If there’s a throne atop the land that is Country Music, I’m not sure many people want it. Recently, the land of Country Music feels barren and sad. The land is overcrowded with jesters who sing of liquor and bars and disconnected sex as if these were the heights of existence rather than signs of ignored problems and frailties. The land is overcrowded with magicians who divine the magic beats-per-minute to skyrocket a song, who stir four and five songwriters into a cauldron and feed the elixir to their Allure covergirls and hunky good-ol-boys.
What the land seems to lack are maverick leaders. (Can you have a maverick leader? Is that an oxymoron?) You know, those supernova personalities whose brilliance overcomes the shadows, who continue shining while the rain nourishes the starved earth, rainbows filling the sky to the delight of the huddled and underserved villagers, whose hope had all but dwindled away but long to believe in something real again.
I spent dozens of hours last summer in Robert’s Western World, the last great haven for what would be considered “classic” country music, the tunes and topics before Garth Brooks and Shania Twain (who, with all due respect ‘cuz I like both of them a little, saw the beginning of moving 80s and 90s lite (or white) rock and AAA into the Land of Country Music, where it lives to this day.
To be sure, there is no singular king or queen of country anymore than there is a singular king of England, but lately country music is more interested in short-term congressmen or parliamentarians than they are in crowning rulers. Yet might the once and future king and queen of country be already in their midst, waiting for the opportunity to pull a banjo from the stone, or for the Dolly of the Lake to throw them a fiddle?
Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves may be the best chance for country music to hold onto its historical roots while forging a meaningful future. They are the Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton of this generation.
Many don’t realize, but Dolly only had three albums go Platinum. Four if you include Trio with Emmylou and Linda. She has sold 100 million albums the hard way. Same for The Man in Black, two of whose three Platinum albums were live recordings. Estimates have his total sales at 90 million, just behind Dolly. They are what the pinnacle of what country music used to be because in any genre’s best days, commercial success is not the priority but rather the side-effect of bigger aims and visions.
Likewise, albeit with a 21st Century spin, Isbell and Musgraves have bigger fish to fry than mere sales. You know this when Isbell sells out show after show but barely dents the sales charts (although his latest, which my colleague Bob calls “not even his second-best effort,” did top both the US Country and US Rock charts… which only means no one knows what to consider his music). You know this when Musgraves debuts her traditional-sounding country pop sound in a gay bar with drag queens, all but flipping a Johnny Cash-esque middle finger to the conservative roots of the standard country music listener.
Musgraves has Dolly’s music business savvy and a penchant for “advice songs.” She understands, like Dolly, the way her well-put-together body* and hairdo choices can hypnotize an audience while she slight-of-hands her way into your heart and ear. She projects the image that she can balance the impossible dual personality of commanding a stage with glitz and glamour one minute and sitting comfortably, genuinely, next to you on the front porch or in the kitchen the next, holding your hand and actually listening to your woes. (* - Although Kacey puts her legs and booty front and center while Dolly put her chest uber alles.)
They lack some key qualities, to be fair. Isbell doesn't have Cash's aggression. His is at best a quiet rage, where Cash's was frequently more in your face. Musgraves hasn't managed to be as personal or as tender as some of Dolly's finest moments. Where's her "Jolene" or her "I Will Always Love You" (mock that song if you like, but if you know the back story it's pretty dang amazing)? Where's the moment she reveals something deep and painful about herself?
But successors to thrones rarely seem worthy in the early stages. The shoes they must fill seem too big. Frequently, however, the odds get defied, hearts get won over, and kingdoms continue to thrive.
Time always tells.