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Country at Pop Border Crossroad

Trends: As industry gathers for Country Music Awards, records by crossover artists are receiving unprecedented airplay on pop radio, and Nashville is hoping for a sales boom.

September 23, 1998|MICHAEL McCALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If the recording executives and artists at tonight's Country Music Assn. Awards ceremony seem unusually upbeat, it might be due to what's happening on radio.

With country records receiving unprecedented airplay on pop radio, industry leaders are hoping for yet another boom in the sales of country albums.

The reasoning goes like this: If country music accounts for 14% of all U.S. album sales while limited to airplay on one radio format, how big might the future be if the music begins reaching the larger audience afforded to pop singers, most of whom enjoy radio play on a variety of formats?

"This does feel like a breakthrough," says Luke Lewis, head of the country division of Mercury Records, home of Shania Twain. "It reminds me of the early '80s, when Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' broke down barriers for black musicians on MTV and on pop radio. Now that pop radio has seen how listeners respond to LeAnn [Rimes] and Shania, they're ready to try more of it."

So far, the benefits have been great for both camps: Those artists getting pop radio play--Twain, Rimes, Faith Hill and others--have seen their sales skyrocket as a result; meanwhile, radio stations are finding that airing selected country songs is livening up their playlists and increasing their listener base.

"Top 40 has always been the best of all genres," says John Ivey, program director of Boston's leading pop station, WSKS-FM. "We should play whatever the best available records are. I think all of the [country] songs we're talking about are great songs. To me, they all sound pop, and they've been big records for us."

Lon Helton, country music editor of the trade magazine Radio & Records, says there have been at least eight hits in recent months that began on the country charts and then crossed over to stations with an "adult contemporary" (or easy listening) format. Three of those songs--Twain's "You're Still the One," Rimes' "How Do I Love" and Hill's "This Kiss"--have gained widespread success at the larger, "contemporary hit"--or traditional Top 40--format.

There are about 2,500 stations in the U.S. that feature country music, but some major urban markets, including Boston and New York, don't have one. By contrast, more than 4,000 stations play pop music, including stations in every major city.

"There's more crossover music coming out of country right now than at any time in the past," Helton says. "I don't remember it ever being this massive--not even in the 'Urban Cowboy' days. To have so much happen in such a brief period of time really is unprecedented."

So far, most of the pop radio play has gone to female country singers, and to records with a distinctly pop edge to their sound. The feeling is that country's male stars are more identified with rural Southern culture. "I'm not sure pop listeners are ready to have people with cowboy hats on their format," says Chris Stacey, senior director of national promotion of Mercury Records.

But Arista Records is ready to test that theory. Alan Jackson, Arista's best-selling country star, has begun getting airplay on adult-contemporary stations with his new single, "I'll Go on Loving You." The song includes a spoken recitation, upfront steel guitar licks, and Jackson's undeniable Georgia drawl.

Arista Records president and chief executive Clive Davis is personally spearheading the effort to get the romantic ballad played on adult-contemporary radio, says Jackson's manager, Chip Peay.

"Alan is and always will be country," Peay says. "His whole life is based in traditional country music and all that it stands for. . . . But this is a song that has universal appeal, and I don't think we're doing anything other than providing more people the opportunity to hear a great song and a great performance."

Should "I'll Go on Loving You" succeed, then the borders between country and pop radio truly will be open, optimistic insiders here believe. "If Alan Jackson has a pop hit, then it's look out below," says Helton of Radio & Records. "If a guy like Alan has a bona fide pop hit, it would go along way in loosening up a lot of prejudices."

Amazingly, this whole movement happened through a fluke.

Rimes originally recorded "How Do I Live," a song written by top pop songwriter Diane Warren, for the movie "Con Air." However, movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer rejected that version, reportedly telling Curb Records President Mike Curb that the recording was "too country."

Bruckheimer tapped country singer Trisha Yearwood to cut the song with another producer. With saxophones replacing steel guitars, Yearwood's version appeared on the soundtrack. Curb refused to withhold Rimes' version, however, even when country radio chose to play Yearwood's take instead.

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