- - Monday, June 23, 2014


George Strait raking in a record-setting $18.2 million in ticket sales for the last show of his last tour this month is far from a fluke.

Now, there are some who credit nostalgia for the “King of Country” attracting 104,793 fans to his June 7 concert at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — and setting Billboard’s Boxscore mark for the largest single-show attendance in a U.S. stadium.

That crowd seemingly believes that “bro country” will all but obliterate traditional country because, as Blake Shelton tweeted earlier this year, “country music constantly changes Always has and always will. It’s song about real people. People change.”

But not completely. Otherwise, you couldn’t explain the swarm of 20-somethings at concerts by Mr. Strait (62), Willie Nelson (81) and Alan Jackson (55); or their love for Kenny Rogers (75), as evidenced at Darius Rucker’s recent “Darius and Friends” charity concert.

No, if traditional country is a distant memory, it’s impossible to explain artists who write and perform songs reminiscent of traditional sounds but still grab critics’ and fans’ attention.

Consider David Nail’s chart topper “Whatever She’s Got,” from his March release “I’m a Fire” (which debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s country charts).

Most of the album’s 11 songs — about a third co-written by Mr. Nail — have plenty of rock sounds, but they also have a distinctive acoustic country vibe. Listeners can hear that in several songs, including “Whatever She’s Got.” (Think Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.”)

The album’s most traditional country offer is Mr. Nail’s critically acclaimed cover of “Galveston,” made famous by Mr. Campbell, a Country Music Hall of Fame member. Mr. Nail recorded the song as a duet with Lee Ann Womack, a sterling country artist in her own right and wife of album co-producer Frank Liddell.

“Glen Campbell was a big, big influence on me and big hero of mine,” Mr. Nail said of the artist who was something of a heretic himself, having won Grammys in country and pop categories. “It’s surprising that a lot of people have come up to me and told me their takes on the song and what it means. We were playing Tucson [last week] and it was just great to see [young] guys around me, who maybe had never heard a Glen Campbell song, sit there with their jaws open, loving it.”

Forgive younger music fans who don’t know much about Mr. Campbell beyond the screaming tabloid headlines about his decline into Alzheimer’s disease.

It would be rare to find a young country musician today who shares Mr. Campbell’s personal background — son of a Billstown, Arkansas, sharecropper who grew up picking cotton and went on to major music label success and personal excess.

Young musicians, though, do sing his songs — including Keith Urban and Wade Hayes (“Wichita Lineman”), The Mavericks (“Gentle on My Mind”), and Brad Paisley (“Try a Little Kindness”). It’s true that other artists, including the brilliant Jimmy Webb, wrote those songs, but Mr. Campbell’s performances of them pushed them into the public consciousness.

“I have been on a mission the last couple years to champion him as much as possible,” said Mr. Nail, 35. “It’s bittersweet. Sometimes it takes someone on their way to dying before they are appreciated.”

But not always.

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