Once upon a time, country music influences were inherited at childhood, not selected in adulthood. You grew up on Willie, Waylon, Merle, Dolly, George, Johnny and Hank, and even after you put your own little twist on that legacy, your influence was still obvious. The new generation of country artists pays lip service to that past, but it’s obvious those legends aren’t real influences anymore. What artist with commercial ambitions could afford to choose them? Just look at what happened to the artists who did.

Jamey Johnson released Living for a Song — a terrific, very personal tribute to Hank Cochran — and the critics voted it the No. 1 album of 2012. Dwight Yoakam did his Buck Owens-meets-Paul McCartney thing again, and the critics voted 3 Pears the year’s No. 2 album. Kellie Pickler abandoned her previous country-pop compromises and made 100 proof, the updated Loretta Lynn record she’s always wanted to make, and it was voted the No. 4 album. Alan Jackson sang as beautifully as George Jones on Thirty Miles West, voted the No. 8 album.

But here’s the kicker: For all their critic-pleasing artistic achievement, not one of those four albums — all of them released by major labels — yielded a Top 20 country single. Radio shunned these albums as instinctively as the critics embraced them. In other words, if an ambitious young country artist wants to get played on country radio, his or her role model has to be an ’80s rock star rather than a ’70s country star. The choice of which rock star to emulate can reveal the artist’s essential instincts.


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