NASHVILLE SKYLINE: An Unlikely Country Music Hero

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Don Imus is hereby declared the winner of the first ever Nashville Skyline Country Music Disc Jockey of The Year Award. You may well ask: why should a hairy, opinionated old goat on syndicated radio in New York City — which doesn’t even have a country music station — get such an honor? Well, consider the following.

New York City no longer has a country radio station because there were many country music listeners in the area — but just not quite enough. Country fans in the New York metropolitan area heartily embraced country radio in the days of the stellar station WHN. While WHN’s profits were good for a country music station in Manhattan, the radio signal was too valuable to waste on a non-growing core audience. So station owners flipped the format to sports/talk WFAN and the ratings went through the roof.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers have had no country radio. Except for occasional bursts of coverage from an unlikely country cheerleader. The I-Man. Don Imus.

On his syndicated talk show based at WFAN, Imus has long been a tireless champion of country music — real country music — and has waved the flag for the likes of Johnny Cash , Waylon Jennings , Willie Nelson , Lee Roy Parnell and Delbert McClinton . But he’s also stood up for talented newcomers, as he’s done for the gifted Elizabeth Cook this year.

But this year, Imus in the Morning carried out an outlandish stunt that turned out to be not quite so outrageous as critics suggested. Nonetheless, it became a major endorsement of county music. What happened was that the Flatlanders recorded their second album in 30 years. The trio of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock was formed in 1970 in their hometown of Lubbock, Texas, after each hit a lull in their solo careers. They journeyed to Nashville in 1972 to cut an album. Their initial recording, a classic blend of West Texas rock and vintage country, replete with the mystical sound of a musical saw, was released initially only on 8-track tape. In 1990, it was re-issued by Rounder as More a Legend Than a Band and became a cult item.

The group members re-embarked on their solo careers and came together again after Robert Redford heard the album and commissioned them to write a track for his movie The Horse Whisperer. That led to the new album Now Again this year.

Imus surmised — correctly — that mainstream country radio would never touch the Flatlanders’ album. The group is too old for radio’s demographics, no young people know who they are, the music is too authentic and Gilmore’s voice in particular is too distinctive. But Imus loved it. “This is the best album I’ve heard in 25 years,” he said at the time. “It features three legends in Texas: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. It would be like if you got Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and — I don’t know, pick one — together to do an album.”

So Imus made a personal offer. Appearing on Larry King Live, he put up $10,000 of his own money to be paid to any Top 10 major market country station that played any single from the Flatlanders ’ album enough to get onto the station’s Top 10 list. The money, no strings attached, was to go to the station’s favorite charity.

Such gestures take on a very active life of their own. First, it got the Flatlanders and their album far more publicity than they ever would have generated on their own. (It didn’t hurt that when the Flatlanders appeared on his show, Imus offered to cut off half his penis if “Waving My Heart Goodbye” didn’t become a hit). The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR — nobody could get enough of the Flatlanders.

Then, not too surprisingly, a country station in the nation’s number two radio market, Los Angeles (the nation’s number one market, New York, of course has no country station) took Imus up on his bet. KZLA began playing “Waving My Heart Goodbye.” A listener poll on KZLA’s Web site drew 61,000 votes, with a majority of the voters enthusiastically in favor of hearing the song regularly. The song charted Top 10 at KZLA and the station sent $10,000 of Imus’ money to Tilden’s Children, a foundation for underprivileged children.

Imus proved several things with this stunt. He vividly demonstrated that in the music industry, just waving some money around — and not all that much money at that — will magically open some doors that had seemed locked shut. He showed that many more country listeners are much more open-minded than radio’s corporate parents will admit. He also demonstrated that a simple bet of ten grand is more effective than a $100,000 radio tour to break a new act — which in effect the Flatlanders were.

In talk radio — which in many areas veers into sheer maggot-brain radio — Don Imus is a loyal friend of country music. For which all true fans of country music should be grateful.

For related links:
Listen to the full-stream of “Waving My Heart Goodbye”