Country Music Lightens Up

Instead of crooning about jail time, callused hands and shooting a man just to watch him die, they sing about kisses, staying together and lasting love.

They're the country singers who highlight the gentle side of a music genre with a salt-of-the-earth reputation. Singers like Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Martina McBride have attracted new and unexpected fans like suburban women and pop music audiences -- as well criticism by country purists.

"These are artists who would like to still feel that country music is at the core of what they do, but with an expanding audience they're able to showcase all of their influences," said Stephen Betts, editor-in-chief of Country Music Today magazine. "It falls under the category of the softer side of country."

Those critical of the pop-sounding music have claimed it isn't really country at all, which has traditionally been dominated by rough-around-the-edges artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and others who have sung about blood, sweat, fistfights and prison.

"The perception is that if it's lighter then somehow it's too pop," Betts said. "The traditional country audience doesn't want it to go too far."

But the industry has deliberately tried to attract more diverse listeners, especially young women, by promoting singers like Twain and Hill, Betts pointed out.

"Women relate to these artists," he said. "The women who are listening are mostly younger mothers."

Some in the industry blame record companies for lightening the genre's sound to sell more albums – and whether or not traditionalists like it, it’s working. Sales of country music albums have continued to climb – up from 68.5 million in 2001 to 77 million in 2002 -- while the rest of the music industry falters, according to the Country Music Association.

"There’s been some thought in the past few years that record companies haven’t gone in the direction they should have," said Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. "My sense is that record companies need to be looking at things in a more long term way, not just looking at the big hit of the moment that sells a gazillion copies."

But soft country has won many fans who appreciate its family-oriented message and upbeat sound.

"It has a wholesome flavor to it, but it's also catchy and lively," said Brian Garner, 37, of Waco, Texas, who considers Twain one of his favorite singers. "It's not hard or gruff. If it's too rowdy and loud, I tend not to like it as much."

Wells pointed out that the push and pull of the different sides of country is a longstanding cyclical trend.

"Every few years there's a merging of country and pop," he said. "The more traditional forces will rise up and say this isn't really country music and there will be a resurgence of the traditional styles."

And there is some evidence that old-style country is making a comeback.

Cash currently has a hit, in pop and country circles, with the much-discussed song and video remake of Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt." The legendary singer, who hasn't won a Country Music Award since 1969, got three nominations. And Dolly Parton, who has concentrated on blue grass country in her most recent albums, has been nominated for the Female Vocalist of the Year CMA -- which she last won in 1976.

"We've had the rise of the traditionalist this year," said Scott Stem, senior media relations manager for the Country Music Awards -- which will be held Nov. 5.

Still, the country music genre has room for a variety of niches, according to Stem -- who believes this year's award nominations showcase that blend.

"It's all over the map. It's a good mix this year," he said. "Country music is always shifting and changing. There's a lot of diversity."