With a gala party Wednesday night (Jan. 17) at the new but still unopened Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville, MCA celebrated its 10-year run as country’s top label, in annual rankings published by trade publications Billboard and Radio & Records.
Multi-platinum sellers George Strait, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood played major roles in the label’s ongoing good fortune during the ’90s, but so did producer, label president and A&R chief Tony Brown, who joined MCA in 1984.
Brown’s many signings include Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. As a producer, he has teamed with Strait, McEntire and Gill on many of their most successful projects.
Working with artists he believed in, Brown shaped the creative identity of MCA, ascending to company president — in partnership with Chairman Bruce Hinton — in 1993. The entire MCA roster — save Rebecca Lynn Howard, Dean Miller and Alecia Elliott, who had schedule conflicts — was on hand Wednesday night for the big soiree. Brown agreed to speak with country.com about his label’s success and the changing face of country music:
How do you feel country music has changed during the 10 years that MCA has been dominant?
In my opinion, it never changes all that much. It seems to fluctuate between traditional and contemporary [styles] — they call it “country” and “pop.” It swings a little more one way or the other depending on the artists who make hit records. If an artist is very charismatic and very talented and very traditional, like a Randy Travis, it appears to swing toward the traditional. When a Shania Twain comes out and she’s really, truly successful and very contemporary, then you think it’s swinging contemporary. It doesn’t mean it’s swinging that way at all. It just means that the best artists at that point in time are either traditional or contemporary. Then you have a Dixie Chicks, which is a traditional, organic kind of act, with a contemporary image. It hasn’t really changed, and I don’t think it ever will change all that much. There will always be people who love the tradition of country music and there will always be people who want to push the envelope. The ones who want to push the envelope are only doing it because they think that the grass is greener on the other side. They think that being in popular music will make them more money. That’s the driving force behind them. Most traditionalists make music based on their love of tradition.
As we become a less regionally oriented nation, can the concept of “country” music as something with a regional, rural base survive? Is it going to make sense to refer to the music coming out of Nashville in the next 10 years as “country”?
I don’t think so. Ten years ago, most country artists, like Dwight Yoakam, Alan Jackson and George Strait, could refer to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, whoever influenced them. Ten years from now, if country music still exists as a format, most of the country artists probably will be referring to Shania and Garth and Vince. I really do think that the homogenization of country is taking place, but I think that is happening in all genres of music. R&B, country, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, the true forms of all those genres are being slowly homogenized.
What obligation is there to resist that? Is that inevitable?
To me, I don’t want to resist it and I don’t want to say it’s inevitable. The world gets more modern. Things that are real traditional will seem, for lack of a better word, old-timey. Fiction, poetry, filmmaking, it’s the same way. Right now, in the country format, a traditional sound can seem retro or edgy. Years from now, it could appear very dated. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, the old style of country music will be something we regard the way we do silent films. I hate to think that, but that’s probably exactly what’s going to happen.
The other night at a party I played old [recordings by] Tammy Wynette, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and Chet Atkins. It seemed like the room became that. That music will always have power, where a lot of music being made today will have no sense of being. A lot of music will have no home in time.
What changes do you see coming in the way the music is delivered?
That’s in the hands of the decision makers at the company in New York and L.A. They’re still trying to figure out the lay of the land. We’re all still plodding along with the old model, but the new model is going to appear in the next two to three years. It’s all going to change, the way we deliver music visually and aurally.
MCA was the top country label in the ’90s, thanks to artists such as George Strait, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, Mark Chesnutt, Patty Loveless and Lyle Lovett. Why did those artists prevail?
They were exceptional artists. I really do believe part of country music’s problem today is there are a lot of singers and very few true artists. The artists you mentioned are exceptional, gifted artists. That sounds self-serving because I’m speaking about artists I’ve worked with or artists with the company, but their longevity speaks for itself.
Who is the new breed? What new horses are in the traces as country moves into the 21st century?
Lee Ann Womack definitely manages to be a traditional artist in a contemporary world. I really hope that Sons of the Desert and Gary Allan can do something.
You’ve had to make some hard decisions. Artists you’ve signed such as Kelly Willis, Joe Ely, even George Jones and Patty Loveless, you’ve had to let go later. What’s behind those kinds of decisions?
When I had to let Kelly Willis go or Rodney Crowell or George Jones, it all came down to business. There’s a point at which you’re not doing the label or the artist a service if you’re not starting to see some sort of success. When George went to Asylum, or Kelly Willis went to Rykodisc, or Patty Loveless went to Sony … my first commitment is to the artist. If I think someone should be heard, I want to make them heard at MCA, but if it doesn’t work here, I applaud them if they go somewhere else and succeed. I love music. I love great artists. Dropping an artist like George Jones, Patty Loveless or Kelly Willis, trust me, is probably one of the most awful experiences an A&R person can have.
Will the roots-oriented Americana movement work?
“Americana” is the perfect label for that brand of music. I refer to that kind of music, in between folk and rock and pop, as that. It could work if all the different trade publications could arrive at one label, but they don’t seem to be able to do that. A lot of artists got visibility during the period where Gavin had the Americana chart. I think the music is going to impact country music in the next few years, but not as “Americana.” Like Warner Bros. did and MCA and Columbia back in ’85 and ’86, when Warner Bros. embraced k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam, we had Nanci [Griffith], Steve [Earle] and Lyle [Lovett] and Columbia had Mary Chapin Carpenter — that’s happening again with [the] Lucky Dog [imprint] at Sony, Luke Lewis’ new label [at Mercury] and I think I’ll always support those kinds of artists. And they’re starting to show up again. There’s a whole new group of those kinds of artists, because of the existence, for a little while, of the Americana chart. Some artists started to get recognized.