My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Missing from radio?

randytravis2A comment made by Kevin at Country Universe got me to thinking more about the minuscule playlists of today’s country radio stations.  Satellite radio almost seemed like a savior for the format at one point, but since that idea didn’t really catch on with the mainstream even enough to affect the Top 40, hope for the classic country stations that popped up on subscriber radio has since been lost.  It’s always been beyond me why so many radio stations have consistently-shrinking playlists.

Every station (even the one in your town) will have a list (albeit undersized) of recurrents from the past 15-20 years they still play regularly.  But this list is usually limited to artists who are still making waves or are favorites of the program director for that station.  Much has been said about the small playlists at radio – across all genres.  And the consensus always seems to be the same: the listeners want a wider variety.  So why aren’t program directors and music consultants listening?  And why can’t we hear hits from the 1950s and 60s mixed in with today’s hits?

The first question is the hardest to answer.  Radio is obviously a business and their goal is to acquire – and keep – as many listeners as possible.  More listeners mean the commercials are worth more money.  So it’s understandable that radio chooses to play it safe.  However, there are several downsides to this, not the least of which being the shrinking playlists.  But this play-it-safe approach also makes it harder for new artists to break through and for veteran artists to take many risks.  A good example of this is Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose album.  Jackson has been a radio staple since his debut album, but  the two singles released performed poorly, with neither reaching the top spot at radio, and a third single not being released.  As a result the album became Alan’s first not to reach platinum status.

Now, even though some stations still play selected classic country songs, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a station playing anything recorded before 1980.  I think the main reason for this is that the sounds of country music have evolved so much over the past 3 decades that there’s a huge schism between classic and contemporary.  The classics that do hold up alongside today’s hits don’t sound as vastly different from their contemporary counterparts.  Those that do are relegated to the classic stations.

On one hand, you have artists like Randy Travis and Dolly Parton, both of whom delivered excellent albums last year and both had songs as good or better than the current Top 40.  Neither Travis or Parton were able to score a significant radio hit from their latest releases.  Then we have artists like Tanya Tucker and Hank Williams Jr. whose hit-making days are also past and aren’t releasing singles to radio with the consistency they used to.  Still, Tanya and Bocephus made the kind of records that stand the test of time.  Their music should still be played today alongside the latest hits.   

What artists do you think should still be played on the radio that are being ignored right now?  And why do you think their music can stand the test of time?

17 responses to “Missing from radio?

  1. Razor X April 24, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    You’ve opened a Pandora’s box with this one. I think part of the problem, aside from the consolidation of radio stations into the hands of a few conglomerates, is program directors that migrated from other formats and don’t know or care much about the history of country music. When I still listened to mainstream country radio, I found that I routinely knew more about country music than the DJs did. They were totally unaware of anything that came out prior to 1984.

    It’s regrettable that artists like Dolly, Randy and others can’t get a fair shake at country radio these days. If I had my way, they’d still be on the airwaves. However, it is inevitable that everyone’s radio career will come to an end one day, even though we may not like it. What’s more regrettable is that there’s a treasure trove of older music that can’t be heard on mainstream radio anymore. When I started listening to country radio in 1980, older songs from the 70s and even the 60s would still get played alongside the newer stuff. I would never have gotten to hear a lot of the old Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings songs if things were done the way they are now. Artists like Loretta and Tammy were coming to the end of their chart reins by the early 80s. I would never have had the chance to become a fan if radio hadn’t still played their older hits.

  2. Steve from Boston April 25, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I have a litte different take on the wasteland that is today’s country radio.I think the pervasive mediocrity is because children have basically taken over the marketplace, when it comes to music. Or as one of the newsweeklys reported “tweens”, And in an article (Time,I think it was) did on the purchasing power of various demographics, they concluded this group was the most infuential when it came to buying music CDs and downloads.

    Basically, text messaging twelve year olds with lightning fast fingers and indulgent allowances are turning the intsitutions of Country music into one giant pajama party. Country radio, TV, and now the awards shows, etc. bend over backwards to cater to this demographic. I’ve talked with many young people in my area who say they love Country music, and I ask them who they enjoy. They almost always reply, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban. That is all they know of country music, and all many of them WANT to know. Many of these kids have never even heard of Sara Evans, let alone Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, George Jones or Hank WIlliams.

