From Top 40 To Country (With Irony)

Two years ago, Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles’ “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” became a surprise Country chart No. 1. When word began circulating that Bob Seger was going to work a new record to Country as well, the consumer press articles began coming about Country as a haven for Classic Rock artists, particularly those who were unlikely to get significant airplay on a new release elsewhere.
That haven didn’t quite materialize. Seger’s “Wait For Me” never charted. John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” even with massive TV commercial support, only got to No. 40. The Eagles’ “How Long” raced up the charts in its initial weeks, then stalled at No. 21, despite a major sales story, while the follow-up, “Busy Being Fabulous” got only to No. 31. And the next Bon Jovi project, initially reported to be a Country album, was instead only Country-flavored and the two singles from it got to No. 37 and No. 47.
The Country/Classic Rock career route has proved as challenging as the Country/Classic Rock hybrid format that stations continue to try (and then evolve away from) after two decades. Sonically, the compatibility of ’70s/’80s Classic Rock and today’s Country have never been in question. The Country/Classic Rock hybrid format itself has been hampered by a paucity of hit product, new and old. And Country radio seems eager to have something that sounds like a new Eagles record — they’re just happier when it comes from, say, Rascal Flatts, whose “Winner At A Losing Game” was a pretty good channeling of a Glenn Frey ballad.
So it makes sense that while the 40-year-migration of Top 40 artists to Country continues, it actually turned out to be a trio of mid-’90s pop artists who have materialized with recent Country chart singles: Jewel, Hootie & the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, and Jessica Simpson. Jewel’s “Stronger Woman” recently peaked at No. 11. Rucker’s “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” is No. 27 on the new Country chart, while Simpson’s “Come On Over” jumps 47-39. All three have achieved fast initial traction at a time when debut singles from new Country artists typically require three months of set-up and then take six months to scale the charts.
There’s something logical but also a little meta about all this. In the early ’90s, much of Country’s appeal was being the only place to hear new, acoustic-flavored music in the ’70s Classic Hits/Classic Rock tradition – most notably, Garth Brooks’ ability to channel James Taylor on records and Kiss onstage. But by the mid-’90s, the Top 40/Modern AC side suddenly had its own acoustic ’70s-influenced hitmakers, particularly Hootie and Jewel. (If Sheryl Crow had actually delivered a Country album as once expected, it would have been perfect symmetry.) In other words, Country, instead of just adapting Classic Rock to its own ends, is now adopting the artists who took the Classic Hits sound back from Country. Got that?
Another irony: the artists who are making their way over aren’t necessarily doing so because their sound is unwelcome at Top 40 or Hot AC radio. Jewel, in particular, should ask Colbie Caillat for royalties as acoustic folk-pop resurfaces after many years of Rhythmic domination. Jessica Simpson, meanwhile, did pretty well not-so-long-ago as the bridge between ’90s teen pop and today’s version. But even then, the success of “With You” was hard-fought and there’s a lot of competition in her Rhythmic pop category now.
So it’s hard for an artist with nine to 14 years of history at Top 40 to get a fair hearing at that format. By comparison, it’s a lot easier for those artists to show up at Country than it is for, say, a Classic Rock artist in his late 50s or early 60s. And like the American Idol/Nashville Star alumni who also populate the Country charts at the moment, those artists are able to circumvent the lengthy set-up process, if only because of their familiarity among Country PDs, many of whom made their own move from Top 40 radio over the last decade.
At a different time, there would have been a certain amount of hand-wringing over the infusion of so many former pop acts. There is, seemingly, little this time. As Billboard’s Wade Jessen notes, Nashville — finally suffering from the same sales slump as everybody else — is less likely to turn its back on any potential new infusion of energy. Besides, the pop/Country continuum gets more confused all the time: these days, a wisdom-of-the-rustics lyric like “International Harvester” is the one most likely to be buttressed by power-chords. In a world where Country has incorporated Hip-Hop elements for several years, there may not be a lot of purists left.
In fact, the new pop-to-Country crossover acts are more conscious of making Country-sounding records than some Country-only acts. The Rucker album reportedly underwent some retooling for being too Country at first. And the intro of “Come On Over” has some traditional touches (in between the power-chords) that wouldn’t have been out of place on any uptempo ’70s Country hit.
That said, even when pop-to-Country crossover acts work hard to fit in, or write with established Country songwriters, there’s still a different quality to their records. “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” was one more of the format’s multitude of hits about home and hearth and yet it felt stronger, or perhaps just different, from much of its competition. Rucker has made no secret of his admiration for ’80s Country/Rock pioneers Foster & Lloyd and there’s a certain throwback in all these records to the late ’80s where a first round of rock-flavored acts like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Desert Rose Band, Kentucky Headhunters, and Foster & Lloyd were just about to have their sound codified into the slicker version that propelled the format in the early ’90s.
On the Top 40 side, the fast acceptance of the format’s refugees at Country should reinforce the need to maintain a stylistic balance, and perhaps the importance of not relinquishing custody of the acoustic sound. For all the recent surprise hits like Caillat’s “Bubbly” or Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song,” the Top 10 at CHR this week is still all Rhythmic pop. If the Jessica Simpson record becomes big enough at Country, crazier things could happen than for certain Top 40s to play it.
Besides their infusion of energy, one hopes that the quick traction of Jewel, Jessica and Darius might spur Country PDs to rethink just how long Country records by new artists really need to break. You can argue that the voices might be more familiar, but the real difference between a crossover artist (or an American Idol contestant) and any other new act is how quickly Country PDs become comfortable with them. (The potential downside is that fast-breaking songs go through the callout buzzsaw sooner, which ultimately hurt Jewel.)
As for the Country labels, the new transition artists are indeed providing a welcome infusion of energy. But you worry that former pop artists (or TV contestants) could be mistaken for a long-term A&R strategy. Ultimately, Country also needs its artists who look forward as well as back and sound like nothing we’ve ever heard on the radio.

