March 24, 2016
I once had a General Manager who claimed that when just the right combination of liquid refreshment, external environment, and good friends coagulated precisely, his alter ego would emerge – transforming him into a character he called Mike Tyson. No, he didn’t beat, bite, or bully anybody, but his confidence and swagger definitely – and humorously – increased in size and volume. Unlike the actual Mike Tyson at his worst, my GM’s version was entertaining, and fun as hell to be around; a persona whose posse we, as his direct reports, would willingly join anywhere, any time.
I bring up the concept of “the other I,” or “second self,” because we’re witnessing a high-tech, 21st century, social media-driven rendition of this, with the launch of Wheelhouse Records’ Granger Smith, who has introduced us to his alter ego, Earl Dibbles, Jr.
Or, is it the other way around?
Smith’s breakout success – a debut #1 single with “Backroad Song” and promising follow up, “If The Boot Fits” – is really a chicken or egg conversation. Granger had been grinding away at a legit music career in real time on a regional basis, working the Texas club scene for years – and we know how that usually works out. So, being of the digital generation, he realized a viral moment or two can change the game quickly. As he told All Access’ Briana Galluccio in her excellent “10 Questions” feature earlier this week, “We capitalized on social media as being the #1 go-to for us to find fans, better than touring. Because we were playing venues with a 100 people here, 150 people there, 75 people here; at that rate, it was almost impossible to grow a career, so we thought, ‘we'll dive into social media.’”
Granger is the mainstream, handsome, refined, and talented prototypical Country artist we’ve come to expect from the format. Earl Dibbles Jr. – if you haven’t seen him yet – is none of the above. Earl is rough around the edges, and everywhere else for that matter; completely over the top, and yet so real, that even if the most corn-pone, down home hick is completely indigestible to you, Earl is still – inexplicably – difficult, if not impossible, to dislike.
Maybe that explains millions of views for the vast catalogue of Earl Dibbles, Jr. videos. Apparently, rabbit hole-diving internet fans are willingly in on the joke and keep drinking it up by the gallon. The sheer volume of traffic in that realm helped served as music discovery for Earl’s alter ego – Granger – which captured the attention of BBR Music Group EVP Jon Loba. This kind of built-in, ready-made familiarity can help increase the odds of what Loba recently described to me as “the million dollar gamble” usually taken on new acts. As we now know, Loba and BBR owner Bennie Brown ultimately signed Granger as the anchor artist for the group’s newly launched fourth imprint, Wheelhouse Records, with Earl Dibbles, Jr. a welcome, added sidekick to straight-man, Smith. That’s how it’s done here in 2016, I guess, and – for Smith, anyway – it was a helluva lot more effective and surgical than the standard kick-ass showcase in a Texas honky tonk.
Some will marvel at all that, but what Smith/Dibbles, Jr. have done here is actually a digitally enhanced variation on a theme. The “second self” for artists in music has been happening for years, but more frequently in Pop music with The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” Prince’s “Camille,” Eminem’s “Slim Shady,” and Beyonce’s “Sasha Fierce,” to name a few.
We haven’t seen a ton of alter egos in Country, although two examples go back decades – starting with one of the all-time icons of the genre, Hank Williams, Sr. who employed it with “Luke The Drifter.” Maybe Luke’s religious, preachy, do-gooder music and persona was what the not-so-good Hank aspired to be. Williams perpetuated “Luke The Drifter” via his music and an album released after his death in 1953. Lord only knows how that would have flown in today’s Facebook, YouTube environment.
Additionally, fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Ferlin Husky, a contemporary of Williams’, originally developed a character named Simon Crum during his days in radio. Husky stuck with Crum as he became a full-time recording artist, and the two were often interchangeable during live shows – which is also the case with Granger Smith and Earl Dibbles, Jr. But while Dibbles, Jr. has a few featured cuts on Smith’s Wheelhouse debut, “Remington,” Crum had his own label deal on Capitol Records, releasing “The Unpredictable Simon Crum” in 1963. Of course, arguably the most famous alter ego associated with our format is Garth Brooks’ “Chris Gaines,” an album which was part of a movie project featuring the character, but that never got off the ground, largely due to the public’s rejection of Gaines. And here again – in my opinion – is another chicken or the egg conversation.
