If you've seen Little Jimmy Dickens on the Opry this century, you've probably heard him introduce a song about like this: "A song from my latest album, ladies and gentlemen. Came out in 1965, I think it was." It's a joke befitting a still-performing, 91-year-old contemporary of Hank Sr., but it also drives home a fine point about country veterans who've reached the other side of their hit-making heydays and are decades younger than he: Nobody's guaranteed a vital, lifelong recording career, especially not on a major label.
George Strait and Reba McEntire — Country Music Hall of Famers who still impact the charts — are the exceptions, not the rule. For most performers, the ebb of radio airplay and major label support is inevitable. And adjusting to humbler career circumstances can't be easy for anyone who's breathed the rarified air of stardom long enough to get used to it. Pride, or inertia, can keep a performer striving to reach the same old commercial heights the same old ways. But there's a tiny yet growing minority of veteran acts who are shaking off the mid- to late-career status quo and teaming up with indie labels that aim beyond radio. (Sure, Taylor Swift's independent label home, Big Machine, goes toe to toe with the majors, but that's a whole other thing.)
Artist manager Marc Dottore knows how hard it can be to sell a recording artist on taking this sort of leap. "You were hungry," he says. "You worked really hard. You got a record deal. You got a hit. Things got good. You made money. You were playing stadiums. You got a nice house. When you're [used to] making six-figure records and getting big advances and all the sudden somebody like me walks up and says, 'You should make a $30,000, down-and-dirty record and put it out with Sugar Hill [Records],' [you're] like 'What?!' "
But the acts Dottore currently manages — Kathy Mattea, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith — needed no arm-twisting to try something different. They've all made Sugar Hill albums in recent years — Mattea's Calling Me Home is due in September — and been joined by Don Williams (And So It Goes came out last month) and Wanda Jackson (Unfinished Business was announced last week). And Merle Haggard started the decade with consecutive albums on sister label Vanguard. The first move, though, was Dolly Parton's: She released a trio of bluegrass projects on Sugar Hill around the turn of the millennium.
Upstart indie Plowboy Records — newly launched by Shannon Pollard (who's a grandson of the late Eddy Arnold), country historian and music biz professor Don Cusic, and pioneering punk guitarist Cheetah Chrome — has an Arnold tribute in the works, along with a new Bobby Bare album. In the Aughts, both Haggard and Porter Wagoner recorded for Anti-, and last year's Glen Campbell album came out on Surfdog.
Even with a new release, Williams isn't one for interviews. His longtime producer Garth Fundis saw him gracefully gear down his major label album-making in the early '90s, and a lot of years passed before the producer got a call from him about recording together once more. Says Fundis with a chuckle, "Don early on pretty much said, 'I don't want to be doing this when I'm a certain age.' I don't remember him exactly saying what that age was.
"I think part of the reason for him slowing down over the years was other artists get the juice with the record labels, especially on a major label. The attention goes to the new flavor and whatnot. So he certainly had a huge, long ride of success worldwide. I think Don was surprised to find himself interested in keeping it going."
Bare walked away from chasing hits a quarter-century ago, well before his son, Bobby Bare Jr., came on the scene playing gonzo roots rock. Junior had a hand in the only other studio album Bare Sr. made in all that time — it too was an indie effort, on Dualtone. For his Plowboy debut, Bare Sr. had a very specific type of project in mind. "I've wanted to do this for at least 25 years," he says, "an album of folk songs, and do all these folk songs, but not do folk music." Cusic, who's producing it, clarifies: "It's definitely not Peter, Paul and Mary." And in keeping with Bare's sharp and eclectic tastes, it ain't all folksong either.
So now Bare gets to make the album he wants to make — radio be damned — and that right there is one significant thing an indie can offer a vet. Another is the potential to work small miracles of commercial revival and critical reappraisal through reframing and recontextualizing an act. After all, the official account of who's important, influential and relevant and who's not is continually being rewritten by fans, critics, historians, industry folks and music-makers themselves.
Parton's bluegrass albums lifted away her sequined pop veneer and made people hear her, once again, as a mountain singer for the ages. Pollard & Co. are hoping to accomplish something equally big with the Arnold tribute: getting his granddad's music in front of a new, younger audience. They've selected songs from his 1940s rise rather than his countrypolitan '60s resurgence, and paired them with performers who aren't, shall we say, the usual suspects — New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain, for one. (Together, Chrome and Cusic have a pretty impressive Rolodex.) Says Pollard, "I feel like it's easier for that niche of country music buyers who love the old traditional stuff — and there are young buyers of that as well — to connect them back to some of the early stuff."
Jackson's upcoming Justin Townes Earle-produced album, like the one she made with Jack White last year, plays up the sexiest part of her musical pedigree — her rockabilly bona fides — as opposed to her years spent singing straight country and gospel. Not only does Earle have a feel for how to frame her classy, still-combustible spirit, but May-December collaborations like theirs can bring an older artist attention by association.
With his most recent albums and impressive array of extracurriculars, Stuart has definitively branded himself as trad country's stylish rebel stand-bearer. As for Don Williams, next to the strained posturing you hear in a lot of current country, the natural ease and sonorousness of his singing and the subtly supple grooves beneath him feel just as artistically uncompromising and alternative as Stuart's stance, which can be part of the appeal — particularly for the demographic wooed by the vinyl pressings of these albums. Says Fundis, "That's the beauty of it: Sugar Hill wanted what we had done before. They weren't trying to blaze any new trail. They just wanted another great Don Williams record, and I think we gave them that."
What, in general, do indie labels get out of these partnerships? Passion projects that actually pay off, says Sugar Hill's VP of A&R Gary Paczosa, since they're from "these great artists that no longer fit in that system, who had a built-in audience, who were still willing to work hard on the road and still had a lot of great music left in them."
Later he adds, "As the major labels consolidate and go away, I really thought we would see more of those country acts, those acts that sell 200,000 records — that's not enough to make it on a major — I thought we would see more of those going out on their own, starting something."
Chances are, we may yet.
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Never heard of any of these artists?
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the no droning rule is fucking dumb