    But yeah, I agree that Country radio needs far more of the classics from the old Masters, as well as the new stuff from some artists who have become icons, but have difficulty getting any of their singles or albums to even be heard, never mind actually chart.

    Among these unfairly neglected artists still active today I would also include Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and Dwight Yoakam. Since the turn of the century, they have been making some of the absolute best stuff of their careers, and ironically, even some of their old fans are unaware of their new material. Several of these older fans I have talked with even thought they had retired. But it is easy to see why they think this…Country radio now prefers the trendy over the timeless, and this, is indeed a scandal.

  3. J.R. Journey April 25, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    You both make great points – and all the artists you mentioned deserve a spot on radio today.

    Steve said “… and all many of them WANT to know.

    I think that’s one of the biggest injustices of this – the younger generation has no media outlet to get them started on classic country music. The only kids that are digging the traditional stuff right now know it from their parents, grandparents, or someone close to them who turned them on to the sounds. There’s just no place to hear the wealth of great country music from the past unless you actively seek it out. And what teenager is going to actively seek out classic country music when they don’t know anything about it?

    • Steve from Boston April 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm

      Thanks, JR…

      Fortunately there is at least one outlet for classic Country anyway…and that is on cable TV’s Music Choice network…They have three Country channels, Today’s Country, Classic Country and True Country…the latter two are “my kind of Country” 😉

      Hopefully the young-uns will check out the vintage stuff on TV anyway…

      I am very dissapointed with this network, however, as they dropped their Bluegrass channel in favor of some kind of mind numbing dance, electronica urban music. They justified this change by citing some kind of sensitiviety to the changing demographic and growing diversity of musical tastes in our culture nowadays, or some such nonsense. Hopefully their actual Country stations will survive this cultural shift.

    • Razor X April 26, 2009 at 3:40 pm

      That’s pretty much what Connie Smith told me when the topic came up during my interview with her. She said that young people today don’t know about country music’s great heritage or its legendary artists, but it’s not their fault because nobody taught them.

  4. Blake Boldt April 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    I think the women get jobbed more than the men. Even the legends like Lynn and Wynette were barely scraping up the chart in their early 40s. Then look at the women who are seemingly in the prime of their recording careers. Loveless was 40, Yearwood 37 and Womack 38 when they scored their last top ten singles. Meanwhile, Strait, Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn are all in their 50s and doing just fine. All the above artists have been making fairly decent music throughout their careers, too, but the ladies seem to have worse luck, for obvious reasons related to gender and the industry. A long, long story, obviously.

    • Razor X April 25, 2009 at 2:40 pm

      I think you make an excellent and very valid point, Blake. There is a double standard between men and women when it comes to aging — in the entertainment industry and in society in general. Dolly was 45 the last time she made the Top 10 (1991’s “Rockin’ Years”, which went all the way to #1. I’m not counting her recent collaboration with Brad Paisley). Reba is the only female over 50 I can think of that is still getting some love from radio.

      However, I don’t think that sexism and ageism are the sole factors as to why so few females are getting airplay right now. For a while in the 90s it was all about Shania, Faith, and to a lesser extent Martina. Their success led to an abundance of younger, usually blonde, females getting into country music. There wasn’t much to distinguish them from each other, for the most part, so I think the pendulum has swung back toward the men for the time being. I’m far less worried about the troubles female artists are having at country radio these days than I am about the fact that the music is sounding less and less country with each passing day.

  5. Michael April 25, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Blake, I think you touched on a larger problem in our sexist society. It’s the same for actors. There’s also a double standard in the dating world. As men age they become distinguished. Women? I guess they become cougars. Well, that’s what primetime television would lead me to believe anyway. I would love to hear something from Tucker’s new album on the radio but I’m pretty sure it ain’t gonna happen. The only females guaranteed any airplay right now are Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Sugarland.

  6. Paul W Dennis April 25, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    There is a huge difference in the country music of the pre and post Urban Cowboy era. Pre-Urban Cowboy era songs usually had the lead vocal was front and center and the drums (after the mid-1950s – before then drums were rare) subdued, felt more than heard .

