Back To The Future: 1985 and the Year Country Music Died


”Country records are getting plenty of radio play, but they all sound alike and nobody’s buying them.”

”A lot of the established country stars and record producers are making records by formula. They’re so caught up in conforming to what used to sell and what radio stations will play, the new records don’t have any life to them.”

”It’s still possible for new performers to make it in country music, but they have to come across in videos and they have to be really sensational live performers.”

Surprisingly, these are not quotes from today. Nope, they’re quotes taken from a story in The New York Times published on September 17th, 1985 that famously, and controversially, declared the death of country music, or at least that’s how the story got told as it set off all manner of scurrying and discussion in Nashville and beyond. In truth, The New York Times headline was “Nashville Sound: Country Music In Decline,” but the assessment might as well have been a death pronouncement. It was Bobby Bare who offered the first quote above, and famous artist manager Bill Carter who offered up the next two.

The New York Times piece gave a grim statistical assessment of country music’s popular descent, citing the slashing of sales figures in both albums and singles from previous highs as evidence that the appeal of country music had dried up. And what did The Times link the implosion of country music to? The wide appeal of rock music among younger people, including younger listeners in America’s rural areas. And a loss of appeal for Music Row’s long-established “Nashville Sound.” Overproduction and cookie cutter songs had made country music bland and predictable.

Robert Palmer, the journalist who wrote the article for The Times pointed out that in 1985, the appeal for Western themes was on the rise due to the surprise re-emergence of popularity in Western movies (Back to the Future notwithstanding), but “Nashville’s production-line country music is too slick and pop oriented to appeal to frontier nostalgia.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

It wasn’t just that country music wasn’t changing with the times, it was that it couldn’t even appeal to its core constituency. It was stuck in popular music no man’s land and was getting left behind.

Music was still being made though, and albums were still selling, however steep the declines were.

Alabama was the biggest thing going in country music in 1985
Alabama was the biggest thing going in country music in 1985

What was successful in country music in 1985? Alabama was one of the biggest bands during the year with #1 hits like “40 Hour Week,” “Can’t Keep A Good Man Down,” “(There’s a) Fire in the Night,” and “There’s No Way.” Alabama also won the ACM’s Entertainer of the Year in 1985. Another group, The Oak Ridge Boys, had three #1 singles during 1985, and Exile had two. It was the year of the group in country music, and “God Bless The U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood was the CMA Song of the Year. That probably tells you just about all you need to know about country music in 1985: bland, dry, cookie-cutter music meant for commercial appeal (yet not achieving it).

But among the ashes of what country music once was there were the chutes of green springing out of the ground that would help fuel the massive resurgence country music would enjoy in coming years. 1985 was the year Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis began to emerge in the industry. The New York Times piece touted the rise of new traditionalists “such as Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, who are going back to the roots of country music for inspiration, and making simple, soulful records…” George Strait’s Does Ft. Worth Ever Cross Your Mind won the CMA for Album of the Year in 1985.

George Strait and Randy Travis are given credit for helping to lay the groundwork for the now famous “Class of ’89” that included Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Clint Black, and others that brought country music back to commercial prominence, and to levels never seen before in the genre.

The Highwaymen released their first album, and had a #1 single in 1985.
The Highwaymen released their first album, and had a #1 single in 1985.

Another bright spot in 1985 was legendary acts. It was the year the supergroup The Highwaymen emerged (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson), though admittedly its formation was an effort to help combine star power in answer to their own sagging sales numbers. But they had a #1 song in 1985 in “Highwayman” (it also won the ACM Song of the Year)—once again reinforcing that 1985 was the “Year of the Group” in country music.

The New York Times wisely pointed out in the 1985 article, “Some performers associated with country music have become American legends, figures whose voices are recognized everywhere – Willy Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles. As such, their careers may be immune to the crisis in country music’s mainstream.”—yet another assessment that is eerily relevant today.

So what’s to learn from hitching a ride in Marty McFly’s time machine and traveling back to 1985? That the problems country music is facing today are virtually the same ones that were being faced 30 years ago. It’s all cyclical, as canonized in the old Gospel tune enshrined in the architecture of the Country Music Hall of Fame asking the question, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”

Right when things appear the most bleak, country music comes roaring back, led by a new generation of traditional artists. This was the case in 1975 with The Outlaws, in 1985 with the new traditionalists, in 1995 with the neo traditionalists, and in 2005 with Taylor Swi . . . oh wait.

But who knows, we could point back to 2015 in the future to artists like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Mo Pitney, and many more who saved the day during one of country music’s darkest hours by going back to the past to remind us why great country music will always remain relevant into the future.