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Where have all the hellraisers gone?

Country Standard Time Editorial, May 1997

The fabric of country music is littered with hellraisers. The two seemingly go hand in hand.

Among those in the hellraisers hall of fame are Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson. Each was considered a rebel, often moreso for lifestyle than music.

Yet, when one takes a look at country music in recent years, that ethos seems to be lacking. Waylon and Willie still are around with Willie more of the hellraiser (a confrontation with the IRS earned him that right probably forever).

The most obvious contender these days is Tanya Tucker. Her autobiography, "Nickel Dreams," minces few words in the characteristic style of Tanya being Tanya. And she further proved her link to the hellraiser legacy with her recent bawdy appearance at the Country Radio Seminar conclave in Nashville in March when she briefly bared all for some reason.

Travis Tritt and Dwight Yoakam also may be members of the club with the former based on his outspokeness (he laced into Billy Ray before that became popular) on doing it his own way, while Yoakam earns it more for his refusal to sell out musically.

Of course, raising hell for the hell of it isn't necessarily all that commendable. Anyone can shoot off their mouth or be a publicity hound. But what the hellraiser title has historically shown is these musicians have lived the songs they write and sing.

That may be in marked contrast to today's country crew. A friend commented just a few days after the Academy of Country Music awards in late April that all the musicians seemed to be so straight-laced and far from being hellraisers. While not a devout country fan, he lamented the fact that a certain sense of blandness pervaded today's country crowd as evidenced by appearances.

And that seems to go hand in hand with what is or, more likely, isn't driving country music today. There seems to be a growing perception among the public that the current crop have a go along, get along mentality when it comes to music and personality. Don't do anything that strays too far from the mainstream seems to be the pervasive thinking mode. The music often sounds sweet, but with little sense of having lived it.

The result has been fans aching for more reality in their country, whether it's the throwback style of the Junior Browns and BR5-49s of the world, the lyrical earnestness of Kim Richey and Son Volt and a growing number of independent bands putting out their own records that have little in common with what's coming out of Nashville nowadays. It's not that their music is so revolutionary. It's more a case of the music having far more in common with their country brethren of past decades.

In today's country, they are the successor hellraiser generation. Let's hope they keep raising hell and restore a vibrancy to country.