Contemporary Country

Most people associate country music with Dolly Parton and cowboy boots. But a new generation of country stars, such as Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks, have given this form of music a new, fashionable image, and put it back at the top of the charts.

Country is currently the most popular music on the radio in the United States. Every week, 77 million people - that's around 40% of the adult population of America - tune in to country music radio stations. Since 1989, record sales have nearly doubled, from $921 million to over $1,758 billion. Garth Brooks, one of the most successful of the new country stars, has sold 60 million CDs alone since his first record was released 14 years ago.

Country music is generally thought to be about 80 years old. Its origins can be found in the drinking houses of Oklahoma and Texas, where audiences listened to rising stars such as Hank Williams and Ernest Tubbs. The style these two sung and played in, known as 'honky tonk', featured lyrics which romanticized the life of the lonely cowboy as he drifted from state to state on his trusty horse. William's Your Cheatin' Heart, released in 1953, is possibly the best known 'honky tonk' song, but he recorded over 100 titles in his lifetime.

During the 1950s, country music began to change its sound. 'Rockabilly' was a mixture of southern hills music and the blues. With its faster pace and incessant rhythm, the music quickly attracted a younger audience. The stars of this period, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and the king himself, Elvis Presley, took that audience with them as they created rock 'n' roll, which was a mixture of country music and rhythm and blues.

Nashville and beyond

Country music's permanent home is in the state of Tennessee. The first live radio show to feature country music was broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry concert hall, Nashville, in 1935. Young country music hopefuls flocked to the city, including Patsy Kline and Kitty Wells. By the 1960s these artists had created a new country sound: Nashville. And it's this sound that most people associate with country, with steel guitars playing along with synthesizers and bass. Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Conway Twitty had great success with this style, both in the United States and abroad.

But country music, though popular, was not seen by many as being very 'fashionable'; until, that is, a new breed of country singer emerged in the late 1980s. Stars such as Garth Brooks took country into the video age, and his single The Dance went to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. This more modern approach to country has found its ultimate expression in the music, and image, of Shania Twain.

Born in Canada in 1965, she was raised about 500 kilometres from Toronto by her mother, and stepfather, who was an Ojibway Indian. Though poor, without a lot of food in the house, there was always an abundance of music to be heard in the family home. In 1990 she shed her real name of Eilleen and adopted the Ojibway name of Shania - pronounced shu-NYE-uh - and traveled to Nashville. Her first single, Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?, made the country music charts in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history. Shania has been a constant in the Billboard Top 20 ever since, and her popularity has spread beyond the usual country audience.

Peter Gentle