George Bush digs country music. Oprah's been won over. Music lovers in Europe, Australia and Japan are clamoring for American country artists. You - yeah, you, the one who grew up on rock 'n' roll - could be next, no matter how far you grew up from pickup trucks and the twang belt.
USA Today has a country music writer. Randy Travis is a household name. George Strait is going to star in a Hollywood western. On ritzy Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, store windows display spiffy country western duds (with price tags only stars could afford).And a recent issue of GQ magazine offered its wing-tipped readers a guide to essential country music recordings for the Nashville neophyte. Country dancing is so popular, even a 40-year-old ballroom dance instructor who grew up in New York is two-stepping at a local saloon on Sunday nights.
"More and more young people, the type you'd never expect to like country music, are coming to Nashville to see what's going on, to listen to country music," says Amy Kurland, owner and manager of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, a 100-seat venue that draws recording-industry executives who are bird-dogging new talent.
VH-1, the music video cable network aimed at baby boomers, began a 30-minute weekly country show last fall.
"I don't think we've even tapped our potential audience," says Jessica Falcon, the show's 33-year-old producer, a jaded New York rock 'n' roller who found country a refreshing change. "I responded to the purity of it - it's that simple."
Exceptional talent peddled by better marketing have combined with cable networks featuring country videos, talk shows and lifestyles to lift country's popularity beyond its traditional audience.
Truth is, the older you get, the more days you've worked, the more nights you've spent on the town, the more your heart has ached and the more hearts you've broken, the more you can appreciate country music. And with the baby boomers moving through midlife, country's growth is expected to continue for years.
TNN, The Nashville Network, is in 52 million households, and spokesmen there say 37 million households actually tune in the station during any given week. TNN's parent company, which owns the Grand Ole Opry and Opryland, recently acquired CMT, a cable network that plays country videos 24 hours a day. They plan to quadruple its current distribution of 10 million households.
"People are relating to the words more," says Nancy Neil, TNN's public relations manager and the wife of a Nashville songwriter. "They're tired of the old rock 'n' roll they can't relate to anymore."
Last summer, Oprah Winfrey aired her first show featuring country artists. She wore a cowboy hat and drawled, y'all.
"Oprah loved it. That afternoon after we taped the show, she couldn't stop singing the songs, and in the mornings she has it blaring in the office," says Colleen Raleigh, spokeswoman for the popular talk show.
At Peaches Music and Video on Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach (which, by the way, has the best country-music selection in the region), the manager says sales reflect country's growing popularity.
"I've been charting country music for the last two or three years, and there's definitely a progressive increase in sales," says Kerry Dwyer, Peaches manager and head buyer, a 33-year-old country music fan. "But even more interesting is the different type of people who are buying it. We get a lot of upwardly mobile, yuppie-types who have seen a video and are intrigued enough to want to buy the music. I don't think it's because they heard it as a crossover on pop stations because the music is getting more traditional sounding. A lot of it sounds like it could have been recorded 20 years ago."
It's a return to that genuine country sound that shook country music out of its post-"Urban Cowboy" slump in the early '80s. That revival movement was led by Randy Travis, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, Reba McIntire, The Judds and others and is being chased by a hungry pack of young artists: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Doug Stone included.
But the traditional sound (reminiscent of George Jones and Merle Haggard at their best) isn't the only hot trend in country for the 1990s. A new and funkier breed of country artists, including k.d. lang, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett, has captured the attention of people who never considered themselves country music fans. Lovett's and lang's popularity took a giant leap when they walked into millions of living rooms this year to pick up their Grammys in the country music categories.
"It takes tremendous charisma," says Amy Kurland, the Nashville kingmaker. "Lyrics are more interesting than showmanship."
Kurland's Bluebird Cafe had a lot to do with the success of Alan Jackson, Doug Stone, Bailie and the Boys, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, T. Graham Brown and others. Kurland predicts Pam Tillis, whose father, Mel, grew up in Pahokee, is another rising star.
"If you look at the Top 10 any given week, eight out of 10 artists weren't around four years ago," said Dan O'Brian, program director at WIRK-107.9FM, which has been playing country music in Palm Beach County for the past 15 years. "There really is a tremendous demand in this country for country music."