God Bless Bill Monroe.a
There's been much talk (as well as press coverage) here in Nashville lately about the decline in sales of country music over the last year. Some people are thinking country is experiencing a long-predicted downslide due to lack of excitement on the airwaves. (All the "hat" singers, the sameness that seems to prevail from one honky-tonk tune to the next, are fingered.)
However, after speaking to a programmer from one of the more popular stations in the country, I realize that a lot of the bad-mouthing of mainstream radio is not all radio's fault.
As he put it, "We're [radio stations] are at the mercy of what the labels send us," and "There don't seem to be very many real "headliners" out there these days once you get past a half-dozen big-drawing country acts."
He also mentioned to me that Garth Brooks' latest effort has sold very poorly in comparison to his earlier seven- and eight-million marks. That in itself would effect any statistical record of country music sales. He was concerned that major record labels don't put as much development effort, if any, into all the new acts that seem to be endlessly releasing records. "Our listeners have no idea who most of these people are," he said. "There is no artist development anymore!"
He also said that he thought the main reason for Garth's decline in sales was the lack of great songs on the album which Garth either wrote or co-wrote. Garth was quoted as saying he couldn't find any great songs anymore in Nashville. Beg your pardon!?
Personally, I think country radio overall has been improving a lot lately. Maybe they have gotten the message, whether from listeners or ratings or record sales or wherever the source, but there seems to be a great variety of artists and styles on country radio. You can hear Patty Loveless and Vince Gill as well as newcomer LeAnn Rimes, plus singers of the caliber of John Berry, Leroy Parnell, the wonderfully fresh Allison Kraus and the new bombshell-belter Shania Twain. Wynonna and Garth and a few others (Miss Reba comes to mind.) are still walking the pop/country line, or trying to, anyway.
To this songwriter, it is indeed a very exciting time to be in Music City, whatever the future holds. The downside is that labels are dropping artists like the proverbial hot potatoes. I think they are going to move into a more creative and adventurous direction once they get re-focused following the initial impact of the decline. One sign of this is that Atlantic Records just signed their first female artist since 1991, Kentucky born Mila Mason. Atlantic has not believed in female country artists in the past, claiming they don't sell, etc. Perhaps the list of greatly successful females in recent years has changed their minds, and rightly so.
The next couple of years are going to be very interesting for country music folks. Let's see if the record labels and radio programmers listen to their audience as well as to radio consultants.
(Mr. Rhody is a Louisville native and an award-winning songwriter and painted making Nashville, Tenn. his home since 1977. Available for seminars, workshops and concerts, he can be reached at P. O. Box 121231, Nashville, TN 37212.)