Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Houston, Texas.
Did you grow up loving country music or just music in general?
Music in general. I lived in a variety of places so I have
a lot of influences. I went to boarding school in Massachusetts
and in Virginia and in Washington D.C. and I've listened to
a ton of different kinds of music. I like songs and I like
live music a lot more than anything else. As far as the country
music I grew up on, it's a lot more on the traditional side
of things than the contemporary side.
When the general music market shifted away from artists
who used outside songs to alternative bands who had their
own writers, a lot of songwriters shifted their focus to writing
Country. What's the single biggest mistake those people make?
What do they need to know that they don't know?
That's a good question. I think it varies. I have a feeling
that a lot of people probably listen to Country and say, "Oh
I can do that. It's just three chords and singing about whatever."
I think at times you can see through that. I do feel that
the greatest songwriters have lived unique lives and have
some experiences to draw from. I've got a tape of a guy I'm
working with that I'm trying to hook up with Bob McDill who
has written a bunch of great songs over the years. He had
a Kathy Mattea cut about five years ago that never was a big
hit, although Joe Cocker ended up cutting it as well. It was
called "Standing Knee Deep In A River and Dying of Thirst."
always look at the first line of a song. The first line of
that song is "Friends I can count on, I can count on one hand,
with a leftover finger or two." Then I go back and I listen
to a song he wrote called "Good Old Boys Like Me" for Diana
Williams. The opening line of that song is "When I was a kid,
Uncle Remus would put me to bed with a picture of Stonewall
Jackson above my head/ Daddy would come in to kiss his little
man with gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand/He'd talk
about honor and things I should know/He staggered a little
as he walked out the door." Now, how do you beat that? That
guy had something to say. He wasn't saying the same old crap.
So when I hear songs like that, you are prone to think that
either you have it, or you don't.
have a feeling that the great pop songwriters, if you take
everything awayproduction, and everything elseif they
are a great songwriter and write from their heart and have
a point of view, then the transition is probably going to
be a lot easier for them than somebody saying, "I was writing
a lot of crap that was way overproduced, dance music with
five lines in it, so it shouldn't be too hard to write Country."
How developed or produced do you think a Country demo needs
It varies. One of our artists, Lee Ann Womack just finished
her new album. There are at least three or four things on
it that came in as guitar-vocal, songwriter demos. I love
that. One of the neat things to me about that is it allows
for Mark Wright (Womack's producer) to get an arrangement
in his head without having any preconceived notions. If there's
no preconceived notion going into the studio, all of the musicians
can sit there and really hear the song. It inspires creativity.
Chris Knight had demoed a lot of the songs we cut on his album.
When we recorded the album, he played each song on the guitar
over and over. We would just sit there and talk about it beforehand.
I'm a big fan of guitar-vocals, but at the same time, there
are some people that say "I love so-and-so's vocal on a demo.
If you want to get a song past me, you've got to have so-and-so
sing it." Or I've also heard someone say, "I hate those songs
where there is just somebody singing and playing the guitar."
So even though I think I would rather hear a guitar-vocal,
if I'm playing a song for an artist that doesn't work that
way, it's a moot point. It really varies from artist to artist
and project to project.
How true is it that if you haven't paid your dues in Nashville,
it's really hard to break into the Country music business?
I don't think that's true at all. The bottom line is that
this business is about commerce and the selling of art. If
somebody is good, I can't imagine somebody not wanting to
work with that person because they haven't paid their dues
in Nashville. I'd call that person a dumb-ass. I'd like to
know who that person is. And I'd like every person who gets
passed on for that reason alone to come see me. Who cares?!
Why should somebody have to pay his dues in Nashville? Chris
Knight paid his dues in Slaughter, Kentucky. If somebody walks
into Tim DuBois' door (head of A&R at Arista, Nashville-ed.),
and he hears an artist that just freaks him out, he's ready
to sign on the dotted line. He's not going to say, "Wait a
minute. How long have you lived here? You haven't paid your
dues yet. I'm sorry."
people may come to town and find out that they're just not
ready. They quickly find out that they have a lot to learn.
