A couple of scenes from 1995 typified country music’s current struggle between art and commerce. When attorney and artist manager Ken Levitan accepted a position as president of the Nashville division of Rising Tide Records last week, he noted that an unprecedented number of major labels now have affiliated offices on Music Row. Citing the number as “23, 24, 25...I don’t know for sure,” he adopted a positive slant on this abundance. More record companies meant more good music, he said, and good music is good for business. As he said this, a top talent executive for one of the most established record companies stage-whispered to his tablemates, “Yeah, he hasn’t had to deal with radio yet.” The table of four, all big players at record companies or song publishers, guffawed with him.
Once again, the message was as clear as it was cynical. Radio, the most narrow-minded segment of the country music industry, continues to rule the roost. What matters most is getting on the radioand radio isn’t about quality, or even quantity; it’s about control. Don’t buy the argument that country radio is so limited because stations react only to what listeners want. Listeners, in truth, don’t figure very high in the decision of what gets programmed on the daily playlists of large, urban-centered country radio stations. What matters on radioas in most aspects of American social and cultural lifeis money, power and influence. Radio reacts to a complex, but old-fashioned, game involving record promoters, advertising money and commercial tie-ins.
Which brings me to the second scene. Earlier this year, Kieran Kane sat in a broadcasting booth with a WSIX-FM radio jock, talking about an upcoming performance at a station-sponsored fundraiser. He also briefly discussed his new album, Dead Reckoning, which came out on a small label started by several like-minded artists who had all tired of major-label politics. The deejay played one of Kane’s songs, a catchy tune with an underlying social message called “Dirty Little Town.” The incoming phone lines lit up. As Kane left the booth and walked down the hallway to the exit, the on-air jock’s assistant grabbed him. She enthusiastically informed him that the one-time airing of his song drew an unusually strong, positive reaction from listeners. Many wanted to know where they could buy the song and the album.
If the station paid attention to its listeners, shouldn’t Kane’s song have gotten at least a bit more airplay, to see if the reaction remained positive? Alas, no. Kane’s song never got added to even the lower levels of the station’s song list. It never got a chance. Why? Not because there wasn’t interest, but because Kane’s record company isn’t among the power players; it isn’t part of the big-money game. The listener, in this case, doesn’t matter.
Alison Krauss is another case in point. For years, she has recorded stunningly beautiful music for an independent record label, Massachusetts-based Rounder Records. But she was never heard on the big, urban radio stations, despite her growing popularity and obvious artistic quality. Her renown, however, led to an invitation to take part in a tribute to Keith Whitley, who, like Krauss, started off in bluegrass music. Her cover of a Whitley song, “When You Say Nothing At All,” was included on an album released by RCA Records. It gained a good amount of radio airplay, as did a duet Krauss recorded with a major-label band, Shenandoah. The result: Not only did Whitley’s tribute album sell well, but Krauss’ own greatest-hits collection, released on little Rounder Records, jumped into the country Top Ten. The sales figures on her album raced across the million mark, making it one of the most successful albums of the year. All that with only two minor radio hits to her credit.
Obviously, people love her, right? She became the talk of the nation when she won several top awards at the country’s most prestigious annual event, the Country Music Association Awards. So even the music industry loves her, right? It would figure that radio, seeing all this enthusiasm, would want to play more songs by her, right? Wrong. Her next single came out on Rounder Records. It was soundly ignored by the leading radio stations. It didn’t matter how much listeners enjoyed her. Rounder Records isn’t a big-money player; it isn’t a part of the game.
As Levitan suggested, there is an enormous amount of music being made these days in Nashville. The majority of it, however, is recorded by a small, tight-knit cadre of Music Row record producers and overworked session musicians, most of whom find out what they’re going to be recording that day when they look down at the chart placed in front of them. Plug in, give it the trademark sound, get on to the next project.
