This Article Originally Published July 2000
By Rex Benson
Nobody loves Traditional Country Music more than I do. I will carry its banner and sing its praises. I will fight its battles and do my best to be a part of its legacy.
But sadly, I don't ever expect to ever hear another George Jones or Tammy Wynette. Probably the Great Voices, if not the Great Artists, have come and gone, but Brothers and Sisters, it's a new Millenium and time to address that fine line which is the meeting of the "Old and the New."
So please consider with me if you will, how we might be able to address the values and timelessness of the artform, while still presenting it in a way that current Country Radio can support.
And as many of you have experienced, that's not an easy task. Let's take a look at the market for a moment:
George Jones has a Major Label record deal and will cut Traditional Country music come hell or high water, but he has had very little chart success in recent years and only the wonderful support of his label, frankly, keeps him in the hunt for radio play at all. He's still the Possum, he's still got the Pipes. Don't get me wrong, he can still out-sing the best of the young lions, but the opportunities are frankly limited for him, as great as he still is.
Same with Haggard. Same with Gene Watson, except that they don't even have the major label support. So who does? Who sings Traditional Country music in the year 2000 and can still "get arrested" as far as Country Radio goes?
From my vantage point, I see one artist: Alan Jackson. He's countrier than dirt and yet his "sound" and "image" are very marketable by Y2K standards.
So how do you, as a traditional writer get on the next Alan Jackson album? Here are the facts: Alan is a wonderful writer. He typically includes 3 or 4 of his own songs on each album, which leaves 6 open tracks for you to shoot for. Of course Alan is tight with Jim McBride, Bob McDill, Bobby Braddock, Max D. Barnes, Harlan Howard, and virtually every other successful Traditional writer, who are all looking to occupy one of those remaining 6 cuts on the next Alan Jackson album . . . get my drift?
What about the rest of the Traditional singers? Please take a look at what has happened. I can name you names, but for the sake of respect, I won't. However, somebody must be playing "Simple Simon" out there and the command must have been given as follows: "Simple Simon says take one Giant Step to the Left" . . . cause that's what happened to the vast majority of today's Traditional voices—they all moved over into the "Middle."
As one longtime friend, with a renowned Traditional voice put it when I recently asked him what kind of songs he was looking for on his new project: "I need 'N Sync style songs which I can put my Country voice on and they'll average out somewhere in the middle."
I'm not knocking him . . . that's what the industry demands at this moment. He wants to compete. He wants to make a living. And by the same token, if we want to "make a living," we may need to alter our approach a bit.
I'd like to keep that alteration as subtle as possible, so for the sake of practicality, here are a few "General Tips." People, these are not hard and fast rules. Please don't take them as such.
- Focus on the Chorus!!! Not every Country song, Traditional or otherwise, will have a chorus, but if you do have one, then please let it lift melodically above the rest of the song. Twenty years ago, choruses often would walk down to the 5 chord. I'm not suggesting that every Y2K chorus needs to move to a 4 chord, but I would suggest that whenever possible your choruses rise above the rest of the song. That's one way to keep your sound a bit more current. Here's a pretty good metaphor. Consider a current Country Song like a 2-story house. Verses are the first floor, Choruses are the 2nd floor, the Bridge is the basement. Walk up to the Chorus, step down to the Bridge.
- Be as acoustic as possible. I don't mean "Folky," but realize that the primary instrument in current Traditional Country Music is the Acoustic Guitar. The best example I can give you that illustrates each of the above is Alan Jackson's first hit, "Here In The Real World." Still the best song I've heard in the 90s (or was it '89?).
- Remember please that the "Chorus Is The Song." Please don't make your audience wait longer than 45 seconds (or so) to get to it. It's the entree and unfortunately, Country radio doesn't have time to allow any 5-course meals. So keep your intros short, give us one 4-line verse, and then lay that main course on us. And remember to satisfy us with it—it's what we came for.
Lastly, remember please that the Country Music Industry is cyclical. I've been around long enough to remember when we went thru this same "swing" back in the Urban Cowboy era. Sales rose, new listeners came to the format, but the pendulum swung back 180 degrees with a young guy named Randy Travis. I'm sure it will swing again. In the meantime, try to adapt. Hey, I represent the catalog of the late Hall of Fame songwriter Tommy Collins. Tommy wrote 22 different songs that Merle Haggard recorded, including 3 on Hag's Greatest Hits album and Tommy, up until the day he died, was experiencing the same frustration we are. Keep the Faith.