19 replies
  1. Bob McNeill
    Bob McNeill says:

    I think you’ll find, through research, that Jewel, Jessica and Darrius may enjoy some success but will NEVER be accepted as “country” artists. Country listener put them in a separate category in their minds. In much the same way, in the AC format, listeners still refer to Faith and Martina as “country artists.” The country core may appreciate some of the songs but will not accept them as country. Country is unique. We are teetering on the brink of blurring the identity of the music in the format. Identity theft is a major problem for the country format. By the way, it’s happened before and nearly sank the format in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. It’s a 10 year cycle that always reverses itself just in time to stop the total loss of unique identity that is country music.

  2. Renee Revett
    Renee Revett says:

    Dear Sean,
    Reading this article I’m reminded of the first time I heard Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow. I was so pleasantly surprised to find the most country record I had heard in a very long time.
    The audience response was immediate. I am still amazed at how it transcended format and genre. For several weeks “Picture” played on almost every non-urban station on the dial.
    As always, I appreciate your observations.
    And while we can label or categorize forever, truly great music will find it’s way like cream rising to the top.

  3. Jim Stacy
    Jim Stacy says:

    Remember Achey Breaky Heart by Billy Ray Cyrus…I never wanted to play it on my CHR with a country competitor in the market. However it ended being one on my biggest records of the year on the station (WAZY Lafayette)..Jim Stacy

  4. Tony Benken
    Tony Benken says:

    So far country radio gives just about anyone with name-value from other formats a shot (that’s a pretty awesome trait!)…however, after the initial “curiousity” of the first single, then they have to prove themselves with great country songs…much like Renee states above. I’m not worried about aging pop stars taking up the country airwaves…it’s of interest for a flash, then it’s gone.
    By the way, Jim Stacy…not to hint to your age, but I listened to you growing up in West Lafayette!
    Tony Benken
    VP Promotion
    Robbins Nashville

  5. Beverlee Brannigan
    Beverlee Brannigan says:

    One trait of the country format is the ongoing discussion of what is…and isn’t… country. What belongs, what doesn’t. It’s been going on for decades. The fact that the discussion continues demonstrates that there is a critical mass of thought of what country IS…even if we, individually, may not be able to articulate it. The format does seem to continue to find sea level for itself, doesn’t it? It’ll take more than a tide of Top 40 artists to take country under. It’s too strong.

  6. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    And yet not a bit of airplay for such indispensible and still active pioneering greats as George Jones, Merle Haggard and Bill Anderson.
    Please let me know when REAL country is on the air again….

