Written by Shannon Smith, Justin Cole, and Gaby Hernandez
The previous Neo-traditional movement from the 1980s helped bring country music back to its roots and showed everyone that it could compete with commercialized genres. In 1989 labels began to see how profitable country music could be and started searching for newer and younger artists to help complement the neo-traditional sound. In 1989 artists like GarthBrooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt began to emerge with a more dynamic country sound and became forever known as the “Class of ’89.” These artists produced 44 platinum albums, 58 number one singles, and helped pave the way for country music in 1990s.
The ‘90s entertained two different country music genres, New Country and Country Pop. The Class of ’89 was known for developing New Country, which included a simple song structure and either the smooth male baritone voices, or the powerful female ballads. The New Country sound also featured Cajun two-beat rhythms, sharper drum sounds, and electric guitars. These instruments weren’t typically associated with country music until then and Country Pop began to take it a step further by introducing song effects and a full harmony backup. New Country songs stayed true to many of the classic country themes of the working class values and societal problems, but artists like Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride helped introduce songs expressing feminist concerns.
New Country artists of the ‘90s loved their fans and dedicated a majority of their time trying to develop a lasting career rather than just recording hit songs. This was the first time that country artists started to entertain thousands by putting on incredible stadium concerts and gave new life to country radio. New technology such as the Nielsen Broadcast Data System (BDS) and SoundScan were also introduced in the ‘90s. These technologies gave the music industry a more accurate display of what was being played on the radio and began to track music sales electronically. This is when the country music industry finally started to get the recognition it deserved.
Political and social changes also began to play a huge role in New Country’s popularity. President Clinton was running for reelection and centered his campaign on family values that were being reflected in many country music songs. Many parents also turned to country music because the emerging Hip Hop genre saw a rise in the theme of objectification. These younger, more attractive artists not only changed the country music sound, but also changed the way the industry would perform for their fans. The “Class of 1980” have slowly began to taper out of the media while the newer and younger artists of the 21st century take the stage.
- Garth Brooks (1962-present) was a very prominent artist beginning in the early nineties and had a major
impact on country music. His albums topped chart after chart, including The Billboard Top 200 pop chart. He reached large audiences through his music and entertainment factor. Brooks was known for his amazing spectacles that were his live performances. He connected with fans which simultaneously increased his popularity and sales. Brooks was strategic in planning his success and paved the way for other new country artists to do the same. After retiring, multiple times, Brooks’ career has started up again and he is still a prominent figure in country music.
- Clint Black (1962-present) was another popular name of the nineties. His good looks and charm appealed to the masses which played into the entertainment factor that is iconic for the new country subgenre. His first album was an instant hit when released in 1989. He achieved chart topping success with every new song he put out. Black has also proven his versatility through his multiple acting ventures and charitable business endeavors. He is still touring, however to smaller crowds than he was a couple decades ago.
- Brooks and Dunn were a country duo made up of Kix Brooks (1955-present) and Ronnie Dunn (1953-present). Each originally moved to Nashville seeking individual careers and released solo music. However,
they achieved great success from combining their forces. Brooks and Dunn became international stars thanks to the upbeat, danceable music they created. Their music is an example of the increasingly popular country music of the time which then evolved into the country music we hear today. The group retired in 2010 and once again pursued individual careers. They will be reuniting for a stint of shows in Las Vegas alongside Reba McEntire in the summer of 2015.
- Trisha Yearwood (1964-present) rose to fame when country music was dominated by men. She was one of the most notable female country stars at the time. She was the first female country artist to have sold a million copies of her first album. She began her music career singing backup for artists such as Garth Brooks. Brooks led her down the road to landing a record deal. She received many praises for her work through record sales and awards. After two previous marriages, she and Brooks married in 2005. Yearwood still tours and has also made a career in the world of cooking.
- Blame It All on My Roots: Five Decades of Influences (2013) is a six disc set, containing 77 songs, along with 33 Garth Brooks music videos. About half of the CD’s are Brooks performing cover songs to previous rock ‘n roll, country, and blues hits, while the other half consists of his own greatest hits. The variety of cover songs complement the vocal talent of Brooks, readily heard in his original 14 number one hits, spanning the decade of the 1990’s. Listening to the greatest hits of Garth Brooks allows one to hear the man who revolutionized the country music industry, changing country music for decades to follow.
- A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘bout Love) (1992) was Alan Jackson’s most popular album. The album was produced by Artista Records of Nashville, Tennessee and has sold more than six million copies in the United States, making it one of the most successful country albums of the new country era. Alan Jackson, part of the famous “class of 1989”, would go on to be an influence in the early careers of several popular country artists today, including names such as Kenny Chesney, Chris Young and Justin Moore. Chris Young, in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, called Jackson “one of the most quintessential singer/ songwriters of country music”.
