True Country Commentary
by Jim Chesnut
From time to time, I'm gonna need to share some thoughts.
Changes in Country Music: January 6, 2016
THEN: When I was signed to MGM/Hickory Records in the mid-to-late 1970s, my publisher, Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. had 27 songs in Billboard's Hot-100 Country Chart--27 percent! When I left the company five years later, it had one, and it was one of mine. Let's Take the Time to Fall in Love, Again made it to the top-30 in the span of about ten weeks, as I recall. In those days, music industry leaders Acuff-Rose and Tree were family-owned publishing houses staffed with people who returned phone calls and listened to unsolicited material from persistent up-and-coming songwriters like me.
Music was promoted to the public via radio stations that played country music. In addition to Billboard, there were some other significant music industry publications, namely Record World, Radio and Records and Cashbox. In all, there were something like 125 country music stations in the nation that reported their playlists to these magazines. Only about half of these stations would consider new artists and new music.
With the support of these "breaker stations" and a handful of national record promoters, we were able to get new music into the top-40 of these charts where they would get noticed by the remaining stations and wholesale record buyers. From that point, whether or not a record made it into the top-20 depended on the sales of the product. With the help of John Curb in Los Angeles, Bob Saporiti (later head honcho at Warner Bros. in Nashville, and Erv Woolsey's team at MCA Nashville, I was fortunate to penetrate the top-40 threshold with Let's Take the Time.
NOW: Since the evolution of the Internet (and because of it), the industry is no longer controlled by or influenced to as significant a degree by major publishers like Acuff-Rose or Tree. In fact, both were purchased by Sony/ATV several years ago and are in full corporate mode now. I am told by a number of "insider" friends that any act signed by a label today has to have something significant going, or it will not get anybody's attention.
For example, Pat Green, a very popular Texas country music performer has had ten studio albums produced. The first three were self-released between 1995 and 2000 and gained enough momentum to interest Universal/Republic Records in signing him and releasing an album in 2001. After three albums, he moved to BNA for two albums, Sugarhill for one album and then Green Horse for one in 2015.
Today, it is the responsibility of recording artists to do for themselves what publishers, agents, managers and labels once did on their behalf. It is all made possible by social media and digital music distribution.
SO WHAT?: What does this have to do with me in 2016?
I'm still "in it to win it," as Randy Jackson used to say on American Idol. I am writing more than I ever have and can still sing in tune (well, most of the time anyway). In 2016 I will be releasing a new album, my fourth self-produced cd since 2008. In the past two years, I've had three top-chart singles as reported in a couple of national secondary market charts. I'm still performing and will continue to do so until I can't. This year, I am implementing a new music strategy that will concentrate on embracing and engaging my followers in ways that I never have before.
I will be asking for your assistance and advice from time to time. I will be asking you to get involved with my career development through Facebook sharing, email forwarding and other social media methods that I am working on that will be easy to do and not require a lot of time on your part. I hope you will join me on this journey. It will be a grassroots effort that will be fun to watch unfold.
The first step is to get your email address, so I can include you on a newsletter distribution list. I promise not to share your name or email address with anyone, and you can request to be removed from the list at anytime. So, if you are not already getting my emails, CLICK HERE to send me an email, I will get the process started by adding your name to my list. Plus, I will send you an mp3 file of my first single of 2016, Lost and Found Love. You can share it with anyone you wish as often as you wish. It is my way of thanking you for helping me get the word out about my music.
Thank you, and let's take this trip together. --Jim Chesnut
Memories of Mine
This is an early morning photograph looking westward down the tracks in Strawn, Texas, approximately where I used to play in front of the Texas & Pacific Railroad depot when I was a child. My Uncle Jim, for whom I was named, was the station manager and later mayor in this small community located west of Fort Worth. My father was once employed by T&P as a telegraph operator.
I was inspired by my childhood experiences in Strawn to write Good Lord, What Happened to the Trains, which is included in my CD, The Nashville Years: Volume Two. Here is a sample of the recording, one of my first after I signed with Acuff-Rose Music in 1976. Although the song mentions that my grandmother lived in Kansas, she actually lived in Strawn. I just needed something to rhyme with Texas, so I moved her to Kansas.
The Bankhead Hotel shown here was located across the tracks from the depot. My parents lived there shortly after they were married. My childhood and adolescent imagination painted all kinds of pictures of cowboys, miners and saloon girls coming in and out of the Bankhead Hotel. I couldn't quite imagine my parents actually living there. They seemed too nice!
Strawn was a coal mining town nestled in with other small towns like Mingus and Thurber that were established in the 1870s to support the railroads' fuel needs as they expanded to connect the east and west coasts after the Civil War. The mines were shut down during the Great Depression when the miners went on strike. Demand for coal was declining because Diesel engines were replacing coal-fired steam engines, and the owners couldn't bear the brunt of increased labor costs.