  7. John Shomby
    John Shomby says:

    Doesn’t matter who it is….if the song is good….the country audience will accept it..the song, that is!…for the artist to be accepted by the country audience, it will take years of those good songs. It’s as simple as that.

  8. Alana Lynn
    Alana Lynn says:

    I think something to keep in mind is the country audience that is slowly moving into that core demo were the ones listening to Jewel as they got ready for high school in the morning, they rocked out to Hootie at prom, and danced to Jessica before hitting up the frat parties. Being one of those people – I can say that you might be surprised at what the new country audience will accept. =)

  9. Rob Kelley
    Rob Kelley says:

    Focus, Focus, Focus is the key to all economic success. McDonalds has tried Pizza and even full service order by telephone dining in some of the markets I have worked in. It failed. Micky D’s is a decent fast food hamburger restaurant operator last time I checked. Bottom line, people come to your store for what you are good at and are known for. If it’s hamburgers, serve the best hamburger you can. Sure you can throw a McRib or Shamrock Shake on the air and it may see “some” curiosity interest for a short period of time. In the radio biz, we call those “mid-chart stiffs”. There are far more pop/country failures than Nettles/BonJovi hits. Our best customers(P1s)eat burgers 2-3 times a week and participate in our local research. Only with few exceptions have they liked overly Pop sounding product. More often it is at the bottom of the test. I would take a clue from Starbucks, who pulled their brand new breakfast ovens out of their stores because the smell of sandwiches covered up the smell of the coffee and make sure something else doesn’t allow you to lose the smell of Country at your station.
    BTW: Jim Stacy thanks for the gig in Lafayette in ’90

  10. Jason Steiner
    Jason Steiner says:

    When these artists hit Hot AC over a decade ago there was genuine excitement. While there might be some initial curiosity and novelty, that same buzz will not be re-created on country radio.
    The songs are decent, it won’t hurt country to spin them, but there is a danger of playing too many of them (or too many reality TV contestants for that matter). To the more fickle Hot AC audience these artists are yesterdays news. It won’t hurt Hot AC at all for country to play their former core artists.
    Of course this isn’t the first time pop artists have gone country. Let’s go back to 1977. Tom Jones had a #1 country hit (and top 15 pop hit) with “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow”. The difference is that was truly a country song.It had great appeal to the core country audience.That’s the key, having great songs..the initial novelty will wear off quickly otherwise.

  11. George
    George says:

    I agree with John Shomby: the real story of country music is SONGS.
    I also think we’re nearing the end of traditional music formats as we’ve known them since the 70s. I think the next generation of radio will be variations on cross-formats, aiming at various demos. Country and urban may be among the last to fall, but most country audiences know rock and pop music. That wasn’t the case 30 years ago.

  12. D.C. Carter
    D.C. Carter says:

    While I think that having Pop/Rock artists crossover tends to water down Country stations, it does seem to be inevitable — as the next turn in the cycle.
    As has been pointed out above, this has happened before and it will happen again. The format will endure and — here’s the exciting part — be better for it. If my memory is correct, the “pop crossover” era is usually followed by the “County returns to its roots” era and that could mean fresh traditional-sounding artists and songs. That is when the format is at its best and I look forward to that happening again.

  13. Santo Bentivegna, Jr.
    Santo Bentivegna, Jr. says:

    I’m not in the radio business, but I am a big music fan and do follow what’s happening in Country music today in particular. So, as a listener, here’s my 2 cents. I’m the kid born in 1960 who grew up listening to AM Top 40 radio and Casey Kasem, discovered FM radio as a teenager and then became disillusioned by the late 80s – early 90s when the Pop/Rock music I listened to all but disappeared from radio. You know the kind of music I’m talking about – songs with great lyrics, melodies, harmonies and more than one chord. I started searching for this type of music and guess where I found it? Country Radio! The only difference between what I grew up listening to (Pop/Rock) and what is now being played on Country radio (Country Pop) is that there may be a fiddle, banjo, dobro or steel guitar in the song, along with the occasional twang in the singer’s voice. But, does that necessarily make it a Country song? I don’t think so. It’s the same style of music that was being played on Pop/Rock stations back in the 70s and 80s. The purists can fight over what is and what isn’t Country music. I just know what I like and I’ll search the airwaves to find it…on whatever station is playing it. A by-product of my searching for the music I love is that I discovered the great Country artists of the past decades. However, you can’t find them on the radio anymore either. So sad. PDs shouldn’t be afraid to play crossover artists or Classic Country artists from time to time. We, the listeners, will let you know whether or not we like it. A great song is a great song, no matter what label you slap on it.

