Radio Can’t Blunt Country’s Cutting Edge

Originally published in the October 28, 1997 issue of Country Weekly magazine. 

You don’t have to be old to be ignored by country radio.

Many young country artists win critical and even commercial success without becoming radio favorites.

The young, faces of performers such as The Mavericks have found it tough to crack the radio market — even as they rack up awards and album sales.

“There are all kinds of tastes and all kinds of people that country radio has yet to tap into,” says Raul Malo, the Mavs’ lead singer.

The Miami-born quartet is today’s biggest example of an act that has won a legion of fans without a major radio hit. The band’s last album, Music for All Occasions, earned a gold record for selling more than 500,000 copies, and its previous release, What a Crying Shame, went platinum, signifying 1 million sold.

The band’s biggest radio hit: “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” a No. 13 in 1996.

They’re joined by other off-center, but influential acts such as CMA winners Junior Brown and Mary Chapin Carpenter — as well as Kim Richey, The Delevantes and Jack Ingram.

The Mavericks bass player Robert Reynolds laughs and says, “We got through the back door like the redheaded stepchildren of country music. We found a couple of songs that radio played a little bit, but no one would say we’ve prevailed at radio.”  His bandmate Raul says, “Success at radio doesn’t necessarily mean success at album sales. I’d rather have platinum records than No. 1 hits. Sales and the radio play don’t always match. People who listen to country music across America don’t care about the charts. They don’t know where a song is on Billboard or R&R.

“It’s all perception. Our fans think we have had lots of No. 1 records, and we’ve never even had one! But, we’ve sold a bunch of records — more than many who have had a lot of No. 1s.

“A lot of stuff sounds the same on country radio because it’s the same musicians playing on the same records with the same producers and the same techniques.”

Jack Ingram is an artist who must overcome sounding different. “My music may seem heavy-handed in approach, but it’s just country music. When I go out and meet radio program directors, they’re realizing that my music isn’t threatening or scary. I’m just another guy doing country music in a different way.”

Meanwhile, despite trendsetter Kim Richey’s strong following, she says, “There’s really not a darn thing I can do about getting on radio. I just try to write songs that I’m proud of and be honest about myself.”

Junior Brown says, “I haven’t intentionally gone against the grain. I don’t ever think about a strategy for people to hear my music. I feel lucky that my music is so accepted in so many different circles. I never could have foreseen that.”

These country artists are following a trail first blazed by Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, who also tasted critical and commercial success without getting a lot of airplay.

“Those artists are the reason we came to Nashville,” Raul tells COUNTRY WEEKLY. “They put a dent in the door big enough for some of us outsiders to crawl through.”

“When Emmylou Harris hit in the late ’70s, it was really the first time country music attracted a youth audience and became acceptable to people who listened to rebellious rock ‘n’ roll,” says Robert Oermann, a noted country music historian and critic.

Crowell and Cash followed in her wake. They, in turn, passed the baton with the cutting edge to Dwight Yoakam, Foster & Lloyd, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang and Steve Earle.

“These artists experimented with the boundaries of country music and brought new possibilities to the format,” Oermann explains. “The interesting thing is that these artists built a sizable audience and sold well but were rejected by country radio.”

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