Where did you grow up?
Did you know when you were growing up that you loved country
music, or did you just love all music?
I just loved all music. I started loving music when I was
an infant, and my father used to get up with me in the middle
of the night and play big band music while he fed me during
those middle of the night feedings that we've all learned
to love as parents. But he turned it into being a good time,
and I think that's probably where my interest in music began.
I always gravitated towards music. I was always over at the
local record store. I was always scraping together change
and buying 45s, and listening to the radio. I listened to
a lot of Beatles, Elvis and the Beach Boys. I started pretty
much like anybody that had a genuine love for music, and started
buying records just about as fast as I could get my hands
on enough money to buy them.
At what age did you know that you wanted to turn your love
for music into a job in the music business?
A little later in life. I come from a family of teachers.
My father advanced out of teaching into being a college administrator.
They were very pro education, and always inspired me and encouraged
me to try everything that I was interested in. But they encouraged
me more to get a formal education. Following their advice
I studied business at Illinois State University. I took some
elective courses in music theory and composition. There were
some ensemble classes at Illinois State that were a little
bit more contemporary. They had kind of an R&B ensemble where
they'd put together an R&B band. I didn't play in the ensemble
classes, but rather was a part of this ensemble more on a
business level. I was more a manager. I did sound for them,
and worked with the band on that level. And that was really
the beginning of my thinking, "Hey, maybe there is something
I could do with music to earn a living." Unfortunately, the
music program at Illinois State didn't really have any relevance
to what commercial or contemporary music was all about. I
began looking at other colleges, and eventually I moved to
Nashville. Having not had any connection with country music
at any point in my life before thendidn't even know who
Hank Williams Sr. was. I enrolled in Middle Tennessee State
University, not so much for a degree as to just take some
music courses. I got an internship. I was one of the few fortunate
people who was able to get an internship at a major labelWarner
Wasn't the competition for internships like that tough
In most cases, there was a line out the door and down the
street just to have the opportunity to get in the door and
work for free. I decided since I didn't have any connections
to the music business, I didn't have a rich uncle, or somebody
that's a big power guy in the music business that could pull
strings for me, that I would have to do it the old-fashioned
wayget in and prove myself through some good honest hard
work. And I did. My requirement for the internship was 15
hours of work a week. I spent 40 hours a week here. I did
everything for everybody in every department. I mailed out
things. I answered the phones. I ran errands. I worked in
the marketing department, in the A&R department, did everything.
I got to know everybody. The company was smaller then, and
pretty family-like. Eventually, the president of the company,
Jim Ed Norman, approached me and said, "You've been working
really hard around here. How about coming to work for us full
time?" And of course I was elated. That was the turning point
of my life.
Wow, that's a fairytale!
I began working with Jim Ed, and pretty much just followed
him around. I kept my mouth shut, and just did what he asked
me to do. I learned a lot about making records from him. He
was producing Crystal Gayle, Michael Martin Murphy, The Forrester
Sisters, Kenny Rogers, Mac MacAnallyI'm probably leaving
somebody out. It was along about the time Take 6 was signed
to the Nashville division, which was a real breakthrough for
our company. It was a pretty big deal for Nashville to sell
a platinum record on a non-country artist.
What are some of the most important components of country
It's all pretty subjective, but obviously, there are two key
componentsthe lyric and the melody. Country music is traditionally
much more oriented on the lyric than other forms of music
have been in the past. So, to me, a country song has got to
say something. Our music form has been around for a long time,
so there are only a finite number of subjects you can talk
about in a song in any format, country included. I'm always
looking for a song that says something different than the
other songs do, which is a hard thing to find; or to say the
same thing other songs are saying, but in a different way.
Putting some different metaphorical associations with something
else. Something that sets that song apart from the other songs
But country's always had a reputation, at least from a
songwriting standpoint, that country writers follow a prescribed
set of rules. Some writers have told me, you don't use B sections
or pre-choruses in country music. There are some chords that
you may not use in country, some subject matters that you
don't touch. Doesn't that make it all that much harder for
writers to learn the craft of writing country versus writing
for other genres? Not only do they have to say it better,
or differently than it's been done before, but they also follow
some of those rules? And what are some of those rules?
I don't disagree that there are some certain guidelines. After
all, in order to sell our records, the main form of marketing
that we have at our company is country radio. And country
radio caters to a relatively conservative audience. Therefore,
there are certain subjects that should be avoided, there are
certain chord progressions, because it doesn't take much deviation
from standard chord progressions before you start getting
ethereal, or getting out there. Most of the people that enjoy
listening to country music don't want to hear anything complex.
They don't want to have to work hard to listen to this music.
They just want to enjoy and soak in the music and let it move
them without having to dig into it really deep.
I would challenge writers of country music and people in the
country music business to think a little bit more progressively.
Because my position in the music business, being on the creative
end of this company, is not always trying to fit in between
the goal posts of what's acceptable in country music. I've
got to look a little bit beyond that, because what is acceptable
and reasonable today is different than it was 2 years ago,
4 years ago, or 10 years ago. In order to be successful in
my position, I have to try to look a little bit further on
down the road, and to try to be a trendsetter as opposed to
just continuing the same trend that exists. So I'm always
trying to challenge the boundaries of country music a little
bit. So when you ask what I look for and what the components
are, or what the guidelines are in a country song, I'd say
that there are certain guidelines as far as subject matter
is concerned, but no sooner than you establish those guidelines,
then somebody comes off and does something that's just outside
the boundaries of that, and it's a real big hit. Deana Carter's
"Strawberry Wine" is a good example of that musically. It's
done differently. It's produced differently. It has a different
chord progression, and it has some metaphorical innuendoes
that are slightly...