  14. Chuck Geiger
    Chuck Geiger says:

    Here we go again…POP GOES OUR COUNTRY and the purists will be up in arms. Jewel, Kid Rock, Darrius Rucker (Hootie and The Blowfish) and Jessica Simpson all have what looks at this time, like impactual songs.
    When Shania Twain, Lonestar and Faith Hill went pop, it helped Country in the 1990’s. The same will happen when the reverse happens. The awesome Sean Ross talked about thisin detail on his Edison Media blog and RJ Curtiss of R&R talked about it in his weekly email. Sean mentioned these releases have moved faster on the charts than the normally slow as molasses releases that bubble for months with little to no movement.
    Successful and forward thinking programmers look for these songs without hesitation. When Mike Krinik programmed WGGY Wilkes-Bare/Scranton we talked a lot about these songs when I was down the Turnpike in Allentown. We used these songs to much success at WCTO in the early 2000’s. Songs like Picture and Uncle Kracker’s Drift Away were chances, but worked. Bob Mc Neil of The Wolf in Sacramento talked with RJ and on Sean’s blog states these artists will never be accepted as Country artists.
    I don’t think that is the intention of the release of these songs. Shania Twain really wasn’t accepted as an AC or CHR artist. John Shomby echoes my sentiment: If it’s a good song, the audience will respond to it. Jessica Simpson’s song is a good song, so is Rucker. These songs mesh well with the other titles we’re playing. We’ve had round one with Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Faith Hill (later years). The purists hate these artists and they drive the format. We now have another stable of cross-over artists that will enhance the Country stable. To Jewel, Darrius, Kid and Jessica, welcome and take off your shoes and sit a spell!

  15. Mike J
    Mike J says:

    I’ve programmed country successfully in medium & major markets. I now run a cluster of AC, modern AC, classic rock, and Alternative. My promotion director is a young 30, he’s a big guy all tatted up and a big death metal and Alternative fan. He was blasting some tunes form his I-Pod in the station vehicle the other day, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe, & Johnny Cash. I asked him what the hell he was listening to? He said “those are my boys”. Explaining that he grew up with Country and loved the “bad a*sess like Waylon. I asked him if he liked any country artists now, he basically laughed and said hell no, calling it “mall music”.
    Just realize the lack of authentic artists will eventually create a lot of problems for Country. It seems to be already a dumping ground for every has-been pop-rock artist, thus diluting the format even further. Dismiss this if you like, but to many-Country is a thing of the past.

  16. bill hagy
    bill hagy says:

    I would agree …It is about the song over the artist…but the point I would make here is, if programmers are paying attention, the audience will flat out tell you what(and who) they are willing to accept.

  17. Jimi B
    Jimi B says:

    Truth you speak Sean! However, what is also worth watching is whether Rissi Palmer, the first Black female Country artiste in years will be embraced by the Country format across the “country”, like, is there a place for her in the Nashville world down yonder? Would they propell her to the front at all? Or is it best she do the “export” thing..?

  18. Anita
    Anita says:

    There is a wave passing through country radio that smells vaguely familiar to the early 70’s when Linda Rhonstadt and James Taylor swapped back and forth between Top 40 and country. Now many of the programmers are taking heed of ‘classic country’ listeners and including traditional country from the pioneers (Cash, Jennings, Anderson, Cline, Reed, Wynette) on specialty shows. I agree that country radio has room for the crossover acts. I only wish PD/MD’s would play more regional music and stop wearing out the ‘new hits’.

  19. souprecipes
    souprecipes says:

    Great article, good food for though! Personally, i think that if a song is good, eventually, people will like it, whoever sings it. It might take more time, but in the end, if the lyrics and the song are good, i personally don’t mind who is cooking dinner 🙂


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