Originally published in the October 28, 1997 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Story by Richard Haydan and Catharine Rambeau
Their names come up in any argument about the greatest country singer of all time: George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton.
These legends of country music are part of a generation that’s still recording — and earning critical praise for their new music. Fans still flock to their concerts. So why can’t you hear their new songs on mainstream country radio?
It’s a sore subject for both the artists and country radio stations, with fighting words exchanged on both sides. It’s also a hot topic for COUNTRY WEEKLY readers, who fill our mailbox with letters wondering why they can hear old songs from their all-time favorite artists, but not their new songs. (To let your voice be heard on the subject, see the clip-out reader poll on page 24).
The artists’ reactions range from resignation to fist-shaking anger. They accuse country radio stations, and the consultants who help program them, of locking them out without reason.
Count Charlie Daniels among the angry. “The foundation, the roots of this great heritage, country music, are being totally ignored by a bunch of people who don’t care if country music goes down the toilet,” says Charlie, whose recent single “Long Haired Country Boy” earned a Country Music Association nomination as Vocal Event of the Year, but little radio play.
“I can’t imagine a time when radio wouldn’t play a Garth Brooks or a Reba McEntire or a Vince Gill, but there was a time when I couldn’t imagine them not playing a George Jones or a Merle Haggard,” says Charlie. “It’s time to get control of the music out of the hands of people who don’t care and into the hands of people who do.”
Even relatively young artists such as Hank Williams Jr., Barbara Mandrell and Ricky Van Shelton suddenly find themselves relegated to oldies-only airplay.
Too many consultants stir the radio pot, gripes Hank, who still packs auditoriums, but hasn’t had a Top 10 hit since 1990’s “Good Friends, Good Whiskey, Good Lovin’.”
“I’ve heard things like, ‘Well, we’ve checked with the consultants, and they don’t like this and they don’t like that.’ I hope country music doesn’t turn into a consulting business, but it kind of already has,” he says.
Country radio programmers respond that they’re giving country fans what they want. Sure, they say, it’s tougher for legendary artists to get on the air, but it’s tougher for everyone. Country’s popularity increased the number of acts, leading to more records and more competition to get on the air.
And, they suggest, the older artists’ music just isn’t good enough to make the cut.
“We don’t really have an agenda except to play the best of the best,” says CMA board member Dene Hallam, who’s vice president of programming for KKBQ, an AM/FM simulcast pair of stations in Houston. “I don’t think there’s a built-in prejudice against age. I think that’s being paranoid.”
“If any of the older artists release new material and the songs are good, we’ll absolutely play them,” says Kerry Wolfe, operations manager for WMIL-FM, which serves the Milwaukee market.
“It doesn’t matter who the artist is ‑‑ what matters is how he delivers the song, and the production of the song. If Johnny PayCheck cut ‘Friends in Low Places’ and did it well as Garth, you’re damn right we’d play it. “
Yet, Wolfe adds, the bulk of his audience is more interested in fresh faces.
“I’m in the business to play the songs that my audience wants to hear,” he says. “We program for an 25‑ to 54-year-old audience. Our programming is based on supply and demand, and the research shows us that our audience isn’t into the older guys ‑‑ as much as I love them, I’ve got to take care of my audience.”
Radio is a bottleneck, Hallam admits. “The problem is there’s only 60 minutes in an hour and there are only so many songs you can play. We get pressure from record companies to play everything, and with 25-plus record companies in Nashville and hundreds of artists, it’s impossible. So we have to act as gatekeepers.
“If we haven’t played it, it’s because it wasn’t in our opinion as good as what else is being produced. My problem with some of the artists is when they go on national television or in magazines essentially whining about not getting on country radio. You don’t really see rock artists do that. They either bow out gracefully or they step up to the plate with relevant material for today.”
The artists don’t buy that. There’s more to it than a simple battle of the bands, they say.
“If Randy Travis had come to Nashville last month, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a record deal,” George Jones writes in his autobiography, I Lived To Tell It All. “He’s too good and too original. And he doesn’t wear a cowboy hat or pimple cream.
“The songs of Hank, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and a few others will live forever. Yet, those artists can’t even get airplay. I worry about the future of a country music community that has no respect for its history. There has never been a time when country radio was so disrespectful of its elders. I’m saddened.”
Charlie Daniels recalls a recent interview at a radio station: “The DJ put something on and a guy came in and said, ‘Don’t play that! You want us to sound old?’ Look, I’m 60 years old, but my music ain’t.”
When Willie Nelson released his album Spirit last year, he was so eager to have it played that he personally delivered it to a small-town Arkansas radio station that hadn’t received it.
“I know I have to watch out for some of those new flat-bellied guys,” Willie says. But, he adds, “Some of us just won’t go away — me, Merle, Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver and Hank Williams Jr.”
Johnny Cash enjoyed one of his most critically acclaimed albums in years with 1994’s American Recordings, but it had little country airplay.
