CRS Panel Welcomes Crossovers, Spurns Country Litmus Test

No one bashed Faith Hill or Shania
Twain during the “Too Country? Too
Pop?” discussion at Country Radio
Seminar Thursday (March 1). In fact,
most speakers agreed that country acts
who find a pop audience are good for the
business as a whole.

“I don’t think country music should be
the only format on the planet to have
boundaries,” said singer and panelist
Collin Raye. “It stifles creativity.” Without mentioning “Murder On Music Row” by
name, Raye lamented the “fingerpointing” that the song had engendered within
the industry. “Old Hank [Williams] wasn’t traditional at the time,” Raye observed,
alluding to the song’s invocation of Williams as the essence of country. “He was
a rebel.”

Appearing on the discussion panel with Raye were Brad Paisley, newest
member of the Grand Ole Opry and an uncompromising advocate of traditional
country; Bill Macky, vice president of national promotion for MCA Records; Pam
Shane, media analyst; Gregg Swedborg, program director of KEEY, Minneapolis;
Joe Galante, chairman of the RCA Label Group; and Meg Stevens, program
director of WGAR, Cleveland.

Paisely began the discussion by defining what he believes country music is.
“[It’s] about honesty and reality,” he said. “Pop music focuses on the record,
country music on the song.” In addition, he noted, country has a sonic “texture
that’s not found in other places — steel guitars, fiddles, harmony vocals.”

While agreeing with Paisley about the primacy of lyrics in country music, Raye
differed about the sound. “I don’t think it has to do with anything sonically,” he
said. Demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject matter, Raye
pointed out that Ray Price’s 1970 hit, “For the Good Times,” is “nothing but
orchestra” and a far cry from the shuffles and honky-tonk songs for which Price
became famous. Even so, Raye asserted, “he’s as country as cornbread.” Raye
also pointed out that Glen Campbell’s great hits of the 1960s “weren’t three-chord
country songs” but that Campbell was clearly stamped as a country artist.

Raye contrasted country’s music emphasis on coherent lyrics with the relative
unimportance of this feature in pop music. “What’s ’Strawberry Fields Forever’
about?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t think even John Lennon knew. But it’s a
great record.”

Raye praised Garth Brooks for making country music look “cool” and appealing
to the young, even if it meant “smashing guitars” on his television specials. “By
enhancing his audience, it enhanced our business,” Raye asserted.

“We keep having this panel, don’t we,
guys?” Shane remarked, “and [this
time] we’re not screaming at each
other.” She counseled record and radio
executives to pay closer heed to their
consumers as they create and program
music. “Real people ain’t stupid. They
know when it’s good and when it relates
to their lives.”

All the programmers on the panel
concurred that Faith Hill’s high-profile
appearance on last week’s Grammy show was good for country music.
Swedborg said that every time a pop radio station in his market plays a Faith Hill
song, “it’s a three-minute advertisement for our station.” Instead of country
stations fretting that a song they’re playing will cross over to pop, he added,
“we’ve got to get our spins first.” In response to the question of why country
stations don’t program music by such older and revered artists as George Jones
and Merle Haggard, Swedborg said, “There’s a simple answer. Not enough
people want to hear it.”

Paisley said it particularly pains him to hear someone in authority say, “Man,
that’s a great record, but it’s too country.” “If it’s a great song, take a chance,” he
pleaded. “Who gives a crap about [what] research [says]?”

Raye voiced alarm that the industry is encouraging country songwriters to write
only upbeat and positive songs. He speculated that if young Merle Haggard tried
to break into the business today by playing an A&R person “Mama’s Hungry
Eyes,” he would be stopped after the first line and told, “That’s too sad.”
“Country music, I always thought, was supposed to be sad at times,” he said.
He maintained that ruling out songs about the sad side of life is “a bigger threat
to country music than [any particular kind of] instrumentation is.”

Crossing a country record over to pop radio isn’t something a record label
decides to do abitrarily or unilaterally, Galante said. “Before we try to cross
something over, we talk to the artist first.” And, he added dryly, “Aside from the
artistic side, there’s a side based on sales.”

Galante pointed out that country artists with crossover records have a far easier
time gaining national television exposure than acts that are popular only within
the country format. Remixing country songs to get a different sound, he
continued, simply acknowledges the reality that “pop, like country, has its own
needs … In the other world, [different] mixes come out on a regular basis.”

A speaker from the audience noted that there is little outcry about musical purity
within the industry if a country artist records and “countrifies” a pop hit. Raye
agreed, citing such examples as Mark Chesnutt’s cover of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t
Want to Miss a Thing,” the reworking of the original lyrics in Narvel Felts’ cover of
Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” and Johnny Lee’s “Country Party” retrofitting of Ricky
Nelson’s “Garden Party.”

Summarizing his take on musical integrity, Paisley said, “I don’t have the recipe
for success, but I do have one for failure. It’s trying to please everybody.”

Raye offered this advice to those who would be arbiters of country music: “If it
works, and people like it, applaud it.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to