Blame it all on my roots, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t something special about the “second golden age” of country music, the neotraditional wave of line dancin’, hat tippin’ and boot scootin’ hillbilly music of the late 1980s to mid ’90s. Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, Patty Loveless and Randy Travis, among others, cranked out some of the best stadium-sized, chart-topping hits of their time.
Country music traditionalists questioned its integrity, but this unique subgenre is worth so much more than fodder for karaoke night. And I — someone who regularly listens to bands like Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, The Cure, you get the idea — am here to defend this era of pop-tinged honky-tonk music and celebrate its influence on the music industry today. Because, damn, it’s just fun to listen to.
One of the great things about this new-fashioned way of making country music was that you didn’t actually need to be a fan of country music to like it. Fans of the era's pop stars — Madonna, Michael Jackson, etc. — embraced its catchy hooks and Southern charm. Stadium country music back then became a worldwide phenomenon with pyrotechnics, lavish costumes and acrobatics (Brooks flying on a wire above a crowd, for example).
This performance style was so far removed from the earlier, modest days of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and so on, that, even with its criticism, it drew a sizable, younger audience, which sent record sales skyrocketing. In fact, country music Hall of Famer Brooks is the best-selling country music artist in recorded history and even beat out the Beatles for the most diamond-status records. (10 million copies sold; Brooks had seven to the Beatles’ six.)
Despite the then fashion-forward mullets, novel sex appeal and crossover to mainstream radio, these new country artists still maintained an “everyman” sensibility, a hallmark of the genre going back to its infancy in the early 20th century. The slick black cowboy hats, patterned Wrangler button-downs and overall ranch hand vibe convinced us they were just good ol’ boys and girls with hearts of gold (and massive record deals) no matter what the naysayers said.
The music followed suit, with hits such as Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” and Travis’ “Forever And Ever, Amen.” It was these sought-after earworms and the artists’ willingness to break traditional country music norms and bring high-energy music, flare and general appeal to Nashville that makes them so memorable.
So why did the traditional country crowd dismiss this new class of music makers and question their credibility? And why do some still do this today?
Anyone who thought country music was headed in the wrong direction back in 1989, when a lot of the neotraditionalists were starting to gain wide popularity, probably threw in the towel altogether once Canadian-born Shania Twain came along in the mid ’90s.
Twain's big time, radio-fated hits sounded more like a pop star trying on a pair of cowgirl boots than a country artist branching into the pop world. And that’s not an insult — Twain is undisputedly the queen of ’90s country pop. But earlier acts, like “honky tonk angel” Loveless, the Ketucky-born daughter of a coal miner and distant cousin of Loretta Lynn, with hits like 1994’s “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” sounded country, not just instrumentally and vocally, but with country music song tropes about cheating hearts and lonely nights.
Mentored early in her career by the likes of country music icons Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Loveless might have been one of the first female artists to embrace a little sexuality and modernize country music in a way it had never been done before, but you can’t doubt her authenticity and “everywoman” appeal that’s so ingrained in the traditional country music circuit.
To those questioning the longevity and relevancy of these artists, Jackson, who penned and performed the country boy anthem “Chattahoochee” in 1992, topped the charts worldwide this year with his new album Where Have You Gone. Orville Peck collaborated with Twain on his EP Show Pony last year. And while Billy Ray Cyrus is not an exactly icon of the neotraditional country movement of the early ’90s, he certainly embraced the performance style, which is likely why Lil Nas X included him on the hit single "Old Town Road." Brooks even performed at President Joe Biden’s inauguration earlier this year.
Data aside, if you doubt the talent of any of these artists, I encourage you to embrace the aesthetic for a moment and accept these hits for what they are: formulaic, relatable songs about the good old days, lost love and getting out on the town. As much as I try to forget my own East Texas roots, after a few beers, I’ve found myself cranking up “Guitars, Cadillacs” by Yoakam, “Friends in Low Places” by Brooks, even “Chattahoochee” by Jackson, knowing it’ll stay in my head for approximately three full days.
It’s not irony, it’s that I have a genuine love for these artists and songs.
Nineties nostalgia is undoubtedly one thing that won’t fade away soon, and it’s clear the grandeur of these artists will leave a legacy long after they’re gone. The iconic era may be lost on some folks, and misunderstood by a lot of others, but there’s one thing for sure: this second golden age of country music, amplified by large stadiums, electric guitars and slicked back hair, taught us a lot about living, a little ’bout love — and that country music can reach far beyond your grandfather’s record collection.