Still, 1995 proved to be a rich year for country music. But in most cases, it took reaching beyond the radio to find it. In some cases, artists with vision and determination proved willful enough to mold Music Row players into making music that was distinctive as well as professional. Trisha Yearwood and Pam Tillis once again proved to be artists as well as stars. Ricky Skaggs marked a ringing return to form. Faith Hill challenged herself, as did Mark Chesnutt and Tim McGraw. Carlene Carter, Lee Roy Parnell, Radney Foster and Stacy Dean Campbell proved they deserve more recognition than they receive. With Kim Richey leading the pack, a strong list of newcomers proved promising, including Philip Claypool, Woody Lee, Daryle Singletary and Ty Herndon. For the most part, however, the most interesting music came from the widening sphere of independent voices who make music without help from Music Row.
As for 1996, there are some promising signs. Bobbie Cryner and Chely Wright both have solid sophomore efforts coming. The next steps by Alan Jackson, George Strait and Vince Gill are due; since they’ve all taken a breather from the studio to put out landmark greatest-hits collections, they should come back better and stronger than ever. And judging from the visceral power of Mike Henderson’s solo album on Dead Reckoning, independent voices will continue to ring loud and clear this coming year. Two that could make it all worthwhile: Steve Earle’s return to country-rock with a new version of the Dukes and Lucinda Williams’ first major-label album.
As for what happened over the past 12 months, here are the albums I’ll enthusiastically replay for years to come.
1. Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball (Asylum) For the past several years, Harris has moved toward a moodier backing sound, culminating in the great Cowgirl’s Prayer. For Wrecking Ball, she took her music several steps into the future: She enlisted the help of well regarded rock producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan), whose raw atmospherics added a provocative tension to Harris’ cool emotionalism. As usual, her song selection is daring and superb.
2. Kim Richey, Kim Richey (Mercury) Richey’s ringing melodies gained an exultant drive under the guitar-layering expertise of producer Richard Bennett, and her words and storiesstrong, vulnerable and honestgave the songs their punch.
3. Guy Clark, Dublin Blues (Asylum) Clark’s sentimental, tough-guy style continues to sharpen with age. Since his recording return with Old Friends in 1989, he’s created a series of albums remarkable in their precise use of guitar chords, melodies and razor-edged wisdom.
4. Buddy Miller, Your Love and Other Lies (HighTone) Loose, rollicking roadhouse music performed by a talented group of friends, directed by Miller’s friendly drawl, and propelled by his fierce guitar work. The heartbreakers cut deep too.
5. Gail Davies, Eclectic (Little Chickadee) Davies’ assertively revealing lyrics and inventive arrangements bucked Nashville’s youth movementa young woman couldn’t write with this much wisdom or sing with this much authority.
6. Joe Ely, Letter to Laredo (MCA) Collaborating with flamenco guitarist Teye, Ely delved into Mexican ballads and story-songs with drama and depth.
7. Dwight Yoakam, Gone (Reprise) Yoakam is growing more eccentric and experimental with each album, and he makes it all work by anchoring his embellishments and odd musical twists with intelligent songs of remorse and resignation.
8. Kieran Kane, Dead Reckoning (Dead Reckoning) Tales of movement and connection rolled out with jaunty casualness; Kane’s discerning eye and crisp musical command make it all ring true.
9. Dick Curless, Traveling Through (Rounder) A wonderfully untamed country-soul stylist with a brazenly emotional and picturesque delivery, veteran performer Curless recorded the best album of his career, then died before its release.
10. Shelby Lynne, Restless (Magnatone) Lynne’s bold, dynamic artistry continues to break Nashville’s formulas and stereotypes. This time out, she enlivens traditional country with expressive vocal fire and brisk musical content.
The next 10: Tarnation, Gentle Creatures (4AD); Kevin Welch, Life Down Here on Earth (Dead Reckoning); Trisha Yearwood, Thinking About You (MCA); Carlene Carter, Little Acts of Treason (Giant); Rosie Flores, Rockabilly Filly (HighTone); The Cactus Brothers, 24 hrs., 7 Days a Week (Capitol Nashville); Steve Earle, Train a Comin’ (Winter Harvest); Wayne Hancock, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs (DejaDisc); Pam Tillis, All of This Love (Arista); Philip Claypool, Circus Leaving Town (Curb).
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