MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Recently we've been listening back to the decade in music. And today, we turn our ears to Music City. Nashville's mainstream country business managed to stay relatively immune from the trends that devastated sales in other genres. But as Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN reports, Nashville struggled to find its musical identity.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST: The 1990s could not have gone much better for Music Row. Country music was consistently among the nation's top-selling genres. New stars were minted, it seemed, every month, and the biggest of all, reset the bar for success in Nashville.
(Soundbite of song, "If Tomorrow Never Comes")
Mr. GARTH BROOKS (Musician): (Singing) Is the love I gave you in the past going to be enough to last if tomorrow never comes?
HAVIGHURST: In late 2000, Garth Brooks announced his retirement from touring. His record label threw him a lavish party to celebrate his landmark of 100 million albums sold. Nashville's business elite had no idea that tomorrow was not going to be as bright as they'd hoped.
Mr. GARTH FUNDIS (Record Producer): And thinking about it now, I'm glad I went to the event, because I'll probably never see another one. I think that era has kind of passed.
HAVIGHURST: That's another Garth, record producer Garth Fundis, a Nashville veteran and a former chairman of the Recording Academy. He says Music City has a trickle-down economy. And as the 2000s unfolded, most everyone's revenues fell to, well, a trickle. And a time-tested formula broke down.
Mr. FUNDIS: As an album sells, songwriters, publishers, everybody took a ride on the hit single. And that provided fuel to plant more seeds and cultivate more writers and keep the garden fertile and growing healthy. And that certainly isn't going on right now. I've never seen so many For Sale signs and Lease Available signs on Music Row.
HAVIGHURST: Online file-sharing and CD-burning get much of the blame for the music industry's woes. But a recent study showed only half the nation's core country music fans even have Internet access at home. That's good news when it comes to file-sharing, but sobering for a genre being forced toward digital delivery by a huge pullback in CD offerings at big-box retailers.
Mary Ann McCready is a Nashville business manager.
Ms. MARY ANN MCCREADY (Business Manager): The Wal-Marts and the Kmarts and the Targets and the Best Buys are carrying fewer and fewer titles, exacerbating the problem and making it even more difficult to find physical CD sales. And the younger generations are buying their music online. So the sale of a given physical CD has been replaced by the purchase of a single song, which has completely turned the economics for record companies upside-down.
HAVIGHURST: So country music commerce has had its trials. What about the art?
(Soundbite of song, "I Hope You Dance")
Mr. LEE ANN WOMACK (Musician): (Singing) I hope you never lose your sense of wonder. You get your fill to eat, but always keep that hunger.
HAVIGHURST: The biggest record at the beginning of the decade was Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance." Veteran music journalist Chet Flippo of Country Music Television says it was the best song from a time of easy-listening country, when greeting card sentimentality got a little out of hand.
Mr. CHET FLIPPO (Editorial Director, Country Music Television): For a time, I was calling it sippy-cup music because a lot of the songs were directed at little kids and parents and it was - it felt as if we were starting to drown in molasses a bit. Of course, 9/11 changed that.
HAVIGHURST: True to its history as America's Regular Joe journalism, country music responded to the attacks and the resulting wars with a range of sentiments and statements.
Toby Keith, one of the decade's biggest male stars, gave voice to the country's rage.
(Soundbite of song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue")
Mr. TOBY KEITH (Musician): (Singing) You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A because we'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way.
HAVIGHURST: A humbler kind of catharsis came from Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." And the Dixie Chicks reached number one with their poignant, gently anti-war song "Travelin' Soldier."
(Soundbite of song, "Travelin' Soldier")
THE DIXIE CHICKS (Country Music Band): (Singing) Today, he's past 18. He was waiting for the bus in his Army greens, sat down in a booth at the cafe there, gave his heart to a girl with a bow in her hair. He's a little shy, so she gives him a smile. and he said, would you mind sitting down for a while and talking to me, I'm feeling a little low.
HAVIGHURST: Only to be exiled from country radio after lead singer Natalie Maines protested the impending Iraq war and President Bush from a stage in London.
Ms. NATALIE MAINES (Musician): We do not want this war, this violence.
(Soundbite of cheering)
HAVIGHURST: As public interest in the war faded, so did country album sales. The industry reached out to other genres and eras: The Eagles, Jewel, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock had songs on country radio.
Country badly needed a breakout star of its own and it found one in 2005 "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood. She sold millions and was the only female artist who challenged touring superstar Kenny Chesney for the top slot in country until this year.
(Soundbite of song, "Love Story")
Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT (Musician): (Singing) We were both young when I first saw you. I closed my eyes and the flashback starts. I'm standing there on a balcony in summer air.
HAVIGHURST: Taylor Swift, who recently swept the Country Music Awards, is more than merely the latest blond diva from Music Row. At 20 years old, she's already a respected songwriter who's bringing younger fans to country. But even more interesting is who helped her break through. Instead of a deep-pocketed major label, she was discovered and launched by Big Machine Records, an independent run by country-music veteran Scott Borchetta.
Mr. SCOTT BORCHETTA (President/CEO, Big Machine Records): Everybody else seems to still be in a recoil and a big state of flux. There's not a lot of us who are continuing to charge forward.
HAVIGHURST: Independent artists and labels are charging forward in Nashville, reviving some of the cottage industry energy and musical diversity the city enjoyed four decades ago. That story for Music City tomorrow.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.
(Soundbite of song, "Love Story")
Ms. SWIFT: (Singing) I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress.
NORRIS: As part of our coverage online of the Decade in Music, we're looking for some wisdom from you. What advice do you have for the music industry? Let us know and read other responses at nprmusic.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Love Story")
Ms. SWIFT: (Singing) Oh, oh. We were both young when I first saw you.