Decline and renewal

Old photo of a man playing acoustic guitar wearing a cowboy hat and fringed jacket

Hank Walters, courtesy of Hank Walters

Music scenes usually change as a result of a combination of factors, and a dual emphasis on decline and renewal is common to many of them. Those participating in such scenes frequently discuss the health of the scene, expressing concerns about declining audiences, media intrusion and so on but also about continuity, revival and new beginnings.This can be illustrated by considering the development of the country music scene of Liverpool and Merseyside, which has been affected by a convergence of social, economic and musical factors.

Did you know that Liverpool was once referred to as 'the Nashville of the North' because of its thriving country music scene? The musicians involved have often described the 1950s as the golden age of that scene when local country music was at the height of its popularity and country bands and clubs were numerous. By the 1990s however, some of the region's traditional country musicians believed that the scene was shrinking and was in danger of dying out. They pointed to several reasons for this.

They suggested that the scene had been overshadowed by new music trends and technological developments. These included:

  • the emergence of 1950s rock 'n' roll and 1970s discotheques, which overshadowed the scene and took away some of its audiences
  • the introduction in the 1980s of karaoke, pub quiz nights and singers accompanied by pre-recorded backing tapes, which local venues tended to find easier to accommodate and cheaper to hire than live country bands
  • the 1990s craze for country step or line dancing, which many musicians felt distracted audiences from the music.

They also attributed the decline of the scene to Liverpool's economic problems of the 1970s and 1980s, which led to the closure of small pubs and clubs that had supported the scene, and a reduction in the amount of income their audiences had to spend. Speaking in the early 1990s, some musicians complained:

"The man in the street hasn't got the money... The Liverpool country scene compared to what it used to be is finished. It's dead." (cited in McManus, 1994: 32)

"Because of the recession there's no money in Liverpool... The venues are closing down." (ibid)

"The scene has altered. The clubs are closing down and if they're not closing down they're putting other things on." (cited in Cohen, 2007a: 87)

In addition, the decline of the scene was attributed to the ageing of the scene's participants and local country musicians were afraid that the scene would not survive them. "The scene now in Liverpool has dropped. There's no new blood", stated one. Another said,

"There's not many of us left... As George Jones sang, 'Who's going to fill their shoes?' There's no-one to fill our shoes... there's no new bands coming up" (cited in McManus 1994a: 31-2).

However such stories of decline were accompanied by a struggle for renewal. Local country music fans attended live performance events partly to demonstrate their support for the scene and their desire to help keep it going. Local musicians tried to encourage the involvement of younger musicians in the scene and also made efforts to record and in doing so preserve local country music performances. In the late 1990s, for example, the 'City With a Heart' album was released as part of a regeneration programme which according to the album's sleeve notes was to "prevent the loss of Liverpool's own unique Country Music Culture and Heritage".