- Trisha Yearwood (1991) was the first, and arguably most popular album of the new country, female superstar Trisha Yearwood. The emergence of new country brought several new elements to the industry, one of them being the increasing importance of feminism in country music. An example would be Yearwood’s hit “She’s in Love with the Boy” (1991), the most popular song of her debut album and career. Also to be noted when studying Yearwood is her relationship with Garth Brooks, suspected to have begun while they both were married to other people. Both Yearwood and Brooks got divorced, and are now married, even touring together on Garth Brooks’ “Man and the Machine Tour” (2014-2015).
- Killin’ Time (1989) was the debut album by Clint Black, marking the first chart-topping album released by the emerging stars of new country, known as the “Class of 1989” (Black, Brooks and Jackson). Interestingly enough, Clint Black and Garth Brooks were born three days apart from each other, and ironically they both released their first albums about two weeks apart (mid- April and early May of 1989). Killin’ Time would be the most popular country album of 1989, slightly edging out Garth Brooks’ debut album Garth Brooks (1989). Both of these records gave rise to the subgenre of new country, generally classified by a more refined honky-tonk sound, sung by vocally talented artists such as Clint Black and Garth Brooks.
- Brand New Man (1991) was the first album recorded by the duet of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. New country appeared to be dominated by male solo artists, like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, however Brooks and Dunn found success in a pair. Their album Brand New Man is composed of 10 songs, and four of them would be number one hits on the country music charts of 1991 and 1992 (“Brand New Man”, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, “Neon Moon”, and “My Next Broken Heart”). Currently, Ronnie Dunn performs as a solo artist after the duo’s 2009 split.
- Reba McEntire is a unique artist in the sense that she fits the bill several subgenres of country music. Her career began during the rise of the neo-traditionalism movement, and she continued to be a prominent figure well into the 2000’s. You can hear how Reba adapted to the changes of taste in the music industry by comparing two of her popular albums, What Am I Gonna Do About You (1986) & Read My Mind (1994).
1. Dicaire, David. The New Generation of Country Music Stars: Biographies of 50 Artists Born after 1940. N.p.: McFarland, 2008. Print.
In The New Generation of Country Music Stars: Biographies of 50 Artists Born after 1940, Dicaire provides readers with background information about some of the most influential names in country music since the neo-traditionalist movement of the 1980’s. He breaks his book into four parts exploring new traditionalists, alternative country, country-pop, and new country. Dicaire goes into detail describing the early life of various country music icons of the 1990’s, essentially making it easy for one to comprehend how these artists’ upbringing affected the music they made. Essentially, a unique regional and/or cultural footprint can be seen in each artist of the 1990’s. An example of this would be Dicaire’s biography of Reba McEntire. Dicaire explained how Reba grew up in rural Oklahoma, with a father who was a professional cowboy, and a mother that taught her music at an early age. It was in the year 1974, McEntire then 19, caught her break by singing “the national anthem at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City” (16). Although just one example, The New Generation of Country Music Stars: Biographies of 50 Artists Born after 1940 goes into much more detail recounting the lives of various other artists, helping one gain a better understanding of country music of the 1990’s.
2. Flippo, Chet. “Women’s Work.” Billboard 109.39 (1997): 40. Music Index. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
Chet Flippo was a legendary country music journalist whose career spanned from Rolling Stone magazine to CMT. In this article Flippo looks at the female country music artists in the United States up until 1997. Flippo explains how the earlier know female country artists like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton started the “women’s revolution in country music,” but it didn’t really pick up steam until “90s. Artists like Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and Wynonna were just few women that helped increase the female roster and market share for female country music. Flippo credits these new country female artists for creating some of “the most exciting, dynamic and innovative country music in the past few years,” and for going against the Nashville norm of country music being prominently male. The article closes with Trisha Yearwood explaining that the ‘90s brought about themes of female independence and Flippo’s only response is “What took so long?”
3. McCall, Michael. “Twenty-five years later, the Class of 1989 still looms Large.” Nashville Scene. N.p., 26 June 2014. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
In his web article, Michael McCall explores some historic events of the country music industry, how they led to the creation of “new country”, and finally how the subgenre new country revolutionized the industry, changing country music forever. McCall leads off with his description of the country music industry in the late 1980’s, describing the success of the neo-traditionalists by drawing in a new crowd of young people who loved the “back to the roots” sound of their music. New country came about when Nashville realized that they could exploit this even larger audience, created by the neo-traditionalists, by revamping the sound of country music. In response, “Nashville record labels began investing real money in young artists who presented a cleaned-up, precise form of modern honky-tonk”. This shift paved the way for “The Class of 1989” including artists such as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black. These artists would go onto modernize country music, serving as a stepping stone to the country music we hear today. McCall summarizes by stating “the Class of 1989 moved country music into the big leagues”, a claim that many country music enthusiasts would agree with.
4. McGraw, Marjie. “Garth Brooks: Hitting ‘Em in the Heart.” Saturday Evening Post 1 July 1992: n. pag. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.