Most people were aware of the movie component only after the music was announced and subsequently released. So, you had Garth Brooks – deep into an established, wildly successful career – announcing a Pop album – as a totally different character. The Pop album in itself would not have been shocking nor unwelcome, as so many people had speculated how long it might be before Brooks tried that format on for size – and conquered it. Remember: When the album “Ropin’ the Wind” was released and “Shameless” was released as a single, even then – 1991 for God’s sake – there were skeptics screaming Brooks was plotting his Pop crossover all along. This conspiracy theory, even as “Ropin’” contained Country-themed songs like “Rodeo,” “Papa Love Mama,” and “We Bury the Hatchet.”
No, a Pop album for Garth, especially in the late 90s when the Country format – and he – had cooled somewhat would not be a stretch. But why do it as another dude entirely? And a pretty strange dude, at that. Brooks sported a dramatically different look for the Gaines character. The album art was pretty over-the-top – does anybody remember that leotard shot? Also, the promotion included an episode of the then-popular, highly rated VH1 show, “Behind the Music,” which I remember being excruciatingly awkward and uncomfortable to watch, as his character admitted to a sex addiction in the all-too-familiar, just like clockwork middle segment of the show, where the acts hit rock bottom in their career – only to rebound triumphantly at about the :40 mark.
The Garth train and his own, well-established character/persona development was too far down the tracks for programmers and fans to accept anything different. Garth was all-American and God-fearing, openly worshipping his two Georges – Jones and Strait. He took his hat off at the mere mention of their names. He said ma’am and sir a lot. This Chris Gaines fella? Fans just weren’t having any of it. The imaging and marketing superseded the Chris Gaines music, which is too bad really, because when heard on its own, it’s a pretty damned good Pop album. I thought it was a significant statement that when seeing Don Henley at the Ryman Auditorium last year, in a show featuring nearly all of his brilliant “Cass Country” album, just one Eagles song, and a handful of covers, one of them was “It Don’t Matter To The Sun,” from the Gaines project. That’s pretty strong praise right there.
Conversely, I think the idea of two, concurrent identities can work for Granger Smith. He and Earl Dibbles, Jr. are so brand new to most people – radio, fans, media – that we’re all getting to know both of them at the same time. For longtime – dare I say it – old school programmers and format vets, this concept of duality flies in the face of conventional wisdom. “Isn’t that confusing?” “Won’t Earl stunt the Granger artist growth – or vice versa?” Personally, for decades now I’ve been totally ok with the whole alter-ego thing, being a Spiderman-Peter Parker fan and all. But, I digress.
Apparently, newly minted Smith/Dibbles, Jr. fans aren’t confused at all. As I said earlier, the Dibbles, Jr. fans are A-Okay with Smith, and from what I am hearing about the live shows, the fans – mostly younger – are all-in and totally “get” Dibbles, Jr. sharing the stage. As Smith explained to All Access this week, “We have a strategy, and the fact that Earl has more [social media] followers is intentional. So I'm thankful every day to have Earl; to have him as kind of the ambassador that can go out and recruit for us. Because it ultimately reflects back to Granger, and it's part of the live show. I don't worry ever about any kind of overshadowing. In fact, I'm just grateful that we have it at all.”
That not only tells me Smith is damned smart, but it may be another example of how these things are generational – with millennials better equipped to multi-task on every level imaginable – similar to how younger music fans don’t put music into silos and categories, but rather, one big playlist of songs they like. A show starts with a polished, slick, buttoned down Granger Smith, and ends with some hot mess of a redneck in beat up overalls, with a wad of chew singing “’Merica?” Bring it on, baby!
This whole one-guy, two identity concept may be hard for some of us non-millennials to fully grasp, so here’s a thought: when you go to a Granger Smith/Earl Dibbles, Jr show, bring along your long-lost, imaginary childhood friend. Surely you had one? And surely, he or she will understand what’s happening.