Shania Won't Be Death Of Country

Every generation produces a singer that gets traditionalists up in arms

This appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel - November 9, 1997

Marty Stuart was backstage at Farm Aid chatting about the need to save the independent American farmer. Abruptly, without any prompting, Marty changed causes.

"Maybe once we've saved the farmer, we can do something to save country music from the sorry state it's in," he said.

Marty Stuart never mentioned anybody by name, but you have to think that in some sense he was talking about Shania Twain. He was backing up bluegrass legend Lester Flatt at age 12 and is Johnny Cash's former son-in-law. Stuart has an acute sense of the traditions of country music. In a lot of ways, Shania Twain seems detached from those traditions.

Twain's last album, "The Woman In Me," is nothing less than the biggest-selling album by a woman in the history of country music. She is one of only three women (Whitney Houston and Alanis Morissette are the other two) to sell more than 12 million copies of a single album.

But to many country music traditionalists, Twain plays country music rooted in Bryan Adams. It's a debate that surely will be renewed this week with the release of "Come On Over," Twain's follow-up to "Woman."

The Shania Twain debate is, by extension, a debate over her husband/producer/co-songwriter and all-purpose creative guru Robert John "Mutt" Lange.

Lange was a highly successful producer before they ever met -- for the likes of AC/DC, Foreigner, Def Leppard, and Bryan Adams. The charge is that he's brought essentially the same high-gloss, commercially astute but synthetic sensibility to Shania's music that he has applied elsewhere.

In many ways, "Come On Over" seems to confront that charge and say "So what? We've sold a zillion albums."

Twain and Lange are clearly not writing for a traditional, Southern, rural audience.

When Alan Jackson wants to salute his roots, he invokes Hank Williams and George Jones. The musical icons invoked in "Come On Over" are the Beatles and Elvis.

Jackson likes to write about his truck, his Harley and his fishing hole. The lifestyle references in "Come On Over" include Doctor Ruth and the Internet.

The defining country women of the baby boom generation were Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette.

All three of them came from poor, Southern, rural, working class families. In many of their best known songs, like "Coal Miner's Daughter" or "Coat of Many Colors," they invoked traditional Southern values to illustrate how a strong, loving family and the Lord will see you through hard times.

Extended family, Jesus and hard times simply don't appear in the world of "Come On Over." That is not to say, however, that Twain is thematically divorced from her forebears.

Lynn, Parton and Wynette were all in some sense traditional Southern women, but they were also very much transitional women with different problems than their mothers.

The Loretta Lynn who sang "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" very much anticipated the concern for sexual rights that Twain articulates in "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" Lynn wrote with a candor unthinkable for the Kitty Wells generation and it's that candor that Twain has built on to mold her version of the modern country woman: romantic, sexy, but also sexually empowered.

In the same way, Dolly Parton moved the working venue of country women from the home and the cotton fields to the pink collar ghetto in "Nine To Five." The vocationally frustrated woman in Twain's "Honey, I'm Home," is very much the younger sister of Parton's secretary in "Nine To Five."

Whether Twain shares more than lifestyle issues with her older sisters is more problematic.

"Come On Over" feels very much like a well-crafted pop album with country flourishes. Lange uses traditional elements like steel guitar, fiddles and accordion, but he also uses an electric sitar. I would bet large amounts of money that they've never seen an electric sitar on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

Vocally, Twain seems largely detached from country as well. "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," is a bouncy, upbeat tune, but Twain's vocal is far more derivative of Belinda Carlisle or Cyndi Lauper than it is of Patti Loveless. Twain is a Canadian and it probably shouldn't amaze anybody if she doesn't sound like a child of the Delta.

There is a sense in which the Shania Twain debate is both eternal and yet pointless.

The debate over who is or is not country takes place in every generation. The best country musicians have always reached outside the homestead for inspiration. Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers incorporated the blues. Bob Wills brought in swing. Moon Mullican tapped boogie woogie. Elvis Presley introduced rock 'n' roll. All of them outraged a few purists.

The debate is probably useful in that it makes people within the industry ponder their roots and wrestle with what it means to be a country musician. But there's also a fundamental sense in which the gatekeepers almost always seem to lose the argument.

If country radio plays Shania Twain records and a new generation of country music fans buy them in droves, there's a basic sense in which Shania Twain is a country musician.

Nothing Marty Stuart or anybody else says is likely to change that.

By Dave Tianen

Return To Articles Return To Home Page