    Most of the earlier music was in 2/4 or 4/4 time and featured melodies that one could hum, whistle or sing – if you removed ALL of the musical background you would still have a discernable melody

    Today, with many of the acts, if you removed all of accompanying production, you would have either a poetry recitation or second-rate hip hop

  7. Blake Boldt April 25, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Razor X, I think it’s a combination of factors. You’re right in saying there was a female-centric genre in the late ’90s, but I feel that country music went through a really low period around ’98-’00 when there was a lot of pop gloss, especially from the women. Even Lee Ann Womack, who I love, used some of this slicker trickery in her music, largely due to the fact that radio was only playing that at time. (This was before 9/11, the patriotic movement and the O’ Brother soundtrack, mind you).

    I don’t think the women have ever recovered. Carrie, Miranda and Taylor are all talented in their own unique ways, but there’s an entire sub-generation who are older than them that is missing right now. Terri Clark couldn’t squeeze her talent into Music Row’s standards. Sara Evans has suffered personal setbacks. Jo Dee Messina is fighting with Curb. Gretchen Wilson wasn’t quite all together artistically. Toss in singers like Mandy Barnett, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Chely Wright, Bobbie Cryner and Deana Carter that were inspired by the previous generation (Loveless, Yearwood, etc., who were in turn inspired by Harris, Ronstadt, Parton, etc.) and who make pretty great records that are “too challenging” for the mainstream. That’s a huge group of women. Now all the pretty little girls are taking their cues from Faith and Shania and they’re missing the links to the past.

    • Razor X April 25, 2009 at 4:21 pm

      I think Patty Loveless, Lorrie Morgan, Kathy Mattea and Trisha Yearwood were all prematurely dumped by radio. All of them should be on the charts — or at least be given a fair chance to do so. It’s been a long time since Tanya Tucker released any new music but her last effort — 2002’s Tanya deserved more attention from radio than it got.

      I also think that a huge part of the problem that mainstream country is going through right now — and it’s not just a radio problem — is that the commercial boom in the 90s raised sales expectations to an unrealistic and unsustainable level. I wish we could get back to the days where sales of 300,000 units was considered successful , and that artists, labels and radio would try to appeal to a smaller, but more loyal group of fans that appreciate country music for what it is. They’ve been trying to mass market country for too long, and trying to change it in order to appeal to more people. And it’s just not working.

      • Steve from Boston April 26, 2009 at 1:23 pm

        I think you guys are onto something regarding radio’s bias against older women in Counrtry nowadays. And that is just so wrong on so many levels..

        With the exception of Reba, these fine ladies are struggling on radio and the country cable tv channels.

        But I wonder if in addition to her all her musical merits, Reba is boosted by all the young folks who came to love her though her sitcom, ans well as her awesome stand-up hosting duties on the awards shows.

        • J.R. Journey April 26, 2009 at 7:19 pm

          I think the sitcom made Reba as big a star as her singing career did, which I never thought possible. But there are so many young people who are fans of the show and are just now discovering that ‘she sings too’.

        • Razor X April 26, 2009 at 8:16 pm

          It’s amazing, isn’t it? About a week ago, i got into a conversation about music with a woman I work with. Dolly’s name came up and she said to me, “Dolly sings?” And she’s no young kid, either; she’s about 47 years old.

  8. Linda April 26, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Another factor i think sometimes plays a part in omission from radio is three of the artists mentioned – Randy, Alan and Dolly, have all recorded gospel/christian releases and it seems often when an artist does that, they are tagged then as christian and mainstream leaves them along the roadside.

    As a fan of Randy’s, I can only speak to that artist mainly but when Three Wooden Crosses was released and I’d request it, I was told it was a good song but it was on a Gospel label. That one for some stroke of luck and perhaps the hand of God it made its way to the top.

    But looking at Around the Bend, several songs, as mentioned were equal to or better than many currently on the charts.

    Take for instance a song on Around the Bend titled “From Your Knees.” in the 90s it probably would have been just a great country song relating to a broken home because of cheating and lying with a small mention of God; because Randy (as have others) have now been tagged as Christian, radio often won’t take a second look. That’s just my opinion for what it is worth.

    • Steve from Boston April 26, 2009 at 1:05 pm

      Interesting point Linda, but AJ is still quite sucessful on radio.

      • Razor X April 26, 2009 at 3:43 pm

        Many, many country artists have recorded gospel albums or at least included gospel songs on their mainstream albums. I really don’t think this hurts an artist, unless they start performing and recording gospel music full time, as Randy did for a while. I really think it is an age thing more than anything else.

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