Brad Paisley and Lee Anne Womack are two singers following in the tradition of Alan Jackson and George Strait

By Alanna Nash
Updated June 21, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: George Strait: Cheryl Gerber/AP Wide World

When George Strait and Alan Jackson teamed up last year to record ”Murder on Music Row,” a ballad lamenting Nashville’s destruction of traditional country music through the pursuit of pop crossover hits, they did more than win a CMA Award for Vocal Event Of The Year — they issued a rallying cry to save what many see as a dying art form.

And the two country kings kept up their crusade on this summer’s Fourth Annual George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival, which featured many acts that at least partially root their sound in old-style traditionalism: Asleep at the Wheel, Sara Evans, Brad Paisley, and Lee Ann Womack. (The tour wrapped on June 10, earning a hefty $29 million.)

Despite contemporary country’s dominance by glitzy, mega-selling stars like Faith Hill and Shania Twain, 30,000 to 40,000 fans turned out in each of the tour’s 16 cities — proof that real country hasn’t curled up its toes on Boot Hill. Still, the genre is suffering a major identity crisis.

While the new $37 million Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has just opened its doors, touting the genre’s rich history, record companies are increasingly looking to sign artists who’ll sell the same numbers of records as their rock counterparts. Those tend not to be traditionalists, but singers who rely on the subject matter and instrumentation of pure pop.

The trick, in the view of many industry insiders, is to marry the ingredients of country — an old-fashioned story song that touches people’s hearts, or reliance on such instrumentation as fiddle and banjo sound à la the Dixie Chicks — to mainstream appeal. But with a few notable exceptions, including Strait and Jackson, that balance is hard to find, particularly when large sales numbers are also demanded.

”We’re never gonna beat pop at its own game,” says Paisley, one of country’s brightest new lights and a staunch honky-tonker. ”The influence of Shania Twain was a good one to some degree, but people took it too far.” His platinum 1999 debut, ”Who Needs Pictures,” soared on the strength of old-fashioned homilies about family values and downhome sentiment.

Paisley, who is seen as the new generation’s George Strait, notes that real country follows economic trends: In difficult financial times, folks want to hear singers who mirror their own working-class woes. ”I’m probably being selfish for kinda lickin’ my chops here,” he says, ”but it seems like that always brings people back to wanting reality.”