NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Whither Country Radio?

Its Future Is on the Internet

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

I don’t know whether to worry about what a rotten year county music and all music are having in CD sales — and about how much worse it’s going to get. (It’ll be worse.) Or to celebrate some of the terrific current music that I’m really enjoying. Like new Pam Tillis and John Anderson and Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert and the June Carter Cash Anchored in Love tribute. Or to point out the fact that fans are still flocking to see live country concerts. Or to ponder all the alternative music delivery systems coming down the pike.

The absolute best sound system I have ever heard (besides in an analog recording studio like Little Big Town producer Wayne Kirkpatrick’s great studio out in Franklin, Tenn.) was in a car. In an SUV, to be more accurate.

In a recent demonstration, Panasonic and Acura held a recording session at Nashvillle’s Blackbird Studio to show off their joint venture in surround sound. They had Kathy Mattea come in to Blackbird to cut a new song in ELS Surround Sound, press it onto a surround sound DVD and take it out into the parking lot to demonstrate the sound in a new Acura MDX with factory-installed surround sound player and custom speakers. They had Grammy-winning surround sound producer Eliot Scheiner come in to produce the session.

Surround sound records and plays back in six channels, and that sound is truly-mind-blowing. Even at very high, teeth-rattling volume, it maintains its fidelity and literally puts you in the center of the recording session: The singer’s voice is floating in the middle of the room and sounding clear as a bell. The backing instruments surround you all around, and all are clearly identifiable. It is not cheap, but, man, what a sound it is. I listened to Mattea, to the Beatles’ Love album — with the jet plane from “Back in the USSR” screaming in to seemingly scrape the roof of the Acura — and to some Eagles. The speakers here were tuned to the dimensions and acoustics of the interior of the MDX, and the sound is just indescribable. It can work in other vehicles, obviously, but that’s the one I tried.

Until I can float a surround sound system loan, my car listening consists almost entirely of CDs and Sirius satellite radio. I’m sorry, my friends in country radio, but I have long since moved on. No more commercials, no more wacky stunts, no more same 20 songs. Although I still do check out Gerry House in the morning on WSIX in Nashville. He’s not wacky. Certainly not on purpose. He is one truly funny guy.

At home, the trees around my house pretty much block out satellite reception — surely the signal could be improved — so I listen to CDs, LPs and Internet radio. There is an infinite number of good Internet stations available, and I don’t need to tell you what they are. Besides many good terrestrial radio stations’ Internet sites, I like the search sites Slacker and Pandora. But Internet radio is facing endangerment from record industry pressure and lobbying from the Copyright Board (CRB) to force them to pay high royalty rates. You can learn more at www.savenetradio.org.

One of the great appeals of radio is its ability to surprise you. You don’t necessarily know what the next song is, and a good DJ can treat you with a good mix of music. I don’t want to hear my same downloaded song list again and again. (And I especially don’t want to listen through wimpy little earbuds. I want some real volume.) I like to hear the unexpected, the songs that flow from one to the next, so that you might jump from Hank Williams to Lucinda Williams to Don Williams to Tex Williams to Hank Williams Jr. to Hank Williams III to Holly Williams to Robin and Linda Williams. And it all makes good musical sense. I like going from Ry Cooder to Little Feat to Ernest Tubb to Linda Ronstadt to Steve Earle to Willie Nelson to Raul Malo to Neko Case.

R.I.P. country radio. Long live custom country radio.