I recall a friend of mine explaining why she turned her back on pop/rock music in the 1990s, instead gravitating toward country. She responded, “Country is more like ‘normal’ rock now.”

Her point was, in a nutshell, that rock got too angry, too self-obsessed, too far up its own anus about the pain of the singer. Rock was supposed to be good-time music, and wasn’t supposed to cross too many genre barriers. Rock was meant to be “recognizable, maybe predictable, mostly non-threatening. It was about guitars, maybe some keyboards, and was not meant to be capital-A ‘Art.'”

Country could cross over to the pop charts, but seldom could (or should) pop cross over to the country charts. It was implied that there were clear boundaries and demarcation, and defenders of the purity of country would not stand for messing with the formulas. The crops did well or the crops died. There were no in-betweens.

Only, there were…lots of ’em, but the mind can be a selective machine. Look at Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. One of their biggest hits was the Barry Gibb (Bee Gees) song “Islands In The Stream,” which not surprisingly, sounded like a Bee Gees song. John Denver crossed over on multiple occasions. Tanya Tucker scored big on AM radio with “Delta Dawn.”

Looking back, one sees the 1990s as an extremely fertile time for country, and one could put up an argument that this was a red-state reaction to the blue-state feels coming off of songs from Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and on. This was the era of Garth Brooks and “Friends In Low Places,” the battleground for queen of country pop, a war waged between Faith Hill and Canadian-born Shania Twain.

The latter two artists regularly muted the country side of things, but not entirely. For Twain, it came a little easier as she had been married to her collaborator/producer, one Robert John “Mutt” Lange. He was the producer for acts like AC/DC, Def Leppard, Foreigner, The Cars, and many more. He always had a way of bringing his acts right into the middle of the road, where the most traffic would be for his clients, and the most “hits.” Still, all three acts stayed country enough to not offend the typically fiercely loyal country fan. You can also say that the sound of Brooks, Hill, and Twain is not all that representative of today’s version of country.

Putting aside the dominant “Bro Country” sound of Florida Georgia Line and the hip-hop-ification of the biggest hits, all finger snaps and no actual drums, what remains is twangy guitar rock with a Southern drawl, a bit more ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. So, if Brooks, Hill, and Twain aren’t the most influential, who was?

I have to go with Alannah Myles. Also Canadian-born, her debut appeared in July 1989 in Canada and in December of that same year in the U.S. The opportunity arrived to record a tune from songwriters Christopher Ward and David Tyson. She accepted that challenge, a song that indirectly rhapsodized Elvis Presley with its descriptions of Tupelo in a heatwave, certain physical characteristics that made women swoon, and the somewhat tacky memorial of “The King of Rock and Roll” as painted on black velvet fabric. This is where the song got it’s name, “Black Velvet,” from.

Myles’ label, Atlantic Records, saw the potential in the track, but not necessarily in Myles’ ability to sell it. Not that they didn’t think she had the ability to record it properly – she did. But she was a Canadian. Canadians didn’t do U.S. country (insert Anne Murray joke here). The song was given to another on their roster, Robin Lee from Nashville, Tennessee, where country is the currency. Her version appeared two months after Myles’ version did, and by then, it was too late. Alannah Myles was, for at least one song, a major star in the United States.

The story could have ended there, as so many do. The curses of the One-Hit Wonder are myriad. Usually, these artists are not one-hit wonders at all, but their follow ups get lost to time and summarily forgotten, outshone by that one omnipresent hit. Further, said artists cannot possibly know in real time that they’re the victims of lightning in a bottle, never to be fully repeated. Look up interviews from old hair metal bands back in the day and you’ll find an endless stream of egomaniacs crowing, “We’re at the top now, and we’re never coming down!”

Oh, you poor, deluded suckers.

Myles, however, did not end there, at least not in subtle ways. She herself would not have that degree of notoriety again in the U.S. Yet the sound of the song “Black Velvet” endures. It is country, but also pop and rock. It is – in many ways – what would have sounded like Pat Benatar had she recorded a country song. And, in terms of the retreat of audiences from traditional rock and ’90s alternative, “Black Velvet” provided a template for a sound to be mass-produced over and over. It is just enough cattle to justify wearing the hat.

Directly or indirectly, she showed Faith Hill and, clearly, Shania Twain the path to follow. From them came Taylor Swift. That specific country style has been adopted by many others, including Hill’s husband, fellow country performer Tim McGraw.

Myles is still working and is far from one of those musicians that appeared in a blinding light and disappeared in a flash. (Where have you gone, Corrine Bailey Rae?) In intervening years, she’s worked with writers and producers like Desmond Child (Cher and KISS) and Eric Bazilian (The Hooters, Joan Osborne). She did a duet with Saga frontman Michael Sadler on a cover of Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up.”

You can still hear “Black Velvet” show up on radio stations from time to time. It is one of those tracks that resurface from out of nowhere to remind you it existed once. You won’t immediately recount its influence, but when you do the analysis, it becomes apparent.

By Dw Dunphy

Dw. Dunphy is a writer, artist, and musician. He has contributed many articles that can be found in the MusicTAP's archives. He also writes for New Jersey Stage, Popdose.com, Ultimate Classic Rock, Diffuser FM, and Looper. His interview archive is available at https://dwdunphyinterviews.wordpress.com/