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Brothers Tosh and Nioshi Jackson are bringing country to black listeners from different angles

Giant Steps

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Given the relatively low number of high-profile African-Americans making their careers in country music, brothers Tosh and Nioshi Jackson stand out even more in their respective roles as radio station program director and artist management representative.

Both are knowledgeable, energetic and confident. They are realistic about certain situations, yet insistent they currently aren't being stopped by racial animus or barriers. In a conversation at the downtown Renaissance Hotel during the recent Country Radio Seminar, each had illuminating, provocative things to say about music, their lives, and the intersection of race and culture within country music.

Nioshi Jackson, well known in Music City as a first-rate drummer in both country and jazz circles, has made the transition to artist management as "chief visionary officer" for The Explosion Group. Sibling Tosh Jackson is currently program director at KNTY-101.9FM in Sacramento, California.

"When I began as program director three years ago I didn't have any hangups about taking the job, but I realized that I needed to really infuse myself in the music quickly," Tosh says. "My background was in production and I had done a lot of hip-hop and R&B radio. When they called me in and said we want you to watch over this country station, I knew that meant they wanted me to make sure we didn't slip in the marketplace."

That entailed spending a lot of time in Nashville over the past few years, Tosh says. The first CD he got behind, he remembers, was by then budding country phenom Josh Turner, and it took him all the way to the ACM and CMA Awards.

"I'm still learning every day, but I've really become a country music fan," Tosh says. "It's funny because I live in a part of Sacramento that encompasses the hood. When I'm tooling around playing Carrie Underwood or bumping Jason Aldean I'll get some interesting looks."

He says he's also gotten some of those funny looks at conventions and meetings, though by now he's a well-known figure in the industry.

"A black man as a country station's program director is still culture shock for some folks, and I'm not naive enough to think there aren't still people out there who feel it's a white man's job," Tosh says. "But I can truly say I haven't seen very much of that attitude when I've come to Nashville, and I don't see a lot of it around events like CRS."

Nioshi arrived in Nashville from the West Coast in 2002, and he began making a name for himself in two genres simultaneously. His country stints include playing for Trisha Yearwood and Ricky Skaggs, whom he calls "a consummate musician." But he's equally celebrated for his time with Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald, as well as leading his contemporary jazz unit The Nioshi Jackson Reason.

He credits the late organist/bandleader Kossi Gardner with giving him his start. "He took me under his wing," Nioshi recalls. "The thing I really remember was going over to his house and in the garage he had a Hammond B-3 right next to a Ferrari. I really wanted to drive that Ferrari at some point. He was the person who helped me get started here in the jazz community."

Though he hasn't necessarily abandoned his drums, Nioshi is now concentrating on the management side. He decided to go that route while watching the experiences of many of his friends in the business, some neither productive nor positive.

"There are very few blacks on the business side in terms of music, any kind of music, and I said why not go into that end," Nioshi explains. "I care about what happens in the industry. I've worked with some artists whose lack of success was directly linked to bad management.

"But I'm not trying to develop careers so much as I'm trying to get artists to fully develop themselves and be able to understand the business and thrive as performers for a long time."

Both Jacksons feel the country industry hasn't tried to establish any ties with black audiences, even though they say they hear a lot of contemporary country music that would resonate with African Americans.

"Well, musicians on the whole aren't so resistant to hearing different things," Nishoi says. "But I think what's turned off some black fans is they hear the pedal steel or twang and don't go beyond that.

"There are new harmonies now in country music, particularly since the '70s. It has embraced a lot of things from other styles, and there are rhythms, melodies and stories in a lot of country songs I think would appeal to black audiences."

"Blacks haven't really been exposed to country in a lot of areas," Tosh adds. "One thing I see when you play newer songs and contemporary styles, there's not as much automatic resistance. I think country has become more accessible to everyone, and I think it has definitely been influenced by black music and vice versa."

Nioshi cites building the Explosion Group roster as a primary goal for the future, while Tosh plans to continue aggressively promoting and pushing KNTY's place in the Sacramento and California radio wars. With a brother who's also a successful DJ and a sister who's an event planner, the Jacksons may one day be a music industry all their own.

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