The year past was difficult due to slack CD sales, country music clubs either shutting their doors or at least in part switching formats to include non-country and a slight cutback in the numbers of country radio stations.
Of course, we can only hope country will face a resurgence in 1997. A few factors could determine the outcome.
While not everyone loves him, Garth Brooks will continue touring throughout the year, a definite plus in keeping the face of mainstream country in the public eye. No one packs them in like Brooks, and perhaps he can help rekindle country.
He cannot do it alone. Much also will depend upon what happens in Nashville and country radio. Both have seen their numbers dwindle. Part of the reason is a safeness that has permeated the industry.
Examine the rosters of record labels, and you'll find precious little diversity. Instead, they are filled with soundalike, seemingly lookalike musicians who do little to distinguish themselves. Instead of the labels trying to develop acts for the long term, they look at the short term. If an act is unable to score a hit off their album, forget it. They are history.
Even acts with some history behind them are finding it increasingly difficult. With extremely few exceptions, the Old Guard of country has all but been ignored by mainstream labels and radio. You don't hear them except on oldies country shows even though Waylon, Willie and George still are making quality music.
Perhaps the public wants something new. BR5-49, which released two albums last year, was one of the few indications record labels may do so. Let's hope that continues.
There could more acts offering something different coming your way soon with labels now claiming they are signing more and more traditional musicians, apparently at the expense of the glossy, glitzy, non-descript hat acts.
The alternative and independent scene remains thankfully strong in releasing music, but you wouldn't know it from listening to country radio. Kudos not only to the already well-respected labels, such as Hightone, Bloodshot and Dead Reckoning for putting out quality country music, but independent artists as well trying to eke out a living.
Radio claims there are too many labels releasing too much music, but maybe, just maybe, 1997 will find them finally being more adventuresome and pushing the musical envelope to give listeners more than ear candy. Listeners should check out the burgeoning Americana and AAA radio scene to satisfy their needs.
Radio folks: use your own ears, not those of consultants, telling you what to play. Don't blow it again like you did with "Blue" where the public bought it, but you didn't play it. Wouldn't it be nice if radio got more adventuresome and not just played all the songs you already knew by heart?
And lastly, country music fans must do their share. Going to concerts, buying CDs, telling radio what they ought to play, spending a night out and money at your favorite country music club all will spur the genre.
Then, we can look back at 1997 with satisfaction as a year in which the country music scene was growing, thriving and mattered.