Part I: The Country/Classic Rock Hybrid
They’re the formats that almost make too much sense to work. They’re the formats that always come up when programmers hang out and somebody says, “You know what somebody ought to try?” They show signs of life in research. They sound like nothing else on the radio. Then somebody gets them on the air and they never get traction. Or their success is short-lived.
One is the young male-targeted format that finally plays hard rock or alternative rock and Hip-Hop on the same frequency, geared to the 18-year-old guys who profess fondness for both. That one has been around since today’s 18-year-old was in elementary school.
The other is the Country/Classic Rock hybrid; built around the not-so-stunning-realization that yesterday’s Lynyrd Skynyrd fan is today’s Van Zant (and Big & Rich and Montgomery Gentry) listener. That one goes back to at least the ’80s, and has roots that extend back to when Classic Rock was current rock.
From the beginning, attempts at either hybrid have often ended with a station forced to choose one side or the other, whether it’s WTDR (Thunder Country) Charlotte, N.C., (now WKKT) pulling the Classic Rock cuts after a year or so in the late ’80s or KXME (Xtreme Radio) Honolulu (now KPHW) dropping alternative and becoming more of a straight-up hip-hop station. And it’s probably no coincidence that each station eventually chose to rebrand itself down the road.
But both formats are showing signs of life, or at least renewed programmer enthusiasm:
For the Rock/Hip-Hop hybrid, which we’ll discuss at greater length in next week’s column, it’s the heavily publicized KMBY (X103.9) Monterey, Calif.
And the Country Rocker has found numerous new champions in recent years, among them Citadel’s KKND (Rockin’ Country 106.7) New Orleans , WLFV (93.1 the Wolf) Richmond, and WSDM (Crock 92.7) Terre Haute, Ind., which went 2.5-4.0 in the just released spring book.
Joel Folger, consultant for many of the American Bob-FMs, and Entravision/Dallas OM (and country veteran) Dean James have launched a syndicated hybrid format, the Bar, whose first affiliate is KPBR Billings, Mont. WKIE/WRZA (Nine-FM) Chicago PD Matt DuBiel has just announced a new syndicated format, “Blue Collar Country.” Former KYKY St. Louis PD Kevin Robinson has also been talking up what he calls “the NASCAR format” for several years.
There’s also a Rock, or more specifically Classic Rock, component to many of the expanded-library Country stations that have sprung up over the last several years, including WSM-FM (The Wolf) Nashville, now the market’s No. 1 Country station, WKWS (the Wolf) Charleston, W.Va., WLHK (Hank FM) Indianapolis and KWLI (Willie FM) Denver.
Howard Kroeger, who programmed Canada’s first Bob-FM at CFWM Winnipeg and was one of the architects of WLHK, sees the “Rock revival in Country at the tipping point, this one being based on Southern Rock influences more than anything else, and more than just lip service like in the past [during the era of] Confederate Railroad, Kentucky Headhunters, etc.” Kroeger sees an opportunity for Country to grow by co-opting the “disenfranchised Classic Rock listener who is burned out on the same 350 tracks, hasn’t been seduced by Bob or Jack, and isn’t interested in bands that wear eyeliner.”
The Classic Rock element has, of course, existed in Country since most of the songs in question were current. WMAQ Chicago and WHN New York would always play the right crossover product, from not just the Eagles and Marshall Tucker Band, but Bob Seger, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and others. Classic Rock gold remained a key part of the library for many country stations, particularly outside Country lifegroup markets, through the ’80s. Those titles were filtered out only in the early ’90s when Country had enough strong product of its own that filled the same need. And as soon as Country hit its first product shortage in the mid-’90s, consultant John Sebastian was hauling those same records out again, first at KZLA Los Angeles, then more successfully at WSM-FM.
In that regard, the Country/Classic Rock hybrid was not unlike a more male version of the Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid that became Bob-FM, Jack-FM and friends. Both were geared to listeners who grew up with ’70s Rock and ’80s pop. The only real difference was which new music you wanted to hear in between those titles. And why wouldn’t Dierks Bentley be a better fit than Avril Lavigne, at least for guys?
Well, there have been a number of reasons, so far:
1) There is not that much viable Southern rock that tests reliably at Classic Rock radio, much less at an adjacent format. “Sweet Home Alabama” and “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” are huge records that transcend genre. But even in the Deep South, there are fewer enduring titles than you think. While it might be fun to hear “Jim Dandy” by Black Oak Arkansas or “Nicole” by Point Blank again, there is, unfortunately, a reason they’ve disappeared from most Classic Rock stations. So if you’re filling even 2-3 rock slots an hour on a Country/Rock hybrid, you’re forced to trade strength for tempo and flavor. Or you find yourself playing hit Classic Rock titles without much of a Country feel.
2) To truly pursue the Classic Rock/Country hybrid means gearing towards men, and very few stations are willing to walk away from female listeners altogether. Unless market circumstances make it untenable, most would rather follow the path set by KPLX (the Wolf) Dallas in the late ’90s: be palatable to men, but don’t superserve them.
