Sign ‘O’ The Times
April 22, 2016
It’s only April, but I think everybody agrees: 2016 has already been a memorable, painful year, in that it keeps snatching away our music icons far too early, ripping apart our youth and innocence in the process.
Bowie, Frey, Haggard – and now Prince. Each of these guys has a powerful, emotional hold on various demos, because they made an indelible impact during the most music intensive years – usually between 12 and 19 or so. As I’ve written about here previously – and all too recently – Frey’s passing signaled a definitive end to my mid-teens. Haggard’s death closed the book on early adulthood, and my discovery of a totally different artist and genre I’d never been exposed to, or had much interest in, before I was unexpectedly flung deep into Country music.
All due respect to the other tragic and untimely passing in 2016, but we can probably also agree that Prince occupies a different, more elevated pop culture status. Think Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. In the first hours after his passing, everybody you met – no matter how well you knew them – was talking about it. I was at an event, waiting for a drink, when a Prince song on the jukebox triggered a micro-conversation with a perfect stranger about Prince, his music, and each of our personal experiences with it. We got our beers and went separate ways in a matter of minutes. Naturally, social media led the way as the story quickly blew up, and in no time, it seemed like everybody’s profile pic on Facebook was just a purple backdrop. I was in three different public establishments later in the day – all I heard was Prince songs.
On the surface, beyond the big announcement of his death, there’s not a lot there for Country radio, right? Prince was about as far away from our format as anybody could be, except perhaps, the biggest Pop star on a planet not in our galaxy. When Haggard died, it was a special-announcement kind of event for Country radio, one tinged with profound sadness. He was in his late 70s; he’d been ill for months and cancelling shows. It had been decades since he was a regularly played artist on the radio, and most listeners and programmers are not of the generation heavily impacted by his music. And, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it was challenging to play Haggard music – even on Country radio – as his greatest, signature work is sonically and thematically counter-intuitive to the current expectations for Country listeners.
Prince elicited a somewhat surprising avalanche of emotion and feedback among Country broadcasters and artists. Twitter blew up with reaction from numerous artists, both young and established. That’s because more of them were in or at least near that 12-19 music-intensive period in their life when Prince was the world’s biggest Pop star. Say you were at the young end of that age spectrum when his “Purple Rain” album was released in June of 1984. The album – as if I need to remind anybody – had three of his most famous songs, ones that helped define the 80s: “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the Oscar-winning “Purple Rain.” That makes you 12 then, and 44 now. But even younger people were heavily touched by the news, and that’s because Prince’s greatest, most famous music was not frozen in the 80s or 90s, but continued to sound fresh, edgy, and – well, wildly popular – long after its life as current music.
Case in point: when the news broke, I was on the phone with WNCY/Green Bay, WI MD/morning star Charli McKenzie. We were chatting away when she suddenly screamed out loud, “Oh my god! Prince is dead! TMZ says so – it must be true!” And, so it was, but the shock and awe in Charli’s voice was palpable. Without revealing – or knowing – her age, I know Charlie is younger than 44, but she still grew up a Prince fan.
In the past 24 hours, we’ve seen tons of postings with Darius Rucker performing “Purple Rain” in concert. Rucker has been covering that for years, and of all the artists who perform it – Country or other genres – he might have the best feel for it, with the exception of someone else I found on YouTube who covered it: the incomparable Etta James, of all people. She absolutely killed it. Country artist James Otto posted his version, too. Excellent. Heartfelt. Over the years, I have seen a ton of Country artists cover “Purple Rain” in live shows – or, should I say, TRY to cover it. I get it’s a huge, famous song, but it seems awfully hard to sing – and frankly, out of most Country artists’ vocal wheelhouse, save Rucker. LeAnn Rimes covered it on her 1998 “Sittin’ On Top of The World” album – not her finest work, in my opinion.
During his afternoon show on KYGO/Denver, I saw this Facebook post from Brian Hatfield, directed at listeners, I assumed: “Sorry gang, we are a Country radio station ... no Prince here. I will, however, talk about it, not play the music.” And that seems perfectly reasonable, right? Well, not for WJVC/Nassau, NY PD/morning man Phathead, addressing most all other jocks and/or PDs who – instinctually – didn’t and won’t play Prince on their Country stations.
