Who's Willing To 'Take The Keys?'
January 9, 2014
Polar Vortex? Hey, your 15 minutes of fame is already over. And lord knows Kraft can certainly make more Velveeta cheese, ending an alarming worldwide shortage of the gooey stuff which may or may not be actual cheese anyway.
Those aren't our problems in 2014! I'm here to talk about serious, difficult-to-solve issues facing the Country music industry.
Specifically, the female conundrum.
Why the hell can't we break a new act of that gender, when there seems to be no shortage of new and talented ladies making exciting music? Sure, we have the usual, big three female suspects available to us -- specifically Carrie, Taylor and Miranda, all of whom don't seem to be going anywhere soon, thank goodness. But eventually the torch has to be passed or at least shared. This year, will it be to the likes of Leah Turner, Lindsay Ell, Cassadee Pope, Kacey Musgraves, Danielle Bradbury, Kelleigh Bannen, Sheryl Crow or who knows who?
Hey PDs and MDs: If you're so sick of "Bro-Country," why not help a sister out?
The format has seemingly never been stronger and yes, I mean even compared to the early-'90s surge, because I believe our current music condition is deeper, wider and more diverse than the so-called "Garth era." That makes the mainstream popularity we've recently experienced potentially more sustainable -- the key word here being, "potentially."
Without developing a strong core of up-and-coming female artists with appeal to younger fans rapidly discovering Country music, we're like a football team with a lousy kicker or a baseball team lacking a solid closer. It's the soft spot in our game; an Achilles heel destined to hold us back, long-term.
Empire Broadcasting's KRTY/San Jose GM/MD Nate Deaton acknowledges the female challenge, reasoning, "I think it has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy." But Deaton also says that after sufficient rumbling and noise about it, "Those of us in radio have to say, 'wait a minute, we need some female voices on the air'." Deaton went on to forecast, "2014 is the year we see that change; I think it's time we see mainstream females move up the chart again."
Alpha Broadcasting KUPL/Portland MD/afternoon personality B-Dub theorized one factor holding back the ladies: "The hit songs have been written from a male perspective. I couldn't see a female singing songs like 'Night Train' or 'Cruise,' because they wouldn't translate well. On the other hand, I couldn't see a dude singing [Cassadee Pope's] 'Wasting All These Tears.'"
Maybe the hit song pendulum will shift in favor of females for 2014.
"It could be a good year for females if the songs are there; they have to be hits," advises B-Dub, who doesn't discriminate, saying "I don't care if it's a male, female or group, I just want hits."
In addition to wondering aloud to the receiving end of the musical food chain, I sought out people deeply involved in the creative process.
CMA, ACM and Grammy Award-winning producer Michael Knox told me in an All Access "10 Questions" feature, set to run next week, he also feels the void. "It's definitely something we need and are missing in the format." And he shared what often happens during the music-making process: "It's funny; a male artist can take a lot of chances, but when I cut a female with attitude or southern roots like a male might have, they always want me to make them more pop sounding. The only ones that get the shot sure do sound a lot like each other."
If that's true, we're destined to blow our feet off. Part of what doomed our momentum in the mid-late '90s was getting music that was a knock-off ... of a knock-off ... of a knock-off of what originally worked.
"The tone of my voice is distinctive and that's a potential advantage for me." That's Columbia Nashville's Leah Turner, whose debut single, "Take The Keys" currently sits at #38 on the Mediabase singles chart.
Turner's single is an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners vocal performance that perfectly illustrates her belief that for any female to cut through, "You have to be able to stand out; to know who you are as an artist and have something to say." And what you have to say should touch both guys and girls on an emotional level, adds Turner. "The girls have to want to be you, but still drink a beer with you. The guys have to want to take you out and still drink a beer with you. You have to find that happy medium of being a guy's girl but not threatening to the women, so they want to be your best friend."
Though she's new to the music business, Turner understands brand development on several levels. "Every song you pick and everything you say hones in on becoming a lifestyle. You know Miranda [Lambert] is a helluva singer, cute as can be but will still kick your ass. Know who you are and brand yourself in order to set yourself apart. That's what I'm trying to do."
That's not media training talking, but an artist who truly does know herself and always has. Turner was a student at UC Santa Barbara in California when Kenny Loggins saw her perform and hooked her up with famed pop producers David Foster and Humberto Gatica.
"The finished product was awesome," recalls Turner. "But I remember calling my dad and crying because I'm not Barbara Streisand or Michael Buble. From then on, I had to focus on my roots. They've always been Country; my dad is a cowboy; when you don't feel settled in your gut -- and I didn't -- you know it."
Hopefully, the Class of 2014 ladies is all like Turner, with a strong self-awareness and something to say. Maybe Nate Deaton's prediction will come true and females will dominate the charts. Perhaps B-Dub is right, too, that the hit songs will come from a female perspective this year. And let's also hope everybody simply leaves Michael Knox alone, to work his studio magic with any female act he produces this year.
And for gawd's sakes, radio, let's at least step out and give the girls a shot this year. Sheesh!