3) In many markets, stations like Jack-FM are indeed filling the same need for variety and tempo. And often when a Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid comes to town, the variety-driven Country station is one of those most noticeably affected.
4) Quiet as it’s kept, there’s still one key disconnect between ’70s Classic Rock and today’s rock-flavored country, which is still often female-friendly and almost always pro-social. They may sound tame now, but the Allman Bros.’ “Ramblin’ Man” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name” just couldn’t have been written in Country five years ago. Songwriting law would have required the singer to embrace family life in the final verse. It’s only now in songs like Dierks Bentley’s “Lot Of Leaving Left To Do” or Eric Church’s “Two Pink Lines” that Nashville is again veering even slightly away from happy endings.
5) For that same reason, there hasn’t always been enough current Country product to sustain a male-slanted or tempo-driven Country format. Even the songs with tempo that had the feel of Classic Rock were often female-skewed lyrically. How dangerous, really, is “Chicks Dig It?” If you wanted to maintain a sonic difference, you were again forced to sacrifice strength. And if you play the hits, even when they are “Live Like You Were Dying,” it becomes hard to maintain a point of differentiation, particularly when even a contemporary Country station has no problem reaching back for the right ’70s or ’80s title.
Which leads back to the question of what the Country/Rock hybrid is supposed to be. DuBiel’s version is heavy on male attitude liners and more consistently rock and tempo-driven than most of its counterparts. The James/Folger format being heard in Billings is more hit driven and separated from other gold-based country stations more by its Bob-ish positioning than anything else. In fact, the format has been most mass-appeal in its least pure format: when it is, essentially, a gold-based Country outlet that has a few Skynyrd titles.
One thing that might distinguish the new stations going forward is some sort of current rock component. There’s not much country-flavored product reliably coming from the pop/rock side, unless Shinedown does a Lynyrd Skynrd cover. After all, anybody who wants to make a southern rock-flavored record these days is already doing so within the confines (and that they are) of Music Row.
But there are “Texas Music” and other Americana artists who provided the point of differentiation for KPLX and who occasionally make some surprisingly viable hit records that aren’t on Country radio’s radar. Clear Channel’s KRPT (92.5 The Outlaw) San Antonio, Texas, plays only that music –no mainstream current Country and no Classic Rock. Those records are largely off programmers’ radar. For them to become part of the format, Kroeger notes, “would take a miracle, or good timing.”
It’s worth noting here that Country/Rock hybrids have also proliferated in the world of HD-2 multicasting and satellite radio, ranging from WKIS Miami’s “Gretchen” channel to Sirius Satellite Radio’s Little Steven-overseen “Outlaw Country,” which combines Country Gold, alt.country and even rockabilly. Clearly, a niche for some sort of Country and Rock hybrid exists; the question is how it can be built into something more.
Here are some sample hours of today’s Country/Rock hybrids:
Blue Collar Radio, 1:35 p.m., August 3, 2006
Mark Chesnutt, “Blame It On Texas”
Toby Keith, “I Wanna Talk About Me”
Tom Petty, “You Wreck Me”
Blue County, “Nothin’ But Cowboy Boots”
Steve Miller Band, “Living In The USA”
David Lee Murphy, “Dust On The Bottle”
Alabama, “Mountain Music”
Big & Rich, “Coming To Your City”
Sugarland, “Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)”
Brooks & Dunn, “Hard Workin’ Man”
KPBR (the Bar) Billings, Mont., 9:15 a.m., August 4, 2006
Don Henley, “The End Of The Innocence”
Rhett Akins, “Kiss My Country Ass”
Vince Gill, “Feels Like Love”
Willie Nelson, “Help Me Make It Through The Night”
Chris Cagle, “Chicks Dig It”
Janis Joplin, “Me And Bobby McGee”
Pat Green & Radney Foster, “Texas In 1880″
Reba McEntire, “Is There Life Out There”
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood, “Love Will Always Win”
Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On”
Tim McGraw, “Just To See You Smile”
Alabama, “Love In The First Degree”
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”
WLHK (Hank FM) Indianapolis, 5:00 p.m., August 10, 2006
Brooks & Dunn, “We’ll Burn That Bridge”
Montgomery Gentry, “My Town”
Charley Pride, “Kiss An Angel Good Morning”
LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
Jack Ingram, “Love You”
Clint Black, “Better Man”
Steve Wariner, “Holes In The Floor Of Heaven”
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats” (that day’s “Hank or Stank” record)
Earl Thomas Conley, “Fire And Smoke”
Billy Dean, “Only Here For A Little While”
And here’s an hour of Kevin Robinson’s version of the format, circa 2004
Tom Petty, “Running Down A Dream”
Toby Keith, “Beer For My Horses”
ZZ Top, “Legs”
Marshall Tucker Band, “Heard It In A Love Song”
John Mellencamp, “Authority Song”
Alan Jackson, “Don’t Rock The Jukebox”
Bob Seger, “Hollywood Nights”
Johnny Cash, “Rusty Cage”
Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”
Neil Young, “Cinnamon Girl”
Willie Nelson, “Whiskey River”
Brooks & Dunn, “Red Dirt Road”