“There is no question that Johnny has felt — as George Jones so succinctly put it — ‘As soon as you’re over 40, they stop playing your music,’ ” says Johnny’s manager, Lou Robin of Artist Consultants Productions in Los Angeles. “And obviously it doesn’t matter what the quality is. All radio stations are trying to outdo each other to see how quickly they can play some new person’s music, whose name you’ve forgotten a week later.”
“I don’t know why there’s discrimination against older guys,” says Waylon Jennings. “They say ‘young country’ and things like that, but I don’t know what age has to do with music. They’ll say that anything I say is like sour grapes, but that’s not true because, hell, if I never sell another record or have another record, I’m fine. I love music and I would love to keep playing music and I will. Radio controls the charts and nothing else.”
Merle’s disgust with country radio — and its influence on country music — is so extreme he doesn’t listen to it.
“There’s no soul in it anymore. I listen to rock ‘n’ roll because that’s where I get chills on my back. On country stations, what are they singing about — air?”
Johnny PayCheck sees an age conspiracy at work. “Somewhere along the way, the people that own the stations and the program directors made the decision that young people are not smart enough to know if they liked the older artists like me and Merle and George or not. And they made the decision for them: ‘Anyone over 25, we don’t want to hear about them.’
“Myself and Merle, we sell out concerts and play for thousands of people. They all say the same thing: They wish they could hear us on radio. And we have to say, ‘I wish you could, too.’ “
Age has nothing to do with airplay, counters Ed Salamon, president of programming at Westwood One Radio Networks and president of Country Radio Broadcasters.
“There are a lot of artists in country music that have had an extremely long careers,” he says. “George Strait, Reba McEntire and Alabama have all been on the charts for about 20 years. That’s an awfully long career span.
“I go back in country radio longer than 20 years, and at that time there were many fewer artists and many fewer record companies and much less product, so because there are more artists, more record companies and more product, it is more difficult to get product on the radio for everyone.
“It really raises the bar for a lot of the older acts. The ones like Reba, George and Alabama can continue delivering music like the public wants and stay in it for 20 years. And other artists that don’t, don’t.”
Some legendary acts survive, and even thrive, without country radio. Hank Jr. continues to be a major draw on tour, thanks to both his music and his persona.
“It’s really amazing to me whenever we’re in the top box-office gross and the top this and top that — a guy like me, who is not exactly all over the radio charts anymore,” Hank says.
“I have a fan base, and that fan base is always there and always expanding for the last few years. I think that a big part of why my fans are so loyal to my music and live shows is because a lot of them think about me whenever they’re working 9 to 5, and they say, ‘He’s not all over TV or country radio all the time. So Hank’s probably out fishing right now. Or he’s out hunting.’ They know from my songs that I mean what I’m singing about.”
Kenny Rogers managed to make a dent in the country album sales charts with his Vote for Love album last year. He marketed it directly to the public via the QVC home-shopping channel.
“We sold 100,000 copies. What we did is establish that there is a market out there and people will buy what we do,” he says.
“Radio is a business, not an art form,” he says. “I’m not going to beg them to play me.
“When I was really hot, I used to say, ‘Those who can compete, do. Those who can’t bitch.’ I’m not going to bitch. I’m going to do something else and see what happens.”
The Bellamy Brothers went one step further. They carefully cultivated their international audience and then established their own record company.
“We got around the lack of mainstream airplay by becoming popular in Europe, New Zealand and Australia,” Howard Bellamy says. “It was a way for us to survive the drought when some other artists couldn’t. We were able to sell a lot of records and launch our own label because we had income from other sources.”
“You’d be surprised at how many of the major acts have talked to us and asked how to do what we’re doing,” David Bellamy adds. “We’ve actually advised several of them, but it’s not an easy thing to do. Since we began, my golf game has gone to hell and I haven’t seen the beach house in two years. But now we have nine albums on our label.”
The Florida-based brothers take aim at the consultants who help program the approximately 300 radio stations whose playlists are used to create the country charts. “What it amounts to is that a handful of people govern what people all over the country listen to,” Howard says.
Holly Dunn’s in the unique position of being both a recording artist and a radio disc jockey. Earlier this year, after a third straight album failed to get radio support, she accepted an offer to join the staff of Detroit country station WWWW.
“To me, it’s so odd that all of my generation and this new generation say that our influences were Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon, but those people can’t get arrested on contemporary country radio,” she says.
She hasn’t gotten used to being in the same group. “I know it’s not personal, it’s cyclical and it happens to everyone. I just feel that for me, the end was premature,” says the “Daddy’s Hands” singer, who had nine Top 10 hits from 1986 to 1990.
After so much success, she says, “it’s very frustrating when your work isn’t played on radio. You put in hundreds of hours of work, and you involve all these other people and all these musicians and they spend hours and hours on it. And then it goes to radio and sits there like a coaster on somebody’s desk. It makes you want to scream.”
Welcome to the club, says Dolly, whose last No. 1 hit came in 1991. “I still have a desire to have hit records. Music is my gut, my heart and my soul. It’s about the music. It’s about the gift God gave me. It’s something I have to do.
“I’m very, very proud of the new country people. I don’t begrudge them one bit of their success. I just wish there was room for some of us older folks who are still very serious about our music and can make good records.”