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Too Liberal for Garth Brooks’ Fans? : Country Singer’s Call for Racial and Sexual Tolerance in ‘Free’ Fails to Reach Top 10

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Garth Brooks may be the biggest-selling star in the history of country music, but his socially conscious single “We Shall Be Free” has proved too progressive for country radio.

The gospel-flavored call for racial and sexual tolerance has failed to break into the Top 10 on Billboard magazine’s country radio chart. The record, the first Brooks single in three years to fall short of the Top 10, appears stalled at No. 12 after just eight weeks on the country chart.

The record’s inability to reach the top of that chart is being viewed within music and broadcasting circles as a rejection by many radio programmers of the song’s unusually tolerant--for country--message.

“Some program directors didn’t agree with the message, and they were backing away from the record,” said Larry Pareigis, program director of KRAK-FM in Sacramento. “In talking to other program directors, they’re saying that Garth’s ‘one-world’ message was the real problem.”

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Wade Jessen, music program director of WSM-AM/FM in Nashville, agreed: “Part of the country audience is not an audience that’s in agreement with that kind of message.”

Sample lyrics:

When we’re free to love anyone we choose

When this world’s big enough for all different views

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When we all can worship from our own kind of pew

Then we shall be free.

“To me, the issue was primarily one of content,” said one Nashville insider, who asked not to be identified. “Programmers are wary of playing the record because they don’t think their audiences will accept it.

“But they probably won’t admit that because they have nothing to gain and considerable to lose by doing so. It’s a touchy matter.”

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Unlike Billboard’s widely watched pop singles chart, which measures actual record sales and airplay, the trade magazine’s country chart is based solely on airplay. Radio station programmers select and play singles based on artist popularity, test-marketing and listener reaction. “We Shall Be Free” was heavily played initially, but airplay dropped off considerably in subsequent weeks.

Though Brooks wasn’t available for comment Wednesday, he spoke about the song during an interview with The Times before the single was released in September. The song, co-written by Stephanie Davis and part of Brooks’ new “The Chase” album, grew out of a conversation about the Los Angeles riots, he said. Brooks did the song for weeks in concert before the album was released in September, and it was his choice as the first single from the collection.

“Tolerance is an important issue to me,” he said. “Just like we might today ask our grandparents how anyone could have ever judged a man by his skin, our grandkids will say, ‘How could anyone ever think someone’s sexual preference affected how their mind works?’ ”

Jay Orr, who covers country music for the Nashville Banner, said “We Shall Be Free” is a “more overt statement of an artist’s politics” than is usually found in country music. “They (radio stations) don’t want to play something that will cause people to tune out, whether it is from the lyrics or the music.”

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Despite the song’s cool reception, Orr said the fact that it received airplay at all shows a growth in country audiences’ willingness to accept more socially themed lyrics.

“I think it is a very positive thing for country music . . . that it can take in different points of view,” he said. “Other artists have made overt statements, but they tended to be more right-wing. . . . Five years ago this song would have sounded radical.”

There have been a handful of country tunes with liberal or progressive messages, but records with conservative themes have typically enjoyed much more support. Among the most notable hits in this vein: Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” in 1969 and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” in 1984.

Bill Malone, a professor of history at Tulane University and author of a widely heralded book on the history of country music, said songs with such specific social commentary are unusual in country music.

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“As far as the call for brotherhood, or using such music to make a plea for social justice or civil rights, that’s rare in country music,” he noted. “It’s hard to find earlier examples of brotherhood messages in country music. When you do find them they are obliquely phrased.”

Other programmers stressed the soul-gospel spirit of the recording as a factor in its relatively weak showing.

“Garth’s the country artist and we automatically put his singles in power rotation,” said Bob Guerra, program director of Los Angeles’ KZLA--AM/FM. “But this one we had to give some thought because it wasn’t testing well. Usually there’s an incredible passion for his music. We’ve been playing it for weeks and it just barely qualifies for power rotation. It just hasn’t grabbed people.”

That comment didn’t surprise Moon Mullins, of the radio consulting firm Pollack Mullins Nashville. “Some listeners in the tests didn’t care for the black gospel style,” he said. “It’s more like soul music. That sound typically doesn’t perform well on the country audience. This song tested poorly out of the box.”

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The failure of “We Shall Be Free” to break into the country Top 10, however, doesn’t seem to have affected sales of the new album. “The Chase” has been No. 1 on the country and pop sales charts since it was released.

“Garth is so popular that radio had to play him, but what many stations ended up doing was simply turning to other songs on the album, especially ‘Somewhere Other Than the Night,’ ” said a Nashville observer.

Liberty Records, which releases Brooks’ records, has just released “Somewhere” as a single. There’s no social commentary in the song. It’s a hard-core country love song--and virtually everyone contacted predicted it will go straight to No. 1.


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