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A Song Causes a Country Tussle

Pop Music * 'Murder on Music Row,' lamenting the loss of the genre's traditional sound, is drawing fire--and Billboard attention.

May 03, 2000|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You'd think country radio stations would kill for any record that paired stars as big as George Strait and Alan Jackson.

Normally they would, but many programmers would rather bury Strait and Jackson's new duet, "Murder on Music Row," because it charges the music industry, and radio in particular, with the death of country music itself.

The song says, "Someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul" and laments the disappearance of traditional-sounding country, blaming industry clamor for more pop-oriented artists and records that can hit the multi-platinum heights, a la Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

The pop orientation has left such veterans as George Jones and Merle Haggard and younger tradition-minded artists like Brad Paisley and Gary Allan with less exposure and promotion for their music, which angers hard-core country enthusiasts.

The debate has been simmering for the last couple of years, but it heats up with each percentage point drop in country music's share of the overall pop music market.

Strait and Jackson take the debate nationwide tonight by singing "Murder" to open the Academy of Country Music Awards show, which CBS will broadcast from the Universal Amphitheatre.

Academy executive director Fran Boyd says the "event" aspect of the recording--not the song's message--was behind the scheduling of the duet.

"We're always searching out things we think will be events for the show," Boyd says. "We try to intertwine the legends with today's country artists and those we feel will be the future of country."

Others in the media, however, would like "Murder on Music Row" to see an early grave.

"We are not playing it and we never will," says Craig Powers, program director at Anaheim's KIK-FM (94.3). "It puts down today's modern country music, and that's against everything we're about."

But at L.A.-based KZLA-FM (93.9), which is playing the song, operations manager R.J. Curtis says, "This is an event record, with two of the icons of our format recording together. . . . To me it's pretty simple, but maybe I'm an idiot. Whether it becomes an anthem for the statement in the song, I don't know."

"Murder on Music Row" hasn't been released as a single. It's one of two new tracks on Strait's "Latest, Greatest, Straitest Hits" collection. But it's broken the Top 40 of Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart via airplay alone, which is rare for a song getting no promotion.

"Murder" was written and first recorded last fall by bluegrass musicians Larry Cordle and Larry Shell.

"Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance on today's radio," the song says in a reference to country titan Hank Williams that "has really [angered] a lot of radio programmers," says Lon Helton, country music editor for Radio & Records, a leading trade publication. "Without that line, I could hear it getting a lot more airplay."

Only about 20% of the 150 country stations surveyed by Radio & Records are playing the song. For some the problem is less the message than the love-it-or-hate-it response it provokes.

"Radio programmers are afraid of polarization," says Billboard country music editor Wade Jessen. "A strong emotional response one way or the other is considered by people who program by research as a negative."

Others aren't playing it simply because Strait's label, MCA Nashville, hasn't made it a single.

"Country radio," Jessen adds, "is well known for following record company agendas very closely."

And what is the company agenda for "Murder"?

"I think it's crazy that it shouldn't become a single," says label president Tony Brown, who also co-produced Strait's album and suggested that he record "Murder" after hearing Cordle's version. "I can't remember a song that wasn't being worked getting this high on the charts. And you can't open a magazine without finding an article about it."

Releasing it as a single, however, isn't strictly Brown's call; it requires the permission of Jackson's label, Arista Nashville.

MCA's promotional efforts in recent weeks have been focused on getting Strait's "The Best Day" single to No. 1 on the country charts. Arista Nashville, meanwhile, is pushing Jackson's new single, "It Must Be Love."

The use of "Murder" at the Academy of Country Music telecast figures to up the ante, just as the Dixie Chicks' decision to sing "Goodbye Earl" at the Grammys in February pushed Sony Nashville officials to issue it as a single, despite indicating earlier that they wouldn't.

Yet even some who are staunch supporters of traditional country music are uneasy with "Murder."

"I hate the thought they're putting in people's heads: that country music is dead, it's over, they've buried us," says singer Patty Loveless. "It's true that sales are down and that we need to try to keep this music alive. But it's always going to be fresh to the babies that are born today."

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