Remember Rick Trevino? Picture the quintessential mid-’90s hat act: impossibly young with soap-star good looks, a Latino George Strait in starched Wranglers and Stetson singing bleached-out radio records with titles like “Bobbie Ann Mason” and “Learning as You Go.” Now erase that image: Trevino is back, you see, and readying a new album for release on Warner Bros. But after four years in music industry purgatory, he’s radically changed. Unreturned phone calls, cramped vans, tiny bars and oblivious patrons do things to a former major label recording artist. Judging by Trevino’s recently completed disc, mostly good things. And he’s not the only one.
Deana Carter floated Capitol Records with her hit “Strawberry Wine” several years back, until her second album flopped. She has since returned on RCA with excellent new music. Then there’s Clay Walker, who slipped from view with the demise of Giant Records. A little soul searching and a healthy dose of humility have resulted in new music likely to shock skepticsindeed, the best album of his career by far. Former Sony star Wade Hayes is coming back to country music as part of a fleet-fingered new duo, McHayes, while multiple Grammy nominee and emerging “new” artist Joe Nichols is having his first brush with success on his fourth label. Matt King and Craig Morgan, refugees from now defunct Atlantic Nashville, have recorded remarkable though vastly different new albums. Even R&B Grammy winner Tony Rich, he of the 1996 chart-topping smash “Nobody Knows,” is signed to a Nashville label for the release of his next album titled, appropriately, Resurrected.
Label-hopping isn’t a new music biz sport, to be sure. Ask Reba McEntire, Vince Gill or Steve Wariner. More recently, Travis Tritt, Aaron Tippin, Tracy Byrd and Toby Keith have experienced varying levels of career revival on new labels. But in terms of sheer volume, Music City is now seeing what can only be described as a movementa pronounced anomaly not easily explained by coincidence. Many causes can be tied to this particular effect, but the most telling is best couched in terms of what’s not happening: Nashville can’t break new acts.
Specifically, Music Row hasn’t launched a multiplatinum artist in six years, the last being the Dixie Chicks (who have been busily undoing their career, but had divorced themselves of Nashville long before their current troubles). Radio consolidation has turned the singles charts into a quagmire that has swallowed scores of artists whole. RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante says the frustration level is high. “We watch singles take 26 weeks to climb the chart,” he says. “The artist is sitting there thinking, 'Half my life is over, and I’m on my first single. How do I build a career?’ ”
Skyrocketing promotion costs extorted by massive radio conglomerates have forced labels to make decisions on artists much sooner. Where rookies might once have had four or more albums to find themselves, now they have one, maybe two. And like radio, the labels have consolidated too. Rosters are smaller, and proven talent has been shown the door. Record sales are down across the industry. The noose draws tighter, and in response, labels look for any edge they can find in signing artists. Having a track record, fan base and name recognition drops launch costs and ups the odds. Meanwhile, independent country labels have been reenergized by the Internet and by growing artist dissatisfaction with the majors: What was once typically the resting place for over-the-hill Nashville stars is a fount of uncommon opportunities, where savvy, committed performers can exercise greater control over their own careers.
Perhaps the most surprising and encouraging function of these trends is the music. It’s better, much better. It’s distinct, expressive, emotional, reala far cry from the homogenization of the late ’90s, when labels were so cowed by the demands of radio that they hewed to the simplest formulas possible. Now there are suggestions Music Row might finally be purging itself of the arrogance that says artists can be created by committee. And then there are the artists themselves, many of them too young the first time, who have lived a little longer, been toughened by adversity and grown artistically. Each of the performers profiled here has been given another shot. Each is making the most of it. They’re the lucky ones.
The highest-profile country artist to make a recent label switch is Deana Carter. Did I Shave My Legs for This?, her 1995 Capitol debut, sold more than 5 million copies and vaulted the singer to superstar status. Despite a few superlative reviews, her next album didn’t have its predecessor’s legs, earning a mere gold certification for sales in excess of 500,000 copies. Her assertions in a January 2002 Scene cover story to the contrary, the album’s shortcomings were mostly musicalCarter failed to pack the album with hooks. And by the time her third record was in the works, Capitol had lost interest.