“No disrespect to those guys, they’re all good at what they do,” said Phathead. “Not that it’s life changing or anything – it’s not going to change their day-to-day activities. But I think they missed the boat.” Phathead played five songs from Prince on today’s (4/22) morning show – as in, five-in-a-row. “I said, ‘You know, there are certain artists where you can play Country covers and things of that nature, but when it comes to Prince, he, to me, is as big – if not bigger than – Michael Jackson passing for his musical genius.’ You almost do him an injustice by playing a cover. You’ve got to play the originals. So at 7:30a (ET) this morning, I played ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ ‘When Doves Cry,’ ‘1999,’ ‘Kiss,’ and ‘Purple Rain.’”
And the reaction? “I got no negativity. I got a lot of comments of appreciation,” said Phathead. “My 19 year old and 25 year old listeners don’t want to hear Merle Haggard, but you know what? When I played Prince, I guarantee you they turned up the volume. People were digging it. It’s funny, because when I played ‘Kiss,’ I even came out of it and was like, ‘man you know the Prince estate should think about suing Thomas Rhett, because boy those songs sound similar.’”
Of course, he was kidding.
Monitoring Premiere syndicated “The Bobby Bones Show” today, my colleague here at All Access, Monta Vaden, said she heard Bones play clips of Prince’s eight top-selling singles. By the way, if you’re curious about what Prince songs are selling, the answer is – just about all of them. As of this writing, 30 of the Top 36 singles (and all of 1-19) on the iTunes all-genre singles chart are Prince songs. Additionally, 19 of the top 30 albums (and all of 1-6) on the iTunes all-genre albums chart are from The Purple One.
Last night (4/21), Cumulus’ nationally syndicated “Nash Nights Live” hosts Shawn Parr and Elaina Smith shared artist Tweets and aired timely soundbites from Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, and LoCash duo Chris Lucas and Preston Brust – all of whom shared memories of how Prince impacted them and their music. For LoCash, it especially hit close, as they have also covered “Purple Rain” in live shows for a long time.
I think Phathead and Bones weren’t wrong in playing all or parts of selected Prince songs on Country radio, and I love how Parr and Smith handled it on “Nash Nights Live.” Prince, as I said, was a transcendent musical presence for decades. And Country radio, as I have discussed many times here, has shifted more toward an 18-34 presentation and sonic music presence in recent years. Therefore, two points:
#1. If this format wants to sustain its identity and popularity in that younger demo, it needs to do so when it comes to content, as well. Obviously, I am not advocating going all-Prince music on Country radio. But if it’s THE pop culture, worldwide, ubiquitous news story for a 24-36-hour news cycle, the rule that radio talent coach Steve Reynolds taught me years ago still applies: Ask yourself, “Am I talking about what everyone else is talking about?” Ignore this story at your own peril.
#2. Ironically, playing Prince music on the day of his death, as a tribute, is probably a better sonic match for Country radio than Haggard’s is. Hey – I’m MUCH more influenced by the Hag, and SO much more a fan of Haggard than Prince, so if a bolt of lightning strikes me in the next 24-36 hours, neither of us should be surprised, and I’ll accept my unfortunate fate like a man. I’m just saying: from a production standpoint alone – forget lyrics and theme – “When Doves Cry” lines up more naturally with Maren Morris, Cole Swindell, Luke Bryan, and Rascal Flatts’ most current work than Merle Haggard songs do. I hate that they do – but, they do.
The sudden, shocking death of musical legends rocks us to our core and throws us off on many levels. If we have a personal connection, well, there’s the emotional inventory we all take when first hearing the news. Next, depending on our format, we have programming decisions to make – and for Country, and in the case of an artist like Prince, a step back, deep breath, and thoughtful consideration is probably a good idea.
But here’s something else I’m pretty sure we can all agree on: I sure as hell hope we don’t have to do any of this again in 2016. I’ve about had it with my favorite artists leaving us; I’d just assume they stayed a while longer – as long as they’d like, actually – before punching a higher floor.