It takes time. It takes studying other writers work. Sometimes
co-writing with somebody more established is the answer to
becoming a better writer or artist. You can't just sit out
there in L.A. and send everybody in Nashville a tape and expect
them to listen to it and immediately call back and start bidding.
There are certain dues you have to pay, but geography isn't
that important. If you're talented, that's all I care about.
I'd much rather see an artist pay their dues in their hometown.
It seems that everybody in Nashville is focused on finding
songs for existing artists. Obviously, the industry is also
looking for new artists as well. How do you find them? Do
you ever go out looking or do they just stumble in the door?
A lot of them will "stumble" in the door. You find some of
them in odd ways. You can find them at the Blue Bird. You
can find them in some crazy little bar down here that nobody
goes to. You might get wind of them through a deejay in Alabama.
I get tapes from a variety of places all the time. You never
know. The three or four artists that I've been working with
have all come from different areas. Geography can come in
to play a little more for someone looking for an artist deal
versus plugging their songs. Most people with just a little
common sense who want to be artists have an idea that they
might have to go to Nashville, or that somebody in Nashville
needs to find them, so how do they do that? There may be some
guy sitting in some small town somewhere that doesn't give
a rat's ass about ever having his songs on the radio. He just
likes to sit there and play the guitar. He's never going to
make a tape. He's probably not going to succeed. He probably
doesn't want to. But if there is somebody in some small town
in Oklahoma, who decides he or she wants to be an artist or
a songwriter, eventually something is going to take them to
Nashville. It could be a manager. It could be a club owner.
It could be a local lawyer. It could be TAXI. It could be
anybody. You just never know who it's going to be.
There seems to be a widening gap between the old guard
and the new guard in Nashville. In the last year, I've seen
a more pronounced movement toward newer, less traditional
Country. What's your take on that?
That's a good question. When I first heard Chris Knight, I
liked it. That was it. I didn't think, "God, this is the hippest
thing I've ever heard." I just liked it. He's gotten some
phenomenal acclaim too. We never sat down and tried to do
anything "cool" or anything like that. I like music that's
reflective of the people who are making it. A lot of people
did that in previous decades when it was more of a root form
of music. Willie and Waylon are great examples of that. It's
not so much a root form anymore, so very little of that comes
through. It's pop radio to me.
Do you think Country radio is driving Country music right
In a lot of respects. But radio has a different agenda than
we have. They're there to keep listeners. They're not there
to break new ground for Decca Records. So when you get a format
this big and it's over-consulted, eventually you get something
that is tantamount to Muzak. I think there are some great
artists out there, but they're are trying to keep as many
listeners as possible. I remember Dean Hallum at KKBQ in Houston,
said that when he played the LeAnn Rimes song "Blue"which
was one of the biggest songs of the year and obviously created
a superstar for the general publicthat so many people called
and said, "If you ever play that song again, I will never
listen to your station again." In other words, we're in the
same boat, but they're selling advertisements and we're selling
records. I do think radio is driving a lot of what Nashville
does. I think that's our problem, not radio's. I would like
to see over the next five or ten years, a lot of alternative
marketing avenues develop like you have in rock and roll.
You've got a lot of rock and roll artists who sell millions
of records, but with no radio hits.
How many new artists get signed a year to Decca?
We only try to break one new artist a year. We're trying to
break two or three this year. Shane Stockton, Danni Leigh,
and Chris Knight, although Chris is on a little different
path than the others. But usually we try to keep it to one
a year. We're a new label. Everyone is a new artist.
How many are on the roster right now?
Right now we've got just off the top of my head, I'd say eight
or nine, including Dolly Parton. We've got Mark Chesnutt,
Lee Ann Womack, Gary Allan, Rhett Akins, Shane Stockton, Chris
Knight, Danni Leigha new artist coming out in he fallRebecca
Lynn Howard. I've got a couple of things I'm working on which
at least one of whom should end up over here, but you probably
won't hear of them for a year or two. I like it that way.
What are some of your thoughts on alternative methods of
breaking Country acts without radio?
I don't know. I'm as perplexed as anybody. I'm not a marketer.