Racy, at least when compared to what Nashville's used to?
Yeah. It's just a little bit different than what we've been
accustomed to, and look how successful it is. And that's due
to the part of our consumer base that's changing. We have
newer consumers, younger consumers, who are coming on board
with country every day. They're a little bit more open-minded.
I wouldn't want to go too far down that road of trying to
live within confined parameters for our business. I think,
given a chance, we can change that old myth. The landscape
of country music is certainly different than it was ten years
ago, but the same thing is true in pop, and I think that's
healthy for all of us.
Do you think that country radio will eventually fragment
like rock and pop have done, where you might have "new" country
stations versus "traditional" country stations?
Yes. I'm sorry to be overly brief about that, but my answer
is just simply yes. I think that that's inevitable at some
point that the country format will fragment.
Do you think there will always be a strong audience for
the traditional stuff even as you see the influx of the newer
Sure. I think that for the same reason there's always an audience
in the pop market for the classic rock stations.
How do you go about finding new artists?
You know, oddly enough that's not a hard thing to do at all,
because I'm fortunate enough to be associated with a company
that has a real high profile name and reputation. Most of
the new artists come to us. The phone rings off the hook actually,
and there are far more opportunities and more quality artists
that are knocking on the door than I have time to see or to
listen to. I'm going through a stage in my career where I
have quite a few artists that I'm responsible for, and I like
to direct my focus to trying to find the best songs for those
artists. I have two new artists: One that will be coming out
this year, and then the other that I'm working on making an
album with that will be out next year. I'm so focused on that
that right now that Elvis would have to walk through the door
before I'd be open to signing another artist just given my
work load and the number of irons that I have in the fire.
How many artists are on your roster? How many new signings
are there in a typical year?
We have two labels, Warner Brothers and Reprise. On the Reprise
side there are five artists. And then we also share a promotion
staff with Giant Records. They have another five or six artists.
On the Warner Brothers side we have nine artists.
Smaller than I would have expected.
When I say that's how many artists, that's how many artists
that we have that we're carrying on the roster that have had
a record released. There are probably six or seven artists
that we would have in what we refer to as the new artist roster.
So is it safe bet to say that between the two labels, that
you might sign a half a dozen new artists in a year?
I think that's pretty safe. Between the two we'd say a half
a dozen, of which my best guess is that on each side there's
probably only room to work on breaking two to three new acts
a year. Because of the competitive complexion of the marketplace
right now and how much time it takes to set up an artist at
radio, make the introduction, the financial resources, and
just the energy that it takes to bring an artist to the marketplace
and break an artist is considerably more than it is to sustain
an established artist. I think the days of just coming out
with a dozen new records a year, and just throwing them all
up against a wall and staying with the ones that stick, are
behind us. It takes a little bit more these days. The guys
in marketing and promotion could verbalize that a lot better
than I can.
Do you look for artists that are also writers, or does
that matter less than in the pop world because Nashville has
so many great writers to throw material at you and your artists?
That's a great question. I don't have a formula in the sense
that I would formally say I'm looking for "dot dot dot". I
don't really care where the songs come from as long as they're
great songs. If an artist comes in and is not a songwriter,
I'm not discouraged about that artist. But that's a different
kind of artist then because I work with an artist very closely
here who is incredibly talented at finding the right songs
for herself. And she has the resources to find the songs,
and at least be a big part of that. Then she can sell a song
that she doesn't write. She's very talented at that.
By saying "sell" a song she doesn't write, do you mean
she can perform it in such a way that it will go over even
though she didn't write it?
Exactly. She makes it her own. And that's a different animal
really than somebody who comes in and says oh these songs
are all about personal experiences that they've had, songs
that are an extension of themselves artistically and emotionally.
I get calls, maybe once or twice a month, from people who
say "I've got a great voice. I'm a fantastic singer. I want
people in Nashville to hear me." They want to know if they
can submit tapes of them singing covers. Is that ever done?
Oh it's done a lot. At any time I talk on the phone or communicate
with anybody who asks that question I say I would advise you
not to do that. I know that's an easy thing to do, because
karaoke is such a popular thing. You can go down for a couple
bucks and you got a demo tape. Inevitably, when you sing somebody
else's song, you're compared to that person who originally
made the song a big hit. And unfortunately that puts you at
a position of real compromise as a new artist. I would never
So would you recommend that that new artist take the time,
do their homework, go out and meet writers, and select three
or four songs that they feel are right for them?
I would. I also would recommend that anybody that is an aspiring
artist and singerI would recommend wholeheartedly and emphatically
that they move to Nashville, or spend as much time in Nashville
as absolutely possible. Because they can interface with the
community here. They can meet writers. You learn so much by
What do you love most about what you do for a living?
I love being associated, being as close to the music as I
am. Having as much impact creatively on the music. Being able
to direct it. I love having a vision about something I can
imagine happening, and then being given the opportunity to
work on it and try to make it happen.
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