(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The recent dissolution of ties between Jessica Simpson and Sony Music Nashville focused attention on the plight of refugees from other musical genres who head to country in search of relief. Some find it. Most don’t. But — although Nashville does not regard itself as a musical orphanage or refugee camp — country music has traditionally been kind to those genuinely in need of career assistance.
In Simpson’s case, I find the explanation from her spokesperson about the end of her Nashville ties a very curious statement. The statement said Simpson was not being dropped, per se. It was just that she had been “on loan” from Sony New York to Sony Nashville. It didn’t explain why the loan had run out. It was the first time I have ever heard of such a “loan.”
In any case, I feel that Nashville and country music gave Simpson a fair opportunity to make it. In the end, the fans just didn’t care for her and her music. It was as simple as that. And, you simply cannot force fans to accept something or someone they don’t want.
There have been many other examples of pop and rock artists and just plain celebrities trying to step into a country career or at least gain some entry into the country audience. Kid Rock clicked with the country audience and with country artists. John Mellencamp, who has genuine blue collar credentials, has enjoyed success with country audiences. Neil Young has shown a genuine love and understanding of country music. Bob Dylan made some of his best albums in Nashville with local pickers. Robert Plant’s demonstrated love of country music has gained him a wide following. Jon Bon Jovi, a regular Nashville visitor and fan of Nashville songwriters, had a huge duet with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles.
On the other hand, some visitors had mixed success. TV show host Jerry Springer remained a TV host after cutting a country album. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw had plenty of fun recording country music in Nashville but didn’t stay long.
Country music’s first million-selling record came from an opera singer in New York City. Vernon Dalhart (born Marion Try Slaughter) was from Texas and had studied voice at the Dallas Conservatory for Music. He had been working as an opera singer in New York when he also made a number of recordings known as “dialect” records. His “hillbilly” (as country was referred to at the time) dialect recording of “The Wreck of the Old 97” and “The Prisoner’s Song” became the genre’s first million seller in 1924.
Country’s most recent success story, of course, has been that of Darius Rucker. I think there are several simple reasons why his country career has been hugely successful. First, he was not a complete stranger to country. As the lead singer of Hootie & the Blowfish, Rucker had been writing and singing songs that were not all that dissimilar from country. He possessed a genuine country sensibility. Second, he did not hit town with the fanfare from trumpets and a bunch of limousines and entourages and press releases announcing that he “always was country.” The latter faintly ridiculous claim has sunk many would-be country suitors. You know who they are.
Third, Rucker possesses genuine dignity and humility. He knows who he is and doesn’t try to be anything else. He has let his music speak for him. And people can recognize that. And appreciate it.
People everywhere do have a built-in sensitivity to pushy newcomers. I must confess I discovered it in myself a few years ago at the height of the big L.A. exodus to Nashville. Newcomers were everywhere, and many of them acted as if they were doing Nashville a favor by moving here. In my case, it was a very small thing. I drove in to work at Billboard one morning and tried to pull into my reserved parking spot in the garage. You understand that parking on Music Row has always been at a premium, and reserved spots are respected by the locals. And violators are subject to tow. In my reserved spot, I spied a large, high-end, shiny new BMW. With California license plates. That did it for me. I called upstairs to our business office and told them to call for a tow truck. Justice was done.See Darius Rucker’s video for “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” See Jessica Simpson’s video for “Come On Over.”