The invitation offered an evening of “Songs Never Intended to Be Recorded,” and Nashville’s “secretly sick” songwriters made sure that the parodies and mildly off-color tunes lived up to the billing.
One of the town’s more successful authors stood on the stage of the packed club and, with apologies to colleague Thom Schuyler, began to lampoon his hit “16th Avenue.” Purposely nasal, he twanged the story of a stranger in town who points his Cadillac the wrong way down the one-way street.
“It ain’t right to make a left on 16th Avenue,” he sang, and the largely music-business crowd roared an insider’s appreciation, acknowledging not just the punch line, but also the wider implication: that there’s still only one way to get around this capital of country music, and those who don’t follow the signs are accident bound.
Trouble is, nobody’s quite sure which way the signs are pointing these days. Sixteenth and 17th avenues and the three or four square blocks that surround them are better known as Music Row--Mecca to any country musician looking to carve out a name, fortune and recording contract.
The five major record labels, RCA, CBS, MCA, Warner Bros. and Capitol, all headquarter within a five-minute walk of each other, as do the powerful song performance rights organizations, BMI and ASCAP. Just around the corner is the Country Music Assn. It’s a compact community, tightly knit but intensely competitive, and within the last few years, it’s found itself floundering in search of direction.
“I just can’t define it anymore,” CBS/Nashville head Rick Blackburn says of country music. “You’ve got a new and an old, a contemporary and a traditional. It’s much broader now. Country music means a lot of things to a lot of people.”
“It used to be, well, put a steel guitar in there, maybe a dobro, don’t mix the drums too loud, put the vocal out front and make sure the lyrics can be heard. If you had a cheating song, terrific. There was a formula you were working with.”
The problem with formulas is that relying on them provides little incentive for experimentation or creativity. Inevitably, quality declines and mediocrity becomes acceptable. Staleness and boredom are natural companions to such complacency. Country music fell right into the trap.
“It took us a few years to realize that our music was all starting to sound the same,” Jim Fogelsong, Capitol’s country chief, candidly admits.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the problem came in when, after a two-year boom period instigated by “Urban Cowboy,” country record sales dropped from 17% of the total music business in 1982 to 10% in 1985. Worried country music honchos called a series of industry-wide meetings aimed at figuring out where their genre had gone wrong.
A number of surprising and difficult conclusions emerged from the soul-searching sessions. Much of country music suffered from outdated lyrics, inferior production facilities, formula arrangements and performers who lacked excitement, the participants found.
Albums had become collections of two or three singles fleshed out with so-so-tunes. There was an appalling paucity of new artists, due largely to the legendary loyalty of country fans.
Not only did that loyalty make it well nigh impossible to inject a fresh viewpoint or life into the sound, but the mediocrity it allowed was driving all those country aficionados who had come aboard during the “Urban Cowboy” era right back into the arms of rock ‘n’ roll, where music was exciting again.
“We said, ‘Look, we’ve got to get more people (consumers) in there,’ ” explains Joe Galante, who captains RCA’s country operation. “We knew we had to get them from contemporary music. And when we get them this time, we said, ‘Let’s hold them.’ Let’s not try to be fat cats and say, ‘Broke a million seller, don’t have to worry ‘bout it anymore.’ ”
Since those momentous conclaves approximately 18 months ago, country music as a whole has zoomed off to explore as many directions as each record label can imagine. The first priority on all fronts, though, was to discover a new generation of artists. “Corporations have this thing where you groom your successor. Country has failed to groom its successors, so we have a big generation gap right now,” says Jim Ed Norman, Warner Bros.’ top Nashville executive.
RCA’s new Rising Star program and CBS’ Horizon series are both designed to systematically debut new artists. MCA’s chief, Jimmy Bowen, an individualist who eschews such marketing strategies as unnecessary “pizazz,” merely went about signing innovative performers, “letting them do their music, not a producer’s music, and making sure it’s 30 minutes of magic, not just three.”
One of his discoveries was Steve Earle, a self-described San Antonio “hillbilly” who claims his choice of profession came from watching “too many Elvis Presley movies.” His debut album, “Guitar Man,” has been drawing raves from both country and rock critics around the country.
Others in Nashville’s up-and-coming class range from Rosanne Cash (whose “Rhythm and Romance” earlier this year became the first album by a female singer to hit No. 1 on the country chart in years) to the country-rock band Southern Pacific to the soul-influenced T. Graham Brown, a south Georgian who describes his voice as “George Jones meets Otis Redding.”
While these artists, as well as Marty Stuart, Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown, Lewis Storey, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Wild Choir and others comprise the rising Nashville elite, established acts are taking a hard look at their output and making significant changes.
Willie Nelson continues to push back his perimeters on the “Promised Land” album. Bowen says Waylon Jennings’ “Will The Wolf Survive?” is his best album in years.
Not to be ignored are performers like Alabama, the Judds, Ricky Scaggs, George Strait and Hank Williams Jr. They may not have the longevity of a George Jones, Barbara Mandrell or Loretta Lynn, but they’ve been instrumental in leading country music in new directions, and in terms of record sales, they’re the current ruling class.
The emergence of new artists and the changes made by the old have helped spark an upswing, albeit slight, in country’s fortunes. Radio ratings have reacted most quickly to this new interest. Two recent studies found country to be the second most popular of all radio formats.
Jay Phillips, music director for WSM-AM and FM in Nashville, corroborates the data with his own experience. “In just the past six to eight months, I can see the change. Country numbers weren’t performing. Record companies started taking chances, putting out fresh, new product, radio got in line, and it’s been good for all of us.”
A similar surge has yet to be felt at the retail level, but Frances Preston, president of BMI and a 29-year industry observer, notes that “Overall, country music is being performed more than ever. You see it branching out onto Broadway shows like ‘Big River,’ onto television, into soap operas and sports. Also, more and more country stars are being tapped to do national commercials, not just local ones.”
While artists like Janie Frickie and T. Graham Brown branch out with Madison Avenue tie-ins for Seven-Up and McDonald’s ads, their labels are also exploring wider horizons. MCA has started a new-age label, and has a pop A&R; director in Nashville, notes Bowen.
The outlook, however, isn’t entirely rosy. Breaking new artists on radio is easier than ever, but the process is still too slow.
“We still have a problem getting great songs,” Galante says. “We’re getting better, but there’s hasn’t been a gold single in this format that I can remember in about, oh, four years. Also, the town is still wrestling with ‘What are we going to do with traditional versus contemporary?’ I’d like to see us get past all that crap and just settle down to making good music.”