Last Friday (1/31) I went to Nashville for the second Friday in a row to see Webb Wilder. He was doing an "unplugged" show with his longtime Beatnecks bassist Tom Comet at Puckett's. After the show I mentioned to Tom about how remarkable "the class of 1986" was when it came to music.
There have rarely been years like 1986. First, the established artists were churning out great album after great album. Elvis Costello headed the year with two albums that rank among his all-time best, King of America and Blood and Chocolate. (Either one would have sufficed as a masterpiece for the year.) Richard Thompson released Daring Adventures. R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant solidified their standing as one of the best bands in the U.S. Talking Heads put out True Stories and scored their final top 40 hit with "Wild Wild Life." And, Peter Gabriel finally broke through to superstar status with So.
On top of that, the newcomers in 1986 were remarkable. The best debut of the year was the BoDeans' Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, followed closely by the eponymous first album by They Might Be Giants. The Smithereens made their national, major-label debut (after a few local-label releases) with Especially For You. Two neo-traditionalists highlighted country music's year: Dwight Yoakam with Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. and Randy Travis with Storms of Life. And, of course, Webb Wilder's first album, It Came From Nashville, which is what spawned the subject to begin with.
Comet and I discussed the reason for why the mid-80's were so prolifically ripe with incredible music. (Even the commercial music wasn't all bad then.) We didn't come up with a plausible explanation before we said our farewells, but that chat has left me thinking about it, especially in light of 2013.
Much like 1986, the year in music from 2013 was head-spinning with the quality and quantity of good music. (Unlike 1986, though, I cannot make the claim that there was valid commercial music -- well, not with a straight face, anyway.) A quick look at 2013: Jason Isbell's remarkable Southeastern, chronicling his liberation from alcoholism and other topics like cancer (you won't get through "Elephant" in the first listening) and staying at bad hotels ("Super 8," which is as funny as "Elephant" is dark), was far and away the album of the year. It topped nearly every critical list, and those that did not have it at #1 had it in the top three. Following that was Robbie Fulks' comeback-to-end-all-comeback albums, Gone Away Backward, where he returned to his bluegrass roots and showed that he is still the best songwriter in the world of alt-country, bar none. Guy Clark, the poet laureate of Texas, put out My Favorite Picture of You, with a cover and a title song about his late wife, Susanna (who wrote "Easy From Now On" with Carlene Carter and painted the picture on the cover of Willie Nelson's Stardust album) that will tear at your heart. Old friends Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris teamed up for their first "official" album together (Crowell was a member of Harris' "Hot Band" in the mid-70's), Old Yellow Moon. The Wood Brothers released The Muse, Barbara Nesbitt self-released Almost Home, Holly Willams (whom I saw opening for Isbell in January), the granddaughter of Hank Williams, released The Highway, the exceptional Cheater's Game by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Richard Thompson's Electric, The Ash and Clay by the Milk Carton Kids, an eponymous release from Pokey LaFarge, and Stories Don't End from Dawes. And that's just the ones I got around to!
Going back to the question that Tom Comet and I left unanswered, what was it about the mid-80's -- and 2013 -- that brought out the best in artists? There's no way of knowing for certain, but I do have a theory.
In the mid-80's, when you had acts like R.E.M., Marshall Crenshaw, Warren Zevon the Violent Femmes (the only act in history to have a platinum album without it ever making the Billboard "top 200" album chart), and Richard Thompson having well-known names even if their music wasn't top 40 material, there were outlets. Major labels would sign non-commercial acts (the Femmes, Los Lobos, and the BoDeans were on a Warner Brothers subsidiary label -- Slash -- that was just for so-called "underground" music). There were hundreds of FM stations on university campuses that eschewed the big name acts of the day like Bon Jovi and Prince in favor of acts like the Replacements (hence the term, "college rock"). And, maybe more importantly, MTV was in an era where it wasn't universally accepted (I didn't have MTV on my cable system until 1985) and it was focused more on music than whatever it is they do now (I think maybe they should call it EBMTV = Everything But Music Television). They had shows such as 120 Minutes that focused solely on the college rock world. Therefore, anyone who wanted to run away from Phil Collins' R&B cover du jour had lots of alternatives.
Since there were outlets (and not all "commercial" FM stations had yet signed on to "play the same 302 songs by the same 47 acts" mentality referred to as the "superstars" format), there was no reason for an artist to not let his/her creative juices flow without fear of relegation to the cutout bin. No, the Replacements weren't outselling Thriller, but the labels understood that the Replacements weren't supposed to outsell Thriller. By the start of the 90's, however, rock and roll was overrun by the hairbands (bands that looked alike, sounded alike, dressed alike, and even had logos that looked alike) and country's neo-traditional movement was fading into an achy-breaky memory. And, as record labels tend to do at least once every decade, there was a housecleaning -- and out went the "college rock" gang.
Fast forward to today. Like the 80's there are countless outlets for music. Let MTV play ridiculous "reality" shows that have as much to do with music as wallpaper, because artists have You Tube, MySpace, and their own web sites to issue videos. The local FM station is a satellite feed with "Stairway to Heaven" played every hour on the hour, but that doesn't matter because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of radio stations on the Internet. Independent labels flourish in today's market because they can easily reach their niche without having all of the issues that "major labels" did reaching their "college rock" audiences in the 80's. Artists can self-release their own material (all three of Barbara Nesbitt's albums have been self-published; Robbie Fulks put fifty songs for sale as an album [50 Vc. Doberman] on his web site). The world is wide open once again for artists to make the music they want to make on their terms.
One thing that these acts have today that was lacking thirty years ago, however, is an organization to help: the Americana Music Association. You can ask ten people what constitutes "Americana" music and you're going to get eleven different answers. I tend to jokingly refer to "Americana" as "rock, blues, bluegrass and country that's too good for commercial radio." Regardless of what the actual definition is (when I attended the Americana Music Association conference in 2007 they didn't seem to know, either: after every act performing at the awards show, from Joe Ely to Ricky Skaggs to Darrell Scott, host Jim Lauderdale would point to the singer and say, "Now that's Americana!"), the organization is there to help fledgling acts who want to, in the words of a Jimmy Buffett song, make their music for themselves instead of making music for money.
Here's to the class of 1986, one of the greatest years of music.
And here's to 2013, proving that the best is still to come with Americana.