27 September 2009

"You Never Hear Any More of [Insert Name] on the Radio"

Okay, here's something that baffles me and I hope someone out there has an answer for me.  I understand why programmers have historically discarded artists once there's a sense that their hit-making days are behind them.  After a while, we began having oldies stations dedicated to the hits of yesteryear (generally an era roughly thirty to twenty years ago).  And that makes sense to me; let your parents hear the hits of their young adulthood on an oldies station while your disc jockey spins your generation's hits.  Fine so far.

What I don't get, though, is why no one plays current recordings by older artists.  Let's take country music as our example.  A radio programmer determines that today's young audience is more interested in Kenny Chesney than George Jones.  That makes sense; Chesney is likelier to speak to the younger crowd targeted by the sponsors and such.  Okay, so the Possum is "out" at contemporary country.

Along comes a classic country station, though, and all of a sudden "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" are back on the airwaves.  Someone is convinced there are people out there who still listen to radio and still want to hear George Jones's music.  Why, then, aren't they convinced that those people would want to hear something new by George Jones?  His last radio presence was "Choices" in 1999, followed by the ignored "The Cold Hard Truth" later that year, and then the aborted single "Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)" with Garth Brooks in 2001.  Jones and Brooks both included that duet on their respective solo albums in '01, and nothing else from The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001 by Jones was even acknowledged by radio.  Neither was anything from his subsequent albums.

Jones is still recording, though, and so are most of his surviving contemporaries.  Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Ray Price have all issued new material in the last few years (Dolly and Hag have released nearly annually for years now).  And that's not even including Willie Nelson, whose regular volume of output can only be described as "massive."

Sure, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash have passed away; but they, too, were still recording until their deaths, and those recordings were also ignored.  Cash is perhaps the best illustration of this odd situation; the music video for his single, "Hurt," won a ton of awards and acclaim in 2002--while failing to crack the top 40 on contemporary country radio.  The album on which "Hurt" appeared, American IV: The Man Comes Around, became the first album in Cash's discography (exclusive of compilations) to be certified gold in more than thirty years.  It is currently certified platinum, and all that without so much as a handshake from contemporary radio.  Imagine how much more successful the Rick Rubin-produced Johnny Cash albums might have been had someone bothered to play the songs on the air aside from a handful of rebellious college campus stations.  The Grammy voters might not have been the only ones who knew just how great those recordings were until everyone became obsessed with Cash after they saw the video to "Hurt."

If I sound simultaneously bitter that Cash could have been more commercially successful than he was while begrudging how successful he was, it's because I'm both.  As a Cash fan myself, I wish there had been some kind of outlet for his 1990s work at the time.  As a Waylon fan, though, I am convinced that had it not been for the music video to "Hurt," very few outside the country music world would have commented upon the Man in Black's passing in 2003.  That one video single-handedly made Cash important again, and it just goes to show what role radio could play in restoring some relevance to the old-timers it has been content to discard.

Another anomaly in all this is Hank Williams, Jr.  Bocephus is considered part of the "old guard," because he made his debut at such a young age all those years ago.  And yet, Hank, Jr. is scarcely four years older than Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn), who is still seen as "current" and viable.  Having distanced himself from his substance abuse of years past, Hank's music of the last decade or so has been largely more thoughtful than even the hits on which his reputation has been built--and only the most dedicated fans even know he's released three albums in the last seven years!

So, if anyone reading this works in radio or is studying broadcasting and can tell me why programmers are so certain that there is no audience at all for the new recordings of these established artists, I would love to hear about the reasoning.  If you'll excuse me, though, my external hard drive became jacked up a week ago and I have to get back to re-importing my Willie Nelson CD's into my iTunes library.

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