The New York Times reviewed the Country Music Association Awards that aired last week on November 1st. The review shown a light on many issues that I saw and heard myself. I watched the three-hour telecast, looking for among other things, the fiddle.
I counted just three acts using a fiddle in the entire telecast. One song, the fiddle was silent – just used as a prop. The 2nd song had a five-note solo that was a set piece of almost no consequence. The 3rd song had a decent small fiddle turn around and those eight measures alone, reminded me of the fiddle loving Nashville that I was a part of 25 to 30 years ago. Basically one fiddle turn around solo in three hours. I was shocked.
The reason I was shocked is this. Between 1984 and 1990, I played fiddle on nearly every country star’s record in Nashville. The CMAs were always a yearly celebration for me because I was appearing on stage often and many band fiddlers were playing some of my licks from the records. In a 4-year period, my fiddle playing was a major presence on these country albums.
I am cherry picking here on this list. Within a 4-year stretch, I played on each cut of The Trio with Dolly, Emmy Lou and Linda winning the CMA Event of the Year in 1988. The same year my fiddle was prominent on Randy Travis’ CMA Album of the Year. The following year in 1989, I was featured on nearly every track on the “Will the Circle be Unbroken” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band wining CMA Album of the Year. In 1990, I played on the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year’s album by Kathy Mattea, the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year’s album by Clint Black and the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year’s album by the The Judds. In 1991, my own New Nashville Cats album won the CMA Event of the Year and I broke through winning the first of an eventual six Musician of the Year awards at the CMAs, breaking my hero Chet Atkins’s record of five in a row. The fiddle accomplished this!
What happened to the fiddle since I left Nashville and country music twenty years ago? For about ten years, a handful of fiddlers took my place, played the lion’s share of the sessions I used to play. They largely kept my fiddle style and sound of rockin'/bluesy/bluegrass/newgrass/jazz/hoedown/country thing going. But then obviously those fiddlers are not playing on records today like they used to. In the history of the Nashville recording industry, the most prominent fiddler in the 1950s and 1960s was the great square dance country fiddler, Tommy Jackson. In the 1960s and 1970s the most prominent was the great Texas Swing fiddle king Johnny Gimble who racked up many CMA Musician of the Year awards. Gimble had a completely different sound than Jackson. When I became the most prominent fiddler in Nashville in 1985 through 1996 (the last year I won the CMA Musician of the Year) I had a completely different sound from both Gimble and Jackson.
On November 1st , I was curious to see what was going to be the new fiddle sound of country music for this era. After all it has been over twenty years since I did my last Nashville sessions and recordings. To my surprise, the answer was not a new fiddle style or sound, the answer was to get rid of it and replace it with not just one rock electric guitar in every band, but two rock guitars or more in every band! Rock guitars 100% of the time. Wow!
Let’s see what the New York Times says.
"Country music is a storytelling genre…But, in truth, country is ruthless, just like every other genre, and becoming more so, as was clear from the 46th edition of the Country Music Association Awards, which was broadcast live on Thursday night from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on ABC…A streak running through that show is anxiety about being aged out of the genre, and this year’s CMAs — with their pop arrivistes, their new gentry and their almost complete blindness toward the genre’s past — would have made for a good subplot.Sure, there was a tribute at the end of the night to Willie Nelson, but it was tepid and rote…This modern country has arena ambitions, but also an agonized relationship with pop, as seen in its pinched-nose embrace of Taylor Swift, its biggest star, whether or not she’s a genre faithful.9 of which are given out on television — to focus on performances. The best of these showed a creeping roots-minded traditionalism. (The CMAs might be just a couple of years away from offering Mumford & Sons a performance slot.)"
Kelly Clarkson “was one of the few performers to engage in outright nostalgia” the New York Times writes, but with my old New Nashville Cats partner in crime Vince Gill singing harmony with her, they couldn’t even toss him one verse to sing. Why not? We have three hours!
Granted, Brad Paisley is the genre’s major country music star today who knows country music forwards and backwards. But even in his tribute to Hurricane Sandy victims, the New York Times writes, “he wove a few bars of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” into the beginning of his performance of “Southern Comfort Zone,” a song that flips country’s reliance on regional pride into advocacy of travel and broad-mindedness.” For me, it was just incredibly odd to watch a church choir walk through the isles smiling and clapping while singing “Southern Comfort.”
Of course, even as reviews can be enlightening, there is no mention to where the fiddles and steel guitars went? I think it will take a fiddle player to come along who dared to believe that their fiddle should be on all of the records, journeying to Nashville with something new to offer that no one had imagined before. It will take a fiddler who is creative with new ideas and not just playing it safe in order to hold on to their job. Not just rehashing our old licks and sounds. I know some of those producers who are still there in Nashville as well as new producers who used to be my session musician cohorts. They want to see something new that will knock them over the head regarding the fiddle or other instruments that could now be considered novelty again. If they are not knocked out with something new that they consider great, a new style, new sound, new approach, a huge talent, it will be rock and pop formulas ongoing for country music. The very same kind of formulas I faced down when I came to Nashville. The 1983’s version of those rock and pop formulas were chorused and flanged rock guitars and Yamaha’s new DX-7 synthesizer. I had to deal with them, prove that the violin could be just as cool and both play along side them or push them to the side in order to find a place for the fiddle to reappear.
By 1984, I figured out how to make my presence on country music’s recordings. Someone will have to do that again now some 30 years later and in a way that was as unique as I was to Nashville, or that Gimble was to Nashville 20 years before. Or, it will be me saying the very same thing that Buddy Spicher, a great and prominent session fiddler told me when I first moved to Nashville in 1983. Buddy said, “Mark, you have come too late. The fiddle has gone out of country music.” It is time for players to start making their move. It is nearly gone, and someone must step forward to revive it. I am doing things elsewhere in the music scene and left Nashville for others to fiddle. It has to be somebody new.
For past CMA winners:
I welcome your comments.