Thursday, March 16, 2006

Country Music

I've been listening to a LOT of contemporary country these days, and my scorn for the genre has in many instances become, if not quite admiration, sheer pleasure.
Here're a few names to keep in mind: Shooter Jennings, son of the late great Waylon Jennings. Shooter's got a great song on the radio called "Fourth of July," featuring a vocal by thelegendary-but-today-largely-ignored-like-all-the-rest-of-the-classic-artists-of-country George Jones. Also, the djs can't say the name of Shooter's album, Let's Put the O Back in Country, which is very funny because the album's a hit and getting some heavy rotation.
Dierks Bentley has two good songs getting rotation, What Was I Thinkin' and Lot of Leavin' Left to Do. Gretchen Wilson does great stuff: Redneck Women, When I Think About Cheating, My Give a Damn's Busted, and of course, Home Wrecker. She is probably the best of the lot these days.
Faith Hill's Mississippi Girl is reminiscient of Loretta Lynn's Blue Eyed Country Girl in theme and in the phrasing of the words.
Brad Paisley's "Alcohol" is some great country music.
Even Toby Keith, whose songs are more typically jingles than actual songs (c'mon, anyone can hear I Love This Bar reworked as an ad for Bennigans, and all American Soldier needs to be complete is a quiet voice under the fadeout saying "Paid for by the U.S. Army"), has a good one out with As Good As I Once Was.

The sad part, especially here in Philadelphia where 92.5 WXTU has for all practical purposes a monopoly on the country music market: you will never hear the legends of country music on the radio. WXTU plays ONLY contemporary pop, even cutting performers like Garth Brooks' rotation by gradual percentages as newly created acts hit the market. The irony that a genre based on "tradition" goes out of its way to ignore and even bury its own history is as acrid as chewing on tin foil.

Consider this email exchanged with a dj at WXTU with a great sense of humor. I had written him about a band I used to play with, UncleFucker the heavy metal bluegrass extravaganza.
[Writer's note #1:Actually, upon rereading the email, I can tell that Izzy wrote this one and I just put my name on it.] [Writer's note #2: Izzy insisted we all have "band names". I was "Snikkas" because of my perverted snicker. Our drummer was known as Freeball because... well, I don't want to get into that. Read One of our adventures on the road here]

Here's the series of letters.

I'm Snikkas, bass player for the band UncleFucker, the
worlds first (and only) Bluegrass Thrashmetal Punk
band, based out of Brooklyn, New York, except for me
and I live in Philly.
Visit us online at

We've recently finished "Usurpers of the Tradition",
our first record and just got back from a full US
national tour rocking out to 500-2000 17-year-old punk
rock kids every night, and selling a lot of CD's,
successfully and actively bringing the twang to a
brand new generation.

With the release of our new record, we are now
pursuing or first indie radio campaign which is of
course why I'm writing you. I am hoping that you are
someone who might be able to help us get our music
played on your station, or at least listened to by
your djs.

I think I may know what you're thinking right now, and
I will address this directly:
We are aware that the issue of us being difficult to
place as far as genre, is only compounded by the fact
that our name maybe downright illegal to say on the
radio. I'd like to assure you that this is not a hoaky
kids band. We are serious, topnotch musicians who have
been immersed in bluegrass and country for years. We
also just happen be Punk as hell. So please give an
open ear as the music stands on it's own (as does our
troupe of 6 dancing girls, The Fuckerettes). Second,
we have aliases which we will gladly go by for radio
sake. Our preferred are:
UncleFugger, UncleFrigger, or simply U.F. The bottom
line is we think our music is superb and the world
should hear it even if it goes unannounced altogether.

I will be happy to send a CD at your request. Check
our website to get a better feel for the band at: you can suck down our MP3's at:
UF's MP3's . I know you probably won't play MP3's on
air but if you want to scout 'em, they're there.
Thanks for your time. Your response is appreciated.

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His response:

Checked out the site....I don't Uncle fucking think so!

Good luck.

[name withheld]

HAH! I wrote back in our defense.
Hey XX,

I didn't expect a wholly positive reaction from WXTU,
a station that plays Kenny Chesney and that "One Hot
Mama" song (that's the Adkins guy, right?) over and
over, so your taste is, by definition, questionable.
It is true that UncleFucker is not exactly material
for your target market, the soccer moms.
Waylon woulda loved us though, god rest his soul. Oh
wait, you don't play Waylon either. I'm glad you
checked out the site though.
PS: is Toby Keith bald under that giant hat or what?
Cus I saw him on some CMT special and there was a
brief live clip that made his blonde locks not so
lush. Inquiring speedmetal bluegrass minds want to

So far, so silly. A little banter. And then, an odd confession:

Actually, taste has nothing to do with radio. It is all about $$$. And
Waylon doesn't appeal to our target demo. Tests show that the majority
do not like your dads 'country music.' Hence the reason you can count on
one hand how many stations play classic country. Can't make $$$.
[emphasis mine.]

