WSJ: Why Country Not Only Survived but Thrived

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122705685136339529.html

Nashville, Tenn.

If you tuned in to the CMA Awards on ABC last week to catch performances by young country stars Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley and Sugarland, or by veterans Alan Jackson and George Strait, you are not alone. This year’s telecast of the country music awards was seen by more than 34 million viewers. You might have seen the September telecast of last summer’s CMA Music Festival, too — the only festival of any musical variety that is broadcast on network prime time. If you’re not sure who or what the “CMA” behind those events is, you’re not entirely alone in that, either. But the Country Music Association, based in Nashville, is marking its 50th anniversary this month.

Today, country music is an exception in the ailing music business, a genre still thriving in tough times. But back in November 1958 it was a commercially endangered species during a pop and rock ‘n’ roll boom — and the association has played a key role in the decades since fostering that reversal of fortune. At the CMA’s start, country records weren’t being played on most radio stations. CMA organized as a trade association largely to persuade stations to switch to a country format. Station owners and influential ad agencies still thought of the country audience as impoverished hillbillies rather than the major buyers of cars, clothes and washing machines they already were.

“There were only 150 radio stations in the U.S. playing country music then,” the bluegrass pioneer and pop singer Mac Wiseman told me. In 1958, he was a hit-making performer, an artist-signing executive for Dot Records, and an officer on the founding board of CMA.

“There was a tremendous transition, with a lot of Top 40 formats coming in,” Mr. Wiseman said. “Country artists were just desperate trying to cross over into that, and the businessmen here in Nashville — the publishers, the record producers — realized something had to be done to better establish what country music truly was. In many cases the big ad agencies were using country music for jingles and promotions — Don Gibson’s and Marty Robbins’s hits, for instance — and didn’t even realize that that was country. We went up to New York and had a presentation at the William Morris Agency. Tex Ritter [the cowboy crooner], who was a college man and a very fluent speaker, was very eloquent in his description, and I threw in a Tennessee walking horse as a door prize. It got their attention! I have no idea what they did with the horse.”

There was no existing model for organizing to promote a musical genre, but the country disc jockeys, the publishers, the record labels, and the producers of the radio barn-dance shows could not re-establish the music on their own. It took considerable persuasion to obtain continued funding for the association from the varied, sometimes in-fighting factions pulled under its umbrella, and for several years of CMA’s earliest history, one woman making calls and mimeographing industry newsletters virtually was the organization. Eventual Country Hall of Fame inductee Jo Walker-Meador would be CMA’s executive director for 33 years, through remarkable growth for both country music and the organization, until her retirement in 1991.

“We’d always considered CMA to be covering all different types of country music,” Ms. Walker-Meador told me recently, “but it was pretty miraculous, really, the way all of the different facets of the industry were able to come together. For instance, there were several live shows like the Grand Ole Opry around the country — the Louisiana Hayride, the Big D Jamboree, the Wheeling Jamboree, the Old Dominion Barndance — so when CMA first organized in Nashville, those other shows saw it as just a promotional vehicle for the Opry. But the Opry saw the CMA as organizing to bring those other shows to more prominence! We had to keep reminding everyone that our purpose was to promote country music, nationally and internationally, for everybody involved, and eventually they realized that.”

Over the years, the CMA would spin off the Country Music Foundation to oversee the Country Music Hall of Fame, established in 1961 both to honor the music and to provide researchers the tools to link country music’s history with its present. The fabled Fan Fair, predecessor to today’s televised Music Festival, was launched in 1972 as a way for fans to interact with country stars directly, eventually attracting tens of thousands of attendees. In one year alone, 1982, 329 stations switched to the country format. Today, there are more than 2,000 country stations in the U.S., those millions of award show viewers, and a global audience for country. The trade association that helped spur that change is busy not just planning TV shows (though that takes much of their time) but looking toward the next 50 years.

‘We’re running a $30 million organization with over 6,000 members,” Tammy Genovese, CMA’s current executive director, said when we spoke earlier this month. “We’ve just announced that we’re giving a new million-dollar endowment to the Country Music Hall of Fame to help offset some of the cost of their music education program, which gets kids to understand what country music is, because our job is to look down the road and protect the future of the music, too. We’re working on a major three- to five-year research project to track who our consumer is now and how they are buying music and where that’s going to go. And with the Internet making the whole world an opportunity, we’ll be able to promote our music and artists to the world better.

“We couldn’t have predicted the mass appeal and acceptance that country music has as pop culture today in 1985, when I first came here, let alone when the industry was struggling in 1958. But there’s no other genre of music that’s pulled off what we have over the last 50 years.”

Mr. Mazor writes about country and pop music for the Journal.

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