STREET SMARTS: It’s a Changing Musical World – Nashville Too, Part 1

I can’t remember how many times I used to meet young hopeful pop singers and songwriters who came to Nashville hoping to find an alternative to the L.A. music scene.

Michael Kosser
Michael Kosser

I can’t remember how many times I used to meet young hopeful pop singers and songwriters who came to Nashville hoping to find an alternative to the L.A. music scene.

“We’ve heard things are changing,” they’d say. “But then we walk into publishers’ offices and play our songs and they say, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you out on the West Coast? You’re a pop writer!’ Why are they so narrow-minded?” I would patiently explain that publishers here would like nothing better than to be able to find a place for these newcomers’ music. I’d tell them, “Don’t blame us. It’s not our choice.”

Back in the late ‘50s and early and mid-‘60s, Nashville was a player in pop music. Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers were pop acts. Sue Thompson, Roy Orbison, the Newbeats and Ronnie and the Daytonas were all hit pop out of Nashville. The Top 40 radio format was a wide open genre, and many country acts crossed over to the pop charts. When the British Invasion knocked a whole lot of American acts off the pop charts it was Roger Miller who successfully bucked the trend with a series of huge crossovers. And we can’t forget that the recording that made Elvis a pop superstar, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was recorded in Nashville.

Yet by the late ‘60s, Nashville was almost dead in the pop world. There were exceptions of course. Bob Dylan cut three important albums here. Then, as the ‘70s moved on, we had a number of crossovers including Eddie Rabbitt, Crystal Gayle and the amazing Kenny Rogers. Dan Fogelberg was a Nashville act, and there were others, too. But on the whole any pop act that dared to publicize its Nashville roots risked rejection by the pop world. L.A. pop A&R people scoffed at the “pop” music they got from Nashville producers and publishers.

Every so often somebody would write an article announcing that the times were a-changin’, that the pop world was finally opening its arms to Nashville and then-nothing.

Maybe the coming of the internet has democratized the system enough to make a difference. Kings of Leon and White Stripes don’t have to hide their Nashville connections. Ultimately it may be the labels up in New York that will give Nashville acts their pop opening, just as New York did in the early days of rock and roll.
Marcus Hummon is a Nashville songwriter with a considerable track record, including hit songs like the Grammy-winning Rascal Flatts hit, “Bless The Broken Road.” A while back, Hummon began working with a trio of singer/songwriters called One Flew South, who sang in the tradition of great pop acts like the Eagles and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Over an extended period of time, Hummon pitched them to all the key labels in Nashville, some more than once. The rejection was unanimous. So he took them to New York, to Decca Records, an old and honored name that had been revived by its parent company, UMG Recordings, Inc. The story of their live audition is long and adventurous, but I’ll present the short version here.

Paul Foley, General Manager at Decca, simply says, “They came in and did a showcase in our conference room not unlike what we have them doing at radio stations all over the country. They played three songs for us, and to tell you the truth I don’t think we had ever [before] seen across the whole label the positive reaction from everybody there, so much so that we had them play our summer outing on a boat cruise down the Hudson right after we signed them.”

At first the Decca folks thought they might be an Americana or Triple A act, before the record was actually done. It wasn’t until Decca heard the recordings for their CD that they decided to take them country. To me the important points are, one, that Decca in New York signed a Nashville-based act on the basis of their appeal, without immediately stereotyping them as a country act, and, two, when the recordings sounded country to the label, and the experts they consulted, they made the decision to release it country even though they were not set up as a country operation.

Foley had worked at Rounder Records for eight years before coming to Decca, so he enlisted the head of promotion at Rounder to put together a top flight independent promotion team to “start to test the waters at country radio.”

According to both Hummon and Foley, Decca’s sister label in Nashville, Universal, has been extremely supportive in a number of ways, and that collaboration is more good news. As this is being written, the group’s first single, “My Kind Of Beautiful,” has been slowly working its way through the bottom of the country singles charts, like many introductory singles.

Foley says, “We’re establishing ourselves as sort of an adult pop crossover label, so we’re open to various genres, and you know, Marcus’s track record certainly perked our ears.” With so many youngsters bypassing radio and records to search for music on the internet, it certainly makes sense for the labels to reconnect with the adults they left behind, and Nashville is a pretty good place to find adult music.

In the next issue of AS we’ll find out how well the single did, and what lessons One Flew South, Marcus Hummon, and the Decca Label Group may have learned. I believe that the changes that are stirring our musical waters will in the long run be beneficial to both the New York and the Nashville music industries as they break down the walls that for years have separated musical cultures.