During one of my visits as a child there was an explosion that destroyed Strawn's biggest employer, Strawn Merchandise. It challenged the community economically, and things were never the same. I took these photographs on a recent visit and find them to be compelling illustrations of so many declining western towns built around mining.
Here is a picture of Lovera's, a grocery store from my childhood in the 1950s that is still around. I went inside and bought an RC Cola during my visit, and it looked and smelled exactly as I remembered it. I asked the owner how he could still stay in business after all these years, and he said that the closest Wal-Mart was about an hour's drive from Strawn. He also said he allows people to charge their groceries to help them manage their money between Social Security or welfare checks.
I miss those times in my childhood, riding the passenger train with my grandmother, playing in the depot and listening to Uncle Jim send and receive telegraph messages. I miss the fireflies in my grandmother's yard just after sunset. I miss my grandfather's blacksmith shop. I miss playing with my cousins. I miss Roy Rogers and Trigger, too.
But, I don't miss trying to smoke my grandmother's grapevines.
On my recent visit with Jayson and Jan Fritz and Rick Star at Texas Rebel Radio (KFAN) in Fredericksburg, Texas, I was reminded of my early days in radio in West Texas.
I got my start in country music when I worked as a DJ at KOYL AM in Odessa in the mid-1960s. It was a smelly place. Located across the street from a producing oil well on the northwest side of town, the pump similar to the one shown here (courtesy of http://fcit.usf.edu/) cast off the most God-awful odors known to the nose. The cause was hydrogen sulfide, a gas and by-product of most West Texas producing wells that smells like rotten eggs.
Between the gas and the fact that we all smoked lots of cigarettes in those days, the equipment in the studio was in constant need of cleaning and replacement. Ed Roskelley, the station owner, was an early believer in using automation to reduce costs in broadcasting music for his FM station, which wasn't making any money. Although I got along with him, I'm not really sure he liked having to work with DJs all that much.
The KOYL studios included a number of Ampex 350 1/4" tape recorders similar to the one shown below (photo courtesy Gary Hardy - Sun Studio) with famed Sun Records owner Sam Phillips at the controls.
The atmosphere of hydrogen sulfide, cigarette smoke, dusty days and DJ hot air kept us plenty busy maintaining racks of equipment.
At one time, Roskelley built a recording studio at the station attempting to capitalize on the emerging recording industry. Norman Petty had established a successful studio in Clovis, New Mexico, and Roskelley attempted to develop something similar in Odessa.
Petty's golden ears helped dozens of popular country, rock, and pop musicians who recorded at the Clovis facility--Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, Charlie Phillips, Jimmy Bowen, Johnny Duncan, Carolyn Hester, Chita Rivera, Brad Maule and many others.
By that time however, the music industry was beginning to centralize in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles, and the regional influences of Clovis, Memphis, Philadelphia, Detroit and others was beginning to decline. So, it was too late for Roskelley's dream to come true.
On the other hand, I got to play with all kinds of neat stuff after hours (and, sometimes during on-air hours, I'm afraid). Ross, as he was known around town, had designed and built an isolation echo chamber with a big metal plate that was awesome. Of course that sound is not popular today, but it sure was back then.
Anyway, KFAN in Fredericksburg is that kind of place, too. Built by Jayson's father and mother, it is still a family-owned and operated radio station. As a baby, Jayson napped in his crib next to his mother in the control room as she pulled her morning shift in the early days. And, Jayson and Jan's kids have been brought up in the business, too.
Antique radio memorabilia are everywhere, old console radios, table-top bakelite models, reel-to-reel machines, classic microphones like the one shown here and more. KFAN exemplifies what radio used to be in our culture, a medium whereby people with a passion for something communicated with others at a gut level. Human instinct was involved as these entrepreneurial pioneers took risks and built vital pieces of community infrastructure that are more-often-than-not taken for granted in today's serve-me-when-I-want-it society.
Instinct has been replaced in many instances by empiricism, the practice of making decisions based on provable evidence. It has its place. For example, the cost of drilling stinky oil and gas wells is so expensive, technologies have been developed to discover with greater certainty the probability of finding a successful field.
In some markets, the total cost of ownership of a radio station makes it necessary to operate in the same way. It is believed that taking a chance on a new record based solely on its appeal will increase the risk of dropping ratings points that will cause a loss in advertising revenues. Human instinct and judgment have been replaced by a wait-and-see attitude that is causing radio to lose its identity as a major leader in community.
The problem is made even worse by corporate ownership. When companies are allowed to control so many stations (in a pejorative sense), central decisions are made that more or less standardize the sound of a genre throughout the country, and cultural creativity suffers. It is, simply put, thinking inside a box.
Thank God for visionaries like Jayson, Jan and Rick in Fredericksburg. I hope there are lots more like them that I haven't met, but I'm afraid there aren't.