This article published in the Saturday Evening Post was written in the early years of Garth Brooks’ career. Interviewer Marjie McGraw asks Brooks about his life, family, and success. Coming from a musically talented family, Brooks was determined to pursue a musical career, but only after getting a college degree. McGraw digs deeper with Brooks and pushes him to answer questions about why he thinks he has achieved such success. Brooks says that he does not think people like him for the exterior, but for the music. The spectacle he puts on in his shows are definitely crowd pleasers, however the ratio of men to women shows that both populations enjoy the music first and foremost. He continues in saying that the songs are meant to connect with the audience. Mcgraw quotes Brooks in saying he wants his music to “convey a feeling that people can relate to—that’s important to me” (102). When he hears from fans how his music makes an impact on their lives he expresses his gratitude for pursuing his music career. Brooks says that his favorite song at the time was “The Dance” from his first album, and that is what he wants people to remember him for. At the time this was written he and wife Sandy were expecting their first child. Brooks explains that his home is about his family and keeps his awards in a closet. The article exposes Brooks’ humility during the time his career was skyrocketing.
5. Neal, Jocelyn R. “A New Century.” Country Music, U.S.A. By Bill C. Malone. 3rd ed. Austin: U of Texas, 2010. N. pag. Print.
The last chapter of Country Music, U.S.A focuses on music from 1985-2002. It starts off by describing the major influences of the time. The turn of the century and all that took place in the following year left people looking for a more conservative outlook on life. The deployment of many members of the U.S. Military led to a more patriotic and nostalgic sound in the music. Younger fans were becoming a major demographic for the genre. Another major factor shaping music at the time was the new technology arising. However, the country genre was less accepting than other genres which threatened to leave it trailing behind in the ratings. The authors continue in describing different newcomers onto the country music scene. Nevertheless, artists such as Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson, and Reba McEntire are said to have maintained high popularity through the years. The traditionalist sound carried into the next generation of stars but continued to evolve. This chapter describes how the sound of new country was commercialized and became the different sounds on the radio today. The new generation of artists took old styles of music and grew on them to make it a more popular genre.
6. Neal, Jocelyn. Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Jocelyn Neal, an Associate Professor of music at The University of North Carolina, has written various books and articles pertaining to the history of the country music industry. In Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History she dissects country music by categorizing it into subgenres, one of those being new country. In “Chapter 13: The Commercial Country Explosion” Neal provides readers with a historical description of country music in the 1990’s, also including artist profiles and listening guides for popular songs of the time period such as “Friends in Low Places” and “Gone Country”. Her complete and descriptive analysis of these artists, as well as the framework of the country music industry, help one gain an understanding of how revolutionary the music of the 1990’s actually was. Neal’s artist profile on Garth Brooks was interesting in how it portrayed Brooks as a “highly polarizing figure”. She goes on to say that while many enjoyed the music of Garth Brooks, there were others who believed “he threw country music off its traditional course” (378). Throughout this chapter Neal presents an array of differing viewpoints on “new country”, similar to the artist profile of Garth Brooks, which allow one to recognize that new country definitely changed country music, however this change is not viewed positively by all.
7. Price, Deborah Evans. “What Became Of The Class Of ’89?.” Billboard 109.39 (1997): 42. Music Index. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Deborah Evans Price is an acclaimed freelance journalist and winner of 2013 Country Music Association (CMA) Media Achievement Award. Like Flippo, whose article was also written in 1997, Price reflects on the country artists of the ‘90s. Price focuses more on the particular genre of new country when she dissects the accomplishments of “the class ’89.” The class of artists that emerged in 1989 included Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt. Price focuses more on the male country artists when she interviews artist Clint Black and reveals the record labels’ agendas. Joe Galante, chairman of RCA Label Group, stated that new artists were having a hard time breaking through because labels are just focusing on the hits and not the artist careers. Clint Black describes how he had to concentration on his own career more than producing hits because “a lot record companies [were] putting out a lot more records, and that [makes] it harder to be noticed.” Price explains that today’s record labels, like Atlantic, are trying to replicate the 1989 success by focusing on fewer artists and looking “at artists as brand identification” in order to build their careers.
8. Stambler, Irwin, Grelun Landon, Alice Seidman, and Lyndon Stambler. Country Music: The Encyclopedia. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.
This encyclopedia of country music provides biographies on many artists and topics that have to do with the genre. For this particular project we focused on Clint Black, a prominent figure in the new country subgenre. He took initiative with his music career and, with the help of Hayden Nicholas who would be his lead guitarist in the future, they sent a demo tape to the manager of ZZ Top. Within a few days, Black was offered a contract with RCA Records. At the time, “Black was the first artist to achieve five number-one singles from a debut album” (37). Fans were drawn in by his charm as well as his music. With his second album however, Black faced mixed reviews. He was overwhelmed with the schedule of touring, interviews, and finding the time to sit down and write new music. The rest of his career was filled with constant number ones, but he was under the light of scrutiny a few times. Nonetheless, Clint Black’s music is timeless and “the songs he has written often have a literary quality” (38). This artist is iconic for the time period when he came onto the scene. His background and influence on country music was looked upon for inspiration by many other artists.
- Who was a part of the Class of ’89? How did they contribute to the New Country music genre and country music as a whole?
- The 1990s encompassed two distinctive country music genres. What were the two country music genres and what made them different?
- What earlier country music sub genres contributed to the New Country sound and why?