To be fair, Carter was forced to run a gauntlet of obstacles in the house that Garth built, the biggest being instability. Label presidents during her tenure included Jimmy Bowen, Scott Hendricks, Pat Quigley and Mike Dungan. Still, leaving the label was an emotional struggle. “I wanted to be on Capitol forever,” she says. “It’s the label of The Beatles and Dean Martin, who I’m named for. Being on Capitol was very close to my heart.” At the same time, Carter was enduring personal upheaval in the form of a divorce from singer-songwriter Chris DiCroce. That pain figures prominently in the new music Capitol passed on, ultimately leading to her break with the label. “Out of about 20 songs, I just knew all of them didn’t suck,” she says.
Far from it. I’m Just a Girl, her debut for Arista, may not be a huge creative leap, but Carter was a well-formed artist from the start. Rather, she has fine-tuned her already unabashed honesty by writing all the songs, and as producer she’s recaptured the commercial sensibility that made her first release so successful. Now a priority at Nashville’s dominant label group, Carter has a legitimate shot at sustaining the kind of long-term career that has eluded her thus far.
Clay Walker: No longer playing it safe
For Clay Walker, the issue was never consistency, but respect. His six studio albums for Giant sold a combined 8 million copies, but his detractors couldn’t get past the enormous belt buckle, regulation hat and songs like the nursery-rhyme abomination “One, Two, I Love You.” The flagship artist of a second-tier label, Walker was never so much as nominated for a major award, despite 11 No. 1 singles. When he hit the street after Giant’s demise, the industry barely took notice.
What everyone overlooked, however, was Walker’s phenomenal pipes. They also missed his last Giant album, Say No More. Released two weeks before the label folded, the collection revealed a maturing and increasingly substantive artista process he credits, in part, to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996. His first RCA release, due this summer, furthers that development. Walker has vowed to stop looking for hits“I’ll never play it safe again,” he saysand to start pouring himself into his albums. While A Few Questions is Walker’s first truly introspective release and a deeply spiritual one, its commercial appeal is undeniable. Not only is it his most complete album to date, it may prove to be the best mainstream country release of the year.
Wade Hayes: Rested, regrouped, ready
Unlike Walker and Carter, Wade Hayes actually pulled the plug on his own career. As close to a true overnight success as there’s been in recent Nashville history, Hayes introduced himself to country audiences in 1995 with a chart-topping first single, “Old Enough to Know Better (But Still Too Young to Care).” That early momentum carried him on to two gold albums and several more hits, but between 1996 and 2000, only two of his songs broke the Top 20 of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. Feeling like his traditional leanings were falling out of favor with country audiences, Hayes asked for his release from Sony. “Rather than run it into the ground and ruin myself forever,” he says, “I decided it was best to stop where I was and regroup, quit and start back in a few years.”
But he didn’t come back alone. Hayes formed a duo with longtime friend and songwriting partner Mark McClurg, the fiddle player in The Strayhorns, Alan Jackson’s touring band for the past 12 years. The newly christened McHayes are readying the release of Lessons in Lonely, a traditionally bent debut on which Hayes and McClurg play all the instrumental leads themselves. “We’ve already heard all the McDonald’s jokes,” Hayes says of the duo’s name, “made most of them up ourselves, actually.”
Asked if his ego took a hit during the time he spent “at home on the couch,” Hayes says flatly, “No. I was ready.” He also points out that the hiatus gave him a new perspective. “Not too many people get the shot I had, and I probably took it a little too much for granted. Now I realize how special this opportunity is, and I’m enjoying the process more this time around.”
Hayes is also a prime example of the pitfalls associated with Music Row’s youth obsession. “I was 24 years old and came out of the box with two No. 1 records,” he says. “That’s too much to handle when you’re that young, unless you’ve really got your poop in a group, which I didn’t. I wanted it so bad and thought I was ready, but it just went too fast.”
Rick Trevino: A new musical identity
Rick Trevino knows something about success at an early age. Discovered in an Austin nightclub when he was only 19, he soon signed to Sony and began opening for the likes of George Strait and Hank Williams Jr. Mexican American in name only, it seemed, Trevino was, if anything, a less successful version of Clay Walkermining the middle of the road for hits while failing to project any kind of cohesive artistic vision. Many on the Row were surprised, then, when Trevino was included in Los Super Seven, a critically acclaimed Latino supergroup. Embracing a heritage he had long avoided“I associated that music with family dysfunction and alcoholism”Trevino won a Grammy in 1999 for his work with the group. A month later, Sony dropped him, ending a seven-year association.
