SINCE THE ROCK 'N' ROLL ERA began some 35 years ago, country's fit in the musical mainstream could hardly be called comfortable.
It was perceived as the music of "Hee Haw" and tobacco-chewing, tractor-pulling rednecks. It was weepy fiddles and twangy pedal steel guitars, rhythms that rocked with all the speed of corn growing in the field. It was songs about drinking and women - the priorities were interchangeable - with funny titles such as "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life."But much has changed in country music, and subsequently, much has changed in its stature. A new national television show is called "Hot Country Nights," but Hot Country Year would be a more appropriate reference.
Among the much-maligned genre's achievements during 1991 were huge listenership gains and dominant ratings for radio stations all over the country that even passed Top 40's share of the audience. Garth Brooks became the first country performer to notch an album at No. 1 on the Billboard charts during its first week of release, leading country's rapidly growing sales.
And then there's "Hot Country Nights," an acknowledgment by NBC that "there's an audience out there that wants to see country music," according to producer Gene Weed. (The program airs locally at 7 p.m. Sundays on KUTV Ch. 2.)
Country hasn't exactly taken over the pop music world. Rock and Top 40 stations haven't embraced even the hot-selling and media-saturated Brooks. But the indications are that country is at the beginning of an ascent that could make it the music to keep track of in coming years.
And this seems to be an audience that's genuinely interested in the music and the personalities rather than the trappings of the country subculture. The "Urban Cowboy" period was defined by mechanical bull-ridingmachines; nowadays it's possible to go to an Alan Jackson or Reba McEntire concert without encountering throngs of hat-wearing would-be cowboys and cowgirls.
"I just think country is more broadstream America today than it has been in the past," says Weed, a former rock disc jockey. "You go to the concerts now, and you find a lot of young people out there - teens, preteens. People who used to go to rock 'n' roll concerts only are now coming for country."
The country boom can be traced to changes within and outside of the music. To many observers, demographics have simply caught up to the sound.
"I don't know that anybody understands a country song until they're about 28 and life whacks them around a little bit," says Lon Shelton, Nashville correspondent for the trade magazine Radio & Records. "As the population ages, they start to understand what a country song is trying to tell them."
That's borne out by recent radio ratings. Of the Top 100 U.S. radio markets, 47 are topped by a country station, according to Arbitron. And 67 have a country station ranked No. 1 or 2 with the most desired demographic - the 25-54 age group.
But it's more than a matter of listeners getting a little older and experiencing the gestalt of "There's a Tear in My Beer" - not to mention a bit of disillusionment with the state of rock and Top 40 radio. Changes in Nashville during the past five or six years share responsibility for the boom. Once a closed shop where veterans ruled and there were few niches for newcomers, the country industry, thanks to new record company executives, producers and songwriters, learned that creating opportunities for younger performers would pay valuable dividends.
"There was a time when someone like Garth would've gone into another field to be heard, because Nashville wouldn't have taken him," says Weed.
Between 1979 and '85, just 43 new country acts made their way into the top reaches of the Radio & Records charts. During the six years since, that number more than doubled, and during 1991 alone there were 19, by far the most ever. So many that such stalwarts as Willie Nelson, Eddie Rabbitt and Hank Williams Jr. were conspicuously absent from the country Top 10 during the year.
Those figures are impressive, but more crucial is the younger acts' impact on new listeners. "There was a point where somebody would turn to country and find acts that were 45 and older and maybe they couldn't relate to," Shelton says. "Country has allowed all these young acts in, and they're appealing to younger listeners."
Writing in Billboard magazine's year-end issue, Nashville bureau editor Edward Morris noted that the new crop of country singers is "young enough to have been sired by Elvis (Presley). . . . They are not de facto defenders of the faith. And that allows them to make of country music what they will."
And this corps of new artists has bent country in a variety of directions, stylistically and thematically. The songs are more topical, such as Brooks' examination of domestic violence in "The Thunder Rolls." And more personal - evidence McEntire's wrenching "For My Broken Heart," inspired by the tragic plane crash in which seven band members and her tour manager were killed.
The production values are higher these days, and video is playing a stronger role after meager beginnings. The Nashville Network (TNN) - thanks in part to its purchase of Country Music Television (CMT) - now reaches 56 million homes, more than 90 percent of the total cable audience. And the music has broadened, encompassing the familiar country stylings of Travis, Black or Alan Jackson, the Tex-Mex high jinks of Texas Tornados, the folk orientation of Mary-Chapin Carpenter and the freewheeling sound of groups such as the Kentucky Headhunters and Southern Pacific, which are within spitting distance of rock.
"There's every kind of music under the label of country . . . because that audience is willing to say, `I don't want to hear the same music from everybody,' " says Weed. "Country has changed a lot, but its roots have remained the same. I think the old-time Nashville community is embracing the new success without giving up its roots or its love of Mr. (Roy) Acuff and his kind of music. I think (the veterans) are saying, `Isn't this nice. Now we have a lot more.' "
The net effect of this is that, regardless of airplay, more country records are selling than ever before. Harmony House marketing director Chuck Papke says that with Brooks leading the way, the Michigan chain's country sales doubled during 1991, now accounting for about 9 percent of its sales.
"I can't recall a time when a country artist was one of our top sellers," Papke says. "People have so many more ways of hearing country now. They see things on CMT and come in asking for people they never would have heard before."
Whether country will be able to build on Brooks' lead and produce more mainstream stars remains to be seen, but there's no question country is enjoying its broadest exposure and greatest potential audience in decades. And country is courting it with what Billboard's Morris calls "a high level of talent, brightness, variety and energy." If this combination remains intact, country's comfort level will indeed be something to sing about.