Country Might Need to Change Course

"View From the Helm" Not Rosy at SXSW

AUSTIN, Texas — With uncommon candor, two Nashville executives admitted Thursday (March 15) that country music suffers from a discouraging blandness at present.

“Our music currently is totally boring, and I’m partly responsible,” MCA Nashville President Tony Brown said in a panel titled “The View From the Helm” at the 15th annual South By Southwest Music Music and Media conference.

Mercury Nashville chief Luke Lewis, whose new label, Lost Highway, will showcase its roster at a highly anticipated show Friday night, called himself “bullish” on the industry and its ability to evolve “in a beautiful way.” His new venture, he said, will “set some artists free” to create music not tailored to present industry expectations.

But Lewis agreed with Brown’s premise that country music badly needs new creative energy. “If you were to take a poll on Music Row of label heads,” he said, “the ones who didn’t lie to you would tell you they don’t listen to country radio themselves.”

Brown and Lewis shared the panel with Miles Copeland, former manager of The Police and president of Ark 21, Rob Seidenberg of Mammoth Records and Joe Boyd, president of Hannibal Records.

Brown said country record labels have let themselves be manipulated too much by country radio. The music business in Nashville, he stated, has become a “forum” for producers instead of a forum for artists. “It’s scary,” he admitted. “Times like this are when you gamble, not when you play it safe.”

Lewis, in a sense, is doing just that. His new imprint is home to edgy, song-driven artists such as Lucinda Williams, who has sold around 500,000 copies of her last record, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Kim Richey, Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt. The phenomenal success of Shania Twain, who has sold 50 million CDs worldwide, gave Lewis the clout to undertake the new venture.

“I was at the helm and the submarine came up,” Lewis said. “I was ready to quit.”

The artists on Lost Highway all have released records and all have earned some measure of critical acceptance. “We’re dealing with a bunch of artists who already have a brand,” Lewis said. Those artists are not asking his company to make them stars. “They just want to know, can you take us to another level?”

Brown, whose roster includes George Strait, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and Allison Moorer, lamented the Nashville practice of deciding by committee whether a song has a chance to become a hit. “It used to be, what made a hit a hit was that it had a hook and you couldn’t get it out of your head and you wanted to hear it over and over again.”

Not having to follow the rules, he predicted, could yield a “big, big hit” and “all of a sudden, that would be mainstream.”

South By Southwest continues through Saturday with panels during the day and music showcases at night. Organizers predict that this year’s event will draw more than 6,000 registrants.