A Nashville showcase a year after losing his deal was to be Trevino’s triumphant return, but his performance fell flat. Riding home the next day, he fielded a succession of calls from his manager telling him which labels had passed. His career in free-fall, Trevino was forced to put his house up for sale and trade his tour bus for a van.
Now the singer has remade himself musically. Enlisting Raul Malo of The Mavericks as his producer, Trevino has finally decided to embrace his heritage. Together, he and Malo have crafted an album on which Spanish guitar, pedal steel and accordion sometimes bump up against lush orchestral arrangements. The sound owes more to Marty Robbins, Johnny Rodriguez and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” than to onetime role models Garth Brooks and George Strait. Trevino even wrote a song for the disc about being “a big star in an old car” and driving thousands of miles to play shows in the middle of nowhere. “I’ve been living on easy street,” he sings, voice dripping with irony. “It’s all worked out so perfectly / It’s just part of the life, I guess / Of an overnight success.”
“It’s hard for me to listen to those [Sony] albums now,” Trevino says. “I’m in such a different place. And I’ve learned there can’t be any dead air between songs at my shows, or someone will scream at me to play 'Bobbie Ann Mason.’ ”
Matt King: Taking a hard look at the American Dream
Signed to Atlantic in the late ’90s, Matt King generated little chart action but did catch the ear of a few critics drawn to the hard Appalachian edge in his rangy baritone. While his career stagnated, King was busy embracing all the glittering enticements of America’s media culture, slowly descending into a private hell of alcoholism that eventually led to divorce. Professionally, King was dropped by Atlantic as album sales failed to materialize. His publisher soon followed suit.
Two years into recovery but still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in late 2001, King had an epiphany: He’d been living in a world that seemed to have all but abandoned substance for style. His awakening poured forth into his music, starting with the line, “I have tasted Eden’s apple / And there’s venom in my veins.” That song, “Eden’s Apple,” sparked a firestorm of creative energy, resulting in a fresh body of work that takes a frank, unflinching look at our spiritually bankrupt society. “American Dream,” his most powerful song, is a devastating blue-collar dirge far removed from the upbeat affirmations currently littering corporate country radio. Recorded in his home studio, the music is mostly acoustic and gritty, the lyrics reading like Southern fiction with a Gothic tint. The characters are people we rarely hear about, those left behind in the mad rush to prosperitydebtors and drunkards and single moms with hungry children.
So compelling is this new direction, King has recently been signed to publishing and booking deals despite not yet having a record label. Artist manager Bob Titley was on the phone for a meeting within minutes of first hearing an MP3 of “American Dream.” “The response is unbelievable,” says Brian Hill, King’s booking agent at Monterey Peninsula Artists. “He just did a show in Columbus, Ohio, and sold 80 CDs to the 375 people in attendance. And he was the opening act.”
Joe Nichols: On his fourth time around, and happier for it
Many of the country artists currently getting a second chance at their careers had only the faintest flicker of successif even thaton their first pass through the Music Row Machine. In Joe Nichols’ case, that’s true of his first, second and third passes. The singer released his debut album on independent Intersound Records in 1996, then graced the rosters of both Giant and Warner Bros. before signing to Universal South and earning prodigious airplay as well as three 2003 Grammy nominations with his album Man With a Memory.
Nichols says those early failed attempts, and the time that followed, have fueled his current success. “That downtime is what drives everyone with the opportunity for a second chance,” he says, recalling jobs with United Parcel Service and as a cable guy. “The biggest problem is I really didn’t have an idea who I was, what I could do and what I couldn’t do,” he explains. “The turning point was when I stopped listening to all the other opinions and started listening to my own. I had to stop watching other people and go back to what gave me a passion about music in the first place. I’m thankful those other deals didn’t work out. I would have been miserable.”
Man With a Memory is testament to Nichols’ solid vision, unyielding in its traditional convictions and stylings. Live, he delivers good songs, straight-up in the mold of Alan Jackson, for whom he opened last year.
Craig Morgan: Not your average new artist
For Craig Morgan, switching labels didn’t lead to a lot of soul searching or self-doubt. None was in order. A former Special Forces soldier, Morgan isn’t exactly your average new artist, though his debut album only came out three years ago. “By the time I got the Atlantic deal, I’d already been in the Army for 11 years, been in a few wars, had a wife and kids, numerous jobs, college education, the whole bit,” he says. “When it went away, I really just chalked it up as part of life.” During the eight-month hiatus between record deals, Morgan dove into songwriting and preproduction for what became I Love It, his second album and his first for Broken Bow Records.