I do think touring combined with press is a good thing. We
got a feature article on Chris Knight in the Sunday New York
Times. He was selling 1,000 units a week that week.
can be valuable, especially when you see something over and
over. Touring is very important. You've got to get the artists
out in front of as many people as you can. I think that Americana
radio will ultimately be of some benefit. I think it's growing
very rapidly although it's still very small. I think sooner
or later you will see some tangible sales. Chris Knight was
the number one artist on the Americana station in Dallas.
That's a very viable station. I think it's the third or fourth
biggest country station. Chris was outselling just about every
Decca artist in Dallas when that thing was at the top of the
charts at a small station there. Obviously, Country radio
is the number one way to do it, but the Americana format will
open up some avenues to a different generation and a different
group of listeners. I'm not an expert on this facet of the
business, but it's just good common sense that if you see
the artist working in specific markets, you need to go there
and keep it going at the stations it's working at.
think the internet is obviously going to continue to become
more and more viable as an outlet for marketing records. There
are probably going to be a lot of new things that will be
done over the next few years. There is also video. I don't
know quite how effective it is though. George Strait doesn't
do a lot of videos and it hasn't affected him any at all.
But if Chris Knight can't be heard anywhere, but he can be
seen at CMT on video, then that's important. Video helped
break the Tractors. Video was also all over the Kentucky Headhunters
before radio got on board. Universal (Decca's parent company-ed.)
has a college marketing department. It's not really geared
for Country music, but they're working on Chris Knight now.
They are going to do one Nashville project a year. They have
people in the major college towns doing a lot of campus-wide
promotionslistening parties and things like that. Word of
mouth works more among young people.
face it, if at thirty-four years old, I tell ten people that
they should hear a particular record, chances are none of
them are going to buy it. If a fourteen year old tells ten
people to go buy a record, probably five of them are going
to go buy it. Again I'm not an expert on this, but in my estimation
these things have to be explored for Nashville to continue
to grow. We'll always be viable, but to open up any new ground
and to establish ourselves as more than just a source to feed
Country radio, we'll have to learn to explore some of those
are another good way. We sent Chris Knight's record to just
about every music supervisor in L.A. We got a surprising number
of calls back. We'll see what happens. The Trisha Yearwood
song in Con Air is a good sign. The Hope Floats soundtrack
is another great example. Lisa Loeb was broken by a soundtrack.
I'm not saying we're going to have to do what they do in rock
and roll, but I know that Hootie and the Blowfish's first
album didn't start selling for a year and a half. I know that
happens all the time. I've seen numbers on the first few months
sales of a lot of huge albums. They didn't sell the kind of
numbers at first that Chris Knight is selling. I think a longer
term commitment is needed. It's obvious that sticking with
a record can make a huge difference.
Where do you see yourself being in ten years?
I love publishing and I love A&R. I could see myself having
a future forever in publishing. I could possibly see myself
having a future forever in A&R. They are sort of one and the
same. If I have the opportunity to do the creative things
that I want to do, then A&R would be fine. But I want to be
a really good A&R person.
want to have a career like the people I respect. Tony Brown
is a great example. He's signed such an array of artists.
You could put Reba, Vince, Rodney Crowell, the Mavericks,
Kelly Willisall of these records that he's doneback to
back, next to each other and you wouldn't know that he produced
them all. I think he's a true A&R person. Also, John Hammond.
Anybody who signed Billie Holliday, Barbara Streisand, Bob
Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughnhow much broader
do you get than that? Every one of those people is innately
very talented. Hopefully in ten years I will be in a situation
where I will be working with artists I think are very talented
and rewarding to me.
Perkins was an editor at Scribners and somebody who I would
like to emulate. The first person he ever signed was F. Scott
Fitzgerald. They read him the riot act over it, of course.
But he signed Hemingway, James Jones, Thomas Wolfe. The last
book he ever edited was ëFrom Here To Eternity.' He hung out
with all of those guys and drank with them. He was a weird
duck, you know. He wasn't doing what everybody asked him to
do. He caught shit for signing every one of those people.
But he would stick to his guns. They're memorable people.
I'd like to work with people whose music will be memorable
in thirty years. Neil Young's music is timeless. I think a
lot of Alan Jackson's music is timeless, and so is George
Strait's. That's the kind of music I'd like to be remembered
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