NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Star-Making Machinery

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

The new feature New Voices No Cover is getting a great response from country fans and country industry people alike, and I’m not surprised by that. It’s the sort of thing that country music has thrived on over the years and which unfortunately is in short supply in these attention-deficit disorder, superstar-only-please days. New Voices essentially is a musical forum for developing artists who are still flying under the radar of major media.

Kenny Chesney is a great case in point. When he was signed to Capricorn Records a decade ago, label chief Phil Walden finally realized that Chesney needed to be on a country label because radio wouldn’t take or even consider records from a rock label located in Nashville. Walden told me, “I couldn’t give Kenny away to the country labels in Nashville.” Finally RCA’s Joe Galante took the gamble and signed him. But it’s taken 10 years for Kenny-the-unknown to become Kenny-the-superstar. That’s an eternity in pop music. In country, that’s a good, solid investment. Toby Keith’s first album was released 10 years ago, and he’s been building ever since. Willie Nelson moved to Nashville in 1960. His first No. 1 single “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” happened 15 years later. Look at the long, slow climb it’s taken for blue-chip artists such as Vince Gill. Just this week, Brad Paisley finally debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart with his third album. And Paisley is the kind of multi-threat, writer-singer-performer-host with the solid talent to be a country music leader for many years to come.

Artist development for a long time was the backbone of country music. The industry had talent scouts throughout the country, watching regional talent shows and county fairs and rodeo entertainers, and that’s how people like Reba McEntire and Waylon and Garth got to Nashville. And when they got to Nashville, they were developed. Maybe they were exploited along the way, but they did get the management and songwriting and production and concert bookings that could build them a solid career. I wonder how much of a long-term commitment we’re seeing these days, when the major record labels — and the major radio conglomerates — are under such pressure to produce stars and to produce them pretty damned quick.

People say, well, pop and rap and hip-hop can throw stuff against the wall and only a couple have to stick and that’s all you need for huge commercial success. Then you move on to the next big thing. But that’s music that doesn’t have a hundred-year old heritage. Go to a Willie Nelson concert where people have been coming to see him for 50 years and who have brought their children and now their grandchildren to see him and — more likely than not — to meet Willie and get a picture with him and an autograph. That’s real tradition. That’s part of a way of life; it’s a cultural underpinning, not part of a throwaway culture based on disposable music. Country music is, as many have said, like a river. The water may change, but the river goes on forever.

I think trendspotters and consultants are missing the boat when they claim that young audiences have no attention span and no loyalty. Young people are just as likely as their parents were to form allegiances to country singers and to stick with them, just the way their parents and grandparents did with Willie or Merle or Waylon or George. I can see that loyalty in a Chesney audience or a Pat Green audience or a Cory Morrow audience or a Dixie Chicks audience or a Dolly Parton audience or an Alison Krauss audience or a Toby Keith audience or a Brad Paisley audience. Clubs used to be the proving ground, where artists honed their musical chops and built a loyal following. That’s still happening to some extent. Witness the flourishing club scene in Texas and such exciting groups as Sugarland in Atlanta. But the club scene is shrinking and alternatives have to be found.

All it really takes is an artist and a song. And a way to get that song to an audience. Basically, it’s not all that complicated. Think it over.