One of the strongest mainstream country offerings from an independent label in years, the disc shows Morgan to be a singer the majors may wish never got away. But he’s not complaining. “[Broken Bow] is just like a major,” he says. “Only difference is, I get to call one guy instead of sitting in four committee meetings.” Stocked with several former major label executivesone of whom calls it a “WEA refugee camp”Broken Bow doesn’t have near the pull of its larger competitors. Great music, however, is a powerful equalizer, and the label has been able to push I Love It to the brink of Top 20 on the album chart.
Led by the current Top 10 single “Almost Home,” a vivid musical portrait that humanizes homelessness without turning preachy, I Love It has already outsold Morgan’s self-titled Atlantic debut. At more than 7,000 copies per week, I Love It is outpacing artists like Faith Hill and Blake Shelton. By the time the second single, the equally stunning tearjerker “Every Friday Afternoon,” is released, Morgan could be one of Nashville’s most unexpected success stories. A gold album isn’t out of the question.
Up and down the Row
The seven performers profiled above are only the most noteworthy out of a sizable pool of country singers trying to jump-start their careers. Label rosters across Music Row have become home to plenty others in recent months. Eric Heatherly, who had a minor hit at Mercury with a cover of the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall,” is now at DreamWorks, as is Chalee Tennison, who released two albums on the since shuttered Asylum. Universal South has Dean Miller, onetime Capitol recording artist and son of the late Roger Miller. Blake Shelton, who languished on Giant for years, now has a gold album under his belt and is on his second release with Warner Bros. Steve Azar at Mercury, Rebecca Lynn Howard at MCA and Clint Daniels at Sony have their eyes on similar success.
It’s long been the case that declining stars who can no longer hold their own on a major turn to an independent label. With lower operating expenses, independents can make money at lower sales thresholds, effectively extending the recording careers of artists whose fan base is no longer growing. The difference of late is that some of the artists flocking to indie labels still have a shot at legitimate success. Sammy Kershaw could give Audium Records some play at mainstream country radio with his new album, I Want My Money Back. The first single, the title track, recently flirted with the Top 20, and the disc has at least one more potential hit in “Sunday Morning on Bourbon Street.” David Ball, who had a double-platinum smash with Thinkin’ Problem in the mid-’90s, came back two years ago with “Riding With Private Malone,” released on the Dualtone imprint. Joe Diffie, Chad Brock and Sherrié Austin, among others, have all signed with indies. Dwight Yoakam is going a step farther down the road to independence, releasing his next album as a joint venture between his own label, Elektrodisc, and Audium. Population Me will be in record stores June 24, and a single was expected at country radio late in May.
Meanwhile, Nashville-based Compendia Music Group is reaching beyond country music for its roster, attracting artists as diverse as Joan Osborne, Robert Palmer and Tony Rich. Osborne’s album, How Sweet It Is, a collection of reworked soul, R&B and rock, has been met with critical acclaim. Palmer’s upcoming release, Drive, is straight-up blues, while Rich is bringing more of his self-penned rhythm and blues and acoustic soul on Resurrected.
Perhaps the most unusual comeback, however, is that of Randy Travis. Celebrated for steering country toward its traditional roots with his 1986 Warner Bros. album Storms of Life, he was a country fixture for a decade before departing the label in search of career revival at DreamWorks in the late ’90s. Success was short-lived however, and he left that label after two albums. In 2000, Atlantic, a sister company of Warner Bros., released some of Travis’ previously recorded gospel material on Inspirational Journey, which did well enough to encourage the singer’s further efforts in the genre. He signed to Christian label Word for the 2002 follow-up, Rise and Shine, which brought him full circle with Gaylord’s sale of Word to Warner Bros.
Back (in a sense) with the label that launched his career, Travis recently had the single “Three Wooden Crosses” cross over to country, becoming his 16th No. 1 in May of this year. The goose bump-raising story-song about a tragic bus accident is also the first Christian-labeled single to reach the top of the country charts.
Already credited as a trendsetter, Travis may just be at it again. It would only be fitting: People still look back to Travis’ heyday as the last fertile period for truly great country music, a time when artists as diverse as Clint Black and Mary Chapin Carpenter managed to find favor with record buyers, radio programmers and music critics alike. As Music Row continues to be squeezed by declining sales and increasing costs, and as artists continue changing labels to sustain careers, Nashville may see more homecomings like Travis’. And with any luck, the music will just keep getting better.
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