STREET SMARTS: If They Weren’t So Prejudiced…

Many years ago, a bunch of smartass radio and record executives decided that only kids listen to new music.  Adults don’t listen.  Adults don’t buy records.  Adults don’t count.  And they believed it.

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I was listening to my Darrell Scott CDs tonight and it hit me.

Darrell Scott writes and sings music for adults.  And I thought a bit more.  So does Guy Clark. So did Dennis Linde. So did Bob McDill. And on and on and on.

Many years ago, a bunch of smartass radio and record executives decided that only kids listen to new music. Adults don’t listen. Adults don’t buy records. Adults don’t count. And they believed it.

Except it wasn’t true in country. Adults listened to country music. Adults bought country music records. But you see, the major record labels weren’t headquartered in Nashville; they were headquartered in places like L.A., New York City and London, and sophisticated people in those places believed that country music was for gap-toothed, inbred, Klan-robed Southern idiots. That’s what the media told them.

But there was one L.A. executive who did not believe that. New Mexico-born Jimmy Bowen had produced huge hits on Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra after much of the world had given up on them, and Bowen believed that he could sell country music to adults. He moved to Nashville, convinced his L.A. record executive buddies that they should double and triple their country budgets, and along with others, showed America that Nashville was mainstream adult music.

Oh, but not quite. Even when it became very popular in New York, many of the listeners were embarrassed because their friends made fun of them. So they made it into a camp experience-wore boots and jeans and cowboy hats to country bars and went “yee-hah,” pretending to mock the only music that spoke to them. Then New York’s big country radio station, WHN, changed formats. And out of all the dozens of stations in New York, not a one picked up the country format, even though New York remained a big sales market for country music.

Over the years since, country radio and record executives have done everything they could to try to kill the country genre, mostly by tapping only very young, pretty faces to sing the songs about life and love, that are the staples of country music. But there are still more country stations playing country than any other genre, diluted as the music gets.

I sometimes ask older folks in New York and L.A. what kind of music they listen to. Often they shrug their shoulders.

“But when you were young, you soaked up pop music like a sponge every day…,” I’d say. And they’d look blank. I knew why. Many of the genres that emerged in the ‘80s and ‘90s-punk and heavy metal, and rap and hip-hop-simply did not excite them because those genres tended to be short on the song and production values that made them care. Now they listen to news stations, they listen to sports stations and they listen to oldies stations.

But meanwhile, Nashville has not stood still. Even as the major labels and radio chains did what they could to remove all traces of imagination and creativity from the music they were playing or selling to the public, wonderful things were happening on Music Row. Nashville is not a place where something in the water turns out hundreds of great musicians every year. Nashville is a destination for musicians and songwriters who have heard that Music Row is the place to go to seek your musical fortune-and not just country artists either. Pop artists of many styles come to town because they’ve heard Nashville is a kinder, gentler, more welcoming music town than L.A. or New York. Once they get here, they’re mostly mortified to find that the major record labels have no pop presence in Nashville, nor do they desire one.

Well, among those who have come to Nashville over the years is a mighty core (or corps) of folk-oriented singer/songwriters-writers like Guy Clark and Darrell Scott.  Those guys paved the way for what’s happening right now. There is an avalanche of musical talent making music in Music City that will never, NEVER find the playlist of a Clear Channel country radio station. A lot of this talent relates to Americana, that wonderful, eclectic little format that hangs around and doesn’t go mainstream, but doesn’t die either. Others rock a little harder. But they all seem to have bought into the Music Row mandate to make their songs the best they can be. The result? An indie pop music that is its own music.

You wanna hear this great stuff? Power up your computer and Google the ASCAP Nashville internet radio station. The station is in its early stages with a small core of programming that gets repeated. But the music is there, and it’s fresh and ready for people all over the world who like real music. Eventually, the record moguls will figure it out, adopt the music and turn it into fluff, just as they did with several generations of rock and roll, soul and country. But until then, there’s some great music out there in cyberspace and beyond.

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