Arts and Culture » Stories

No Sad Songs Here

It's a fact of life

by

comment

Michael McCall’s description this week of what’s happening on Music Row is right on target, but I fail to understand why he’s alarmed about it. He’s seeing nothing new. Country music has always been market-driven—which means that it starts with a perceived market and then works backward to find a product to satisfy it. Whether it was Ralph Peer scouting Appalachia in the ’20s to find music for the “hillbilly” market then being developed by mail-order catalogs, or Fred Rose tarting up Hank Williams’ raw effusions for country-receptive urban dwellers, or Waylon and Willie perpetuating an “outlaw” mystique that existed quite apart from the music they created, the business of country music has forever been making money.

I am no fan of capitalism, but it seems to me that once singers and songwriters decide to earn their living by selling their art, they have acquiesced to capitalism’s first iron rule: Please the buyer. Once having made this compact with the devil, it is rather unsporting of them to disparage record executives who must abide by the same economic imperatives.

On a less grand scale, we’ve got to remember that we’re just talking about songs here. They are diversions and amusements that occasionally rise to the level of inspiration or revelation. But they are hardly essential works of political philosophy. (And please spare me that pathetic canard about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world—they ain’t.) Even our most beloved classics are intellectually thin concoctions, so who suffers greatly if there are fewer of them?

In sounding his alarm, McCall implies that there is a commonly accepted standard by which we decide which songs are “well-made goods of enduring value” and which are not. This being the case, it is simply a matter of meeting or exceeding the standard, he seems to suggest. But it doesn’t work that way; songs mean different things to different people at different stages of their lives—and under different emotional conditions. It is entirely possible that, to use McCall’s examples, “Daddy’s Money” and “Don’t Get Me Started” mean more to more people in the summer of 1996 than do “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and “Long Hard Lesson Learned.” If so, this is neither an indictment of the industry or of public taste. The first two songs convey the exuberance and inflated expectations of youth, while the last two are meant for those of us who’ve piled up a few years and a lot of resentments. Since there are more young people than old listening to country music these days, is it at all surprising—or unsettling—that these first two songs would find a larger and more enthusiastic audience?

Record labels elect to cater to the young, of course, because they buy more records than older people do; to juveniles, record-buying is a basic act of belonging. This fact, in turn, means that the labels will have more money to invest in artists of all sorts, which is precisely what McCall advocates. Whether they like his work or not, every “edgy” country act that’s been signed or developed during the past five years should send Garth Brooks roses. Not only did his music indirectly finance the production and promotion of their own records, his colossal fame also helped gain them a public presence.

Like McCall, I hate to see talented acts go under, and I deplore the pain that the fall causes them. But the loss of an act—no matter how talented—does not mean that there is a corresponding loss in the overall quality of the music. Great new singers and songs break through virtually every day to take the place of the ones that have been overlooked or spit out. If I were a country artist, I would dread this period. It is cutthroat and unforgiving. But as a country fan, I’ve never had it so good.

Currents

♦ British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) has signed a long-term deal with CMT: Country Music Television to distribute, market, and sell advertising for the music video network in the United Kingdom, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. BSkyB currently owns and operates 10 news and entertainment channels; participates in joint ventures with Nickelodeon, QVC, The History Channel, and Paramount; and distributes 15 other channels for third-party program suppliers. According to CMT, its music-video programming is already available to more than 40 million households worldwide.

♦ The Canadian Country Music Association will hold its annual Country Music Week Sept. 6-9 in Calgary. Capping the affair will be a live national television broadcast of the annual CCMA awards. (The show will be rebroadcast on TNN.) Panel and roundtable discussions will cover such topics as improving vocal and musical performances, marketing music, ways for radio stations to build their audiences, recording better demos, making the best use of TV performances, and finding and training talent managers. Additional information is available from CCMA at (905) 850-1144.

♦ That pounding of hooves echoing across the land this fall will be emanating from TNN’s Wildhorse Saloon Dance Contest Tour 1996. With the official goal of finding America’s best amateur country dancers, the tour will make stops at shopping malls in 10 cities. National sponsors are Boost Nutritional Energy Drink and Desenex, and the tour will be promoted at each stop by local cable operators and radio stations. Here’s the routing: Las Vegas (Sept. 7-8), Los Angeles (Sept. 14-15), Portland, Ore. (Sept. 21-22), Denver (Oct. 5-6), St. Louis (Oct. 12-13), Boston (Oct. 19-20), Raleigh, N.C. (Oct. 26-27), Pittsburgh (Nov. 2-3), Long Island, N.Y. (Nov. 9-10), and Cleveland (Nov. 16-17).

♦ Country Radio Broadcasters (CRB) will sponsor its third regional seminar this year, CRS Midwest, Sept. 20-21 at the Doubletree Kansas City Airport Hotel. The regional events are miniaturized versions of CRB’s massive Country Radio Seminar, held annually in Nashville. Topics to be covered in the Kansas City meet include promotions, sales, ramifications of the Telecom Act, how music directors can work with a multiplicity of record labels, and using the Internet and other technology in various station functions. Call the CRB offices in Nashville at 327-4487 for more details.

♦ Singer Sammy Kershaw provides an excellent reading of Colin Escott and George Merritt’s biography The Legend of Hank Williams. The two-CD or two-cassette “audio book with music” is on Mercury Records and includes all or part of 13 songs, plus some of Williams’ spoken words. The two-and-a-half hour bio is unsparing in its examination of Williams’ darker side, but it rightly celebrates his genius as a writer and performer. Kershaw reads like he knows the territory.

♦ Signings: Curb Records’ Keith Perry is now being represented by Susan Collier Public Relations. Magnatone Records’ Caryl Mack Parker has signed to the Press Office for publicity.

♦ Still in search of a record deal, Oklahoma native Michael Barham will return to the Wildhorse Saloon for a series of shows Aug. 22-26. Barham, whose career moves this column has followed since last November, is already signed to Warner/Chappell Music as a songwriter. Representatives of several labels checked him out when he first worked the Wildhorse in May.

♦ Decca’s Mark Chesnutt now has a home page on the World Wide Web. His address is http://www.nashville.net/~chesnutt.

♦ For students of country music’s penumbra effect, I submit the following from a recent Wall Street Journal review of New York’s alternative comedy scene: “Jason and Randy Sklar, 24-year-old twin brothers, wrote a 13-minute skit that put Barbara Mandrell on trial. The accusation: She killed comedy. Randy maintained that one writer-assassin had acted alone; Jason alleged a conspiracy by the three Mandrell sisters. Actual Mandrell video clips were introduced as evidence. The verdict was inconclusive....”

♦ Grammy-winners the Mavericks, Steve Wariner, and Steven Curtis Chapman were inducted into the Starwalk exhibit July 30 at Opryland USA.

Add a comment