Juni Fisher during sound check at the Autry
Juni Fisher during sound check at the Autry

The Many Brands of Today’s Country and Western Music

Before she went onstage for her WMA-​sponsored show at the Autry last weekend, Juni Fisher, winner of the Western Music Association’s 2009 Female Performer of the Year award, chatted about how country and Western music has changed in recent years, even as the music business stayed the same.

Fisher thinks of herself as both a Western and a folk performer, and she believes the splintering of the music scene now allows her to perform to more audiences with more specific tastes. What used to be known merely as Western music, for example, now includes variations like Western swing, folk, traditional Western, and new traditional Western. And that doesn’t even touch country. “I love all the differences,” she said. “I love when I hear somebody come in and do something kind of bluesy with a real gravelly sound. That’s very cool. And I love it when I hear somebody do Western swing, with a big band sound like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Asleep at the Wheel.”

Fisher was joined by Jerry Hall and his band Trick Shot, who also performed that afternoon. Hall moves in a different part of the spectrum: while he tends more folky when he plays to audiences like Fisher’s, he says, there are many other venues he plays that lean toward the country end.

“What we do,” he said, “is we kind of bridge the gap between the Western and the country.”

Still, he and Fisher keep the music firmly in a traditional sound, one that lost audience share for a while but has regained strength in recent years. Fisher said the new appreciation is a response by listeners to a decades-​long void.

“I’m just going to say it out loud,” she said. “They’re tired of hearing the catterwauling, squalling, off-​pitch things that Nashville is producing because they look good on video … They want to hear somebody sing on pitch; they want somebody singing about something real instead of singing about ‘I’m gonna scratch up your truck and, you know, teach you a lesson.’ ”

Juni Fisher and Jerry Hall sing a duet

Hall also despairs of a Nashville music machine that, he says, will not consider a performers outside a very narrow range.

“If you’re not an 18-​year-​old – pardon my French – tight-​butt with holes in your jeans, wearing your short sleeves and a cowboy hat … you’re not welcome in Nashville,” he said. “There’s no room for you.”

Fisher says she knows many great musicians – even some who live in Nashville – who never make it onto country radio. And radio still matters, they say, because that’s where the music business still aims for young fans and spends its marketing dollar.

Even in the lower tiers, Fisher says, “it’s a pay-​to-​play situation. If I wanted to work one of my recordings in the folk market, it would cost me $4,000 a month just to have one person working it to those radio stations. If I were doing the country market, it would cost me $10,000–12,000 a month.”

The Internet has evened the field a bit for musicians who can sell by the download.

“It’s really not extremely difficult now to make a recording and release it and make it available for people to listen to it online and buy it online,” Fisher said. So she has embraced it, saying she doesn’t mind selling one song instead of a whole album, because she can deliver exactly what listeners are looking for, down to the song.

“It’s scary for a lot of people, and a lot of people have resisted,” she said. “But, boy, we’ve got to find where those markets are.”

This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.