New Kids On The Range

As worn by male country singers from Hank to Haggard, the cowboy hat was a simple, if paradoxical, fashion statement: it said you were one more rugged individualist. But in the video-conscious Nashville of the '90s, it's become a totem, a talisman, and one more damn thing to worry about. Is it in? Out? So far out it's in? Bottom line: should one or should one not? The very word hat now has a bothersome resonance for those post Ricky Skaggs, post George Strait, post Randy Travis neotraditionalists who dominate today's Nashville sound. "Hat acts," they're called, increasingly to their chagrin. Even the ones who think fussing over clothes is unmanly. Even the ones who don't wear hats.

This hat thing sounds pretty arcane until you reflect that the best-selling album in America last week was "Ropin' the Wind," by the quintessential hat act, Garth Brooks. Never before has a country album entered Billboard's pop chart at No. 1-though with the magazine's new method of tabulating such stuff, this impressive assertion should get Roger Maris's old asterisk. Brooks makes honky-tonk safe for middlebrows: "Ropin' the Wind" even includes a Billy Joel song. Meanwhile, on the country chart, singers generally called hat acts had seven of the top-10 albums and 10 of the top 20; three are by Brooks. Brooks, in fact, wearer of the most conspicuous hat since the old Republic Western movies, is much to blame for this whole fixation.

It happened this way. Brooks came on the scene in 1989, along with Clint Black. They were neck and neck then-Black's latest album made it to number 18 on the pop charts-both trying to catch Randy Travis. Since both wore hats, had monosyllabic names and combined a clean, neotraditional sound with pop appeal, folks got them mixed up. First with each other, then with Alan Jackson and Mark Chesnutt, who also had hits and hats-though their sound was Haggard-Jones hard country. Throw in Aaron Tippin, Doug Stone, Joe Diffie and Travis Tritt (who didn't wear hats but sounded like they should), and voila: a movement. The singers don't buy it. Brooks is so sick of the term hat act that he declined to discuss the subject with NEWSWEEK. "It's just a name somebody came up with," says Chesnutt. "It has nothing to do with the music. My music is different than Garth Brooks's, and different from everybody else's."

True, at least for Brooks. For the rest, careful listeners may discern that Chesnutt is the warm, laid-back one; Tippin, who knows his Hank Sr., is the weepy, sing-through-your-nose one. Tritt, whose new album has a cut with Little Feat, is the most rock and roll. Diffie likes those George Jones register shifts, where your voice hardens as it rises. But if you made them all sing "Your Cheatin' Heart," one right after the other, who could distinguish them all? Except for Black, who records with his own road band, they use the same studio guys everyone in Nashville uses. Four of their recent albums have songs with "jukebox" in the title; Brooks and Chesnutt do versions of the same tune, the ruefully rowdy "Friends in Low Places." Jackson and Stone come from the same town in Georgia. Stone's real name is Brooks.

If individuality is a touchy subject for the singers, the customers aren't complaining. Good song, good voice, hot band: who cares which one it is this time? Such fickleness--or just smart shopping--is new to Nashville, which always counted on the fans' loyalty to beloved stars. This is the downside of moving beyond the core audience--though country's sudden surge on the pop charts is partly misleading. Until this year, Billboard based its charts on some amazingly sketchy information from record stores; one effect was to give big-selling country acts deceptively low positions in the catchall pop chart. Enter SoundScan, a firm that compiles computerized bar-code information from store registers. On the May 25 pop chart, the first based on SoundScan data, 15 more country albums materialized in the Top 200.

But the new country audience is no statistical mirage. Rock-and-rollers have been defecting to country for years, and Nashville credits its songwriters' superior craft and grown-up subject matter. "I'm not sure anybody under 29 understands a country lyric," says Lon Helton, Nashville bureau chief of the trade journal Radio and Records. "You need to have been knocked around." Most country songs are solidly carpentered, and many tell what teen rock fans don't want to hear (or know too well): that people marry, have kids and still trash their lives. But country music also wins hearts by default. Rock and roll has splintered into the high-tech barbarism of heavy metal, the arch self-regard of "alternative" bands, the postmodern cacophony of rap and the toothless complacency of the mainstream. It gets down to country music or one more boxed set from the '60s. The hat acts are rootsy and refreshing-at least until you 0D on them.

But why does one singer, Garth Brooks, stand hat and shoulders above the rest on the charts? Perhaps it is nothing more sociomusicological than sheer hunkiness: Nashville executives say women account for 70 percent of record sales. Or perhaps it's because he sells bland music with cutting-edge videos and frenetic live shows: Brooks must be the first country star to sing from a rope ladder. Last spring, The Nashville Network and Country Music Television banned "The Thunder Rolls," in which a battered wife shoots her husband; the uproar probably moved more product than the clip would have. But Brooks doesn't overdo the Tracy Chapman trip. "Ropin' the Wind" gets no edgier than a vague exhortation to "go against the grain," which somehow involves "bustin' in like old John Wayne."

John Wayne! That's where we've seen that hat before! Hat acts, after all, really belong to Hollywood, not Nashville: country string bands of the '20s wore suits and ties. It was mostly those singing-cowboy movies with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers that prompted guys to dude themselves up like Saturday night in Tucson to appear at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Singers dressing up like actors dressing up like cowboys. "It's America," says Georgia's Alan Jackson when asked about his hat. "It's like the cowboys. It goes hand in hand with the kind of music I do." Aaron Tippin, from neighboring South Carolina, says he'd feel like a fake in a Stetson: "It's not big cowboy country in the Appalachians." Tippin's indifference to costumes and Jackson's reverence for country tradition--ephemera and all-both suggest that they hanker for something genuine. The folks who buy the albums hanker for it, too, but it's getting hard to find.