that he doesn't do it bad.

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