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Alan Jackson helps country rediscover its relevance with song

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At last month's Country Music Associa-tion Awards, Alan Jackson sang a new song about the ordinary man's reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It was the most important moment for country music in 2001 because it showed that the format is still relevant.

''Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble and sob for the ones left below?/ Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue/ And the heroes who died just doin' what they do?'' Jackson sang to a hushed audience in the Grand Ole Opry House. ''Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer?/ And look at yourself and what really matters?''

On that night, the voice of the people belonged to Nashville.

''The only pop star I can think of who could do that would be Bruce Springsteen,'' said Nashville music executive Tony Brown.

''If you do Record Business 101, you should not do a song that no one has ever heard on the CMA (Awards) show,'' he said. ''You should do your new single and get some sales. But Alan got up there and did it, and it was one of those powerful moments.''

Jackson's performance was the peak of a year in country music when bluegrass boomed while firings continued to hit the industry, fueled by consolidation and five years of declining or flat sales.

Several record companies closed their doors, including Atlantic, Asylum and Virgin. The mood was further darkened by the deaths of performers John Hartford and Johnny Russell, and industry giant Chet Atkins.

''At the lowest point, I wondered if I was seeing what happened to vaudeville and the big bands happening to country,'' said songwriter Bob DiPiero. ''Country music is really about the present, and I worried it was just going to be a nostalgia thing.

''I thought, 'Are we just going to end up being a footnote of American popular music?'''

2001 may prove to be the year Nashville turned it around. Early reports indicate country music sales may rise by 5 percent over 2000, while the music industry as a whole declined. A new Garth Brooks album in time for Christmas was a late boost.

There may be a lesson to be learned in Jackson's triumph, said Brown, a longtime MCA Records executive. He'll launch a new country record label next year with the backing of Universal and in partnership with ex-Arista Records head Tim DuBois.

''It's proof that a great song, a great artist, a great performance still works,'' he said. ''It's proof that sometimes you have to take a risk.''

Jackson's ''Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)'' immediately started climbing the charts, at first in a version lifted by radio stations from the awards show broadcast. RCA is rushing to release a new Jackson album in January.

There are other healthy signs. The mountain music-bluegrass-gospel soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film ''O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' sold more than 3 million. Two promising young artists -- Blake Shelton and Cyndi Thomson -- caused a stir. And veteran singer David Ball scored a major hit with story-song ''Riding With Private Malone'' on small independent Dualtone Records after he was dropped by Warner Bros.

That proved a good song can still compete for radio play in a system that favors major labels and their promotional money.

''It doesn't matter what label ('Riding With Private Malone') is on,'' said Mike Brophey, program director of WKLB in Boston. ''A great song is a great song.''

The downside remains the same. Because of its inability to promote young talented performers into lasting stardom, country continues to rely heavily on Jackson, Brooks, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Shania Twain.

While Twain and Hill were mostly out of sight because of their pregnancies, most of the other veterans delivered fresh, compelling music.

''It's great to have Garth back and with some terrific songs,'' Brophey said. ''Alan Jackson is going through the roof with his new song, and Brooks & Dunn came back with new music that is stellar. Sara Evans, Jo Dee Messina, Jamie O'Neal, Martina McBride -- the format is putting out some very interesting music right now.''

More star power is needed, said Brown. ''We don't need hits sung by artists that are just OK. We've got to find some artists that have depth.''

In a time of falling sales, it has gotten more expensive to launch new acts, said DuBois, which has led to consolidation at the record labels.

''I remember 12 years ago when we started Arista (Nashville), we used to allocate $250,000 to break a new act,'' he said. ''It's literally three times that now. I'm not saying $750,000 to succeed. That's just to ante up to play the game.''

Consolidation has its benefits, said DiPiero, who's written hits such as ''Blue Clear Sky'' (George Strait) and owns the Love Monkey song publishing company.

''Yes, there were a lot of people hurt who lost their jobs,'' he said. ''I don't really think those people will have new jobs, because we will be much more thoughtful about how we grow this business.

''But some of that middle management layer went away. Personally, I feel that's where a lot of the bottlenecks happened, with those assistants who say no to anything out of the ordinary in order to protect their jobs.''

Leaner management willing to take chances gives the industry a better chance to find the next Brooks or Twain, Brown said.

''The wonderful thing about our business is, when you find the right artist, it all works. ... When you have that magical three-minute record, you almost can't hold it back.

''It makes everybody look like a genius.''



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