Oh, and yes Toby is as bald as Chesney and McGraw. That's why you will
never see them without hats...unless they have to go to court because of
altercations with police over stolen horses.

Again, good luck with your music. Maybe you are just too advanced for
your time.


A few years ago I was in Nashville, reading the Scene, when I came upon a serious article about the commodification and market emasculation of country music.

songwriter Darrell Wayne Perry concurred: "I think radio is to blame for [losing our core country audience], because radio has put small parameters on songwriters. Now when I sit down, in order to make a living on country radio, I have to write the same song over and over again. They will not let me be a creative person."


This question of what to play on country radio goes hand-in-hand with an equally important, and confounding, question: Who's listening? The core audience at country, statisticians say, increasingly resembles the audience for Adult Contemporary music: mother-age to middle-aged women. Steve Mitchell, program director of WYAY-FM, an ABC/Disney-owned station in Atlanta, says, "We use research to get a visual image of who our listener is. For us, it's late-30s soccer moms. I tell my jocks, 'Imagine a mom and dad driving along with kids in the car. That's who you're talking to.' "

There is nothing wrong with marketing songs and music. Like any other business, you have to determine who your audience is, and give them what they want. So why is it that rock and roll stations manage to play the flavor of the day alongside acts that never seem to go away like ZZ Top, and country radio can't? Why does Johnny Cash get more airplay on WMMR than on WXTU? Why is Kid Rock doing Conway Twitty style duets with Sheryl Crowe, sounding more country than anything Cheli Wright has ever done in her entire career, with country music picking up the song a year after it appeared on rock radio?

One may argue that older rock musicians find a niche in classic rock formats, and that is undoubtedly true. But some bands, the true legends like Zeppelin, the Who, Aerosmith, are never rotated out on so-called "modern rock" stations.

There is also nothing wrong with music that is targeted to one gender or the other. But when artists get shut out of rotation because they're deemed "too old" or "not appealing to the demographic", there is something out of balance.

All country music is addictive if you ask me, from the bluegrass and old time I first fell in love with, to 1950s honky tonk, western swing, the Nashville sounds, Bakersfield, the Outlaws. Even some of the stuff I turned up my nose at during the punk rock 80s now actually sounds OK in retrospect. As I've made clear earlier, I like a lot of the contemporary songs out there too. I just can't understand why a station like WXTU, which has a monopoly on the country fan's ear can't squeeze a little George Jones in there with the Shania. Is it too much to ask for even a 10-midnight Sunday night Classic Country slot?

And this gets to I really believe. Classic country doesn't deserve to be shunted to a Sunday night ghetto. Everything needs to be jumbled together in a mishmosh, Flatt and Scruggs following Lonestar following Toby Keth following Waylon following Shania. There's a fine station, 101.3 near Syracuse NY that plays a fine mix of classic and contemporary country.

There is no comparing dreck like "Mr Mom" to Patsy Cline's "Crazy", but you never hear Patsy on WXTU. NEVER. "Crazy" is a damn classic song; it should be getting played every day, in the regular mix. Same with Hank Williams (all 3 of them), George Jones, Bill Monroe. In short, play all of it, everything from Alan Jackson to the Stanley Brothers. And the Louvin Brothers. God bless the Louvin Brothers.

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I don't have any argument with the bottom line. Radio is, at its roots, a business, a commercial venture. You can't keep your venture going if you're not offering something people want to buy. To my mind, country music is more than just a genre: it is a matter of our national heritage, as much as rock and roll is. Rock radio does more honor to its heritage by keeping elder statesmen like The Stones, Dylan, Zeppelin, and hundreds more in the regular mix than country, ostensibly the music of tradition, does to honor its icons. And for those groups too old for rock radio, there are oldies stations. The same cannot be said of coutnry music, at least not in any state I've ever lived in.


Blogger Natalie said...

Hallujah! Thank you for that. I've never thought of it that way. The rock stations play Zeppelin followed by Seether. Country can't do the same thing. I have to seek my own music if I don't want to hear the same thing over and over on "New country" stations. My local station (KWNR) does have a fine DJ twice a day on Sundays that plays nothing but the classics. Mostly by request. They attempted to remove him once and the backlash was so great that they had no choice but to bring him back and gave him another slot. You think that would say something. I have yet to hear the new Gary Allan single on the radio here. Another fine artist being ignored for sounding traditional.

11:12 AM  

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