Frank Lidell

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

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."

I 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.

I have a feeling that the great pop songwriters, if you take everything away—production, and everything else—if 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 to be?

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."

Some 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 now?

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 public—that 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 Leigh—a new artist coming out in he fall—Rebecca 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.

Press 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.

I 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 promotions—listening parties and things like that. Word of mouth works more among young people.

Let's 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 opportunities.

Soundtracks 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.

I 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 Willis—all of these records that he's done—back 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 Vaughn—how 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.

Maxwell 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 From 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 for.

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