While most genres struggle, country music is enjoying a commercial and creative renaissance. Billboard looks at three strikingly diverse artists -- Joe Nichols, Eric Church, and Laura Bell Bundy -- who took very different routes to reach the charts.
Despite the fact that David Letterman and your grandmother still call it "country & western," country music has evolved beyond its cowboy roots. Sure, some male artists still wear cowboy hats-and a few of them have actually ridden a horse-but country is a diverse format, particularly these days when many of its younger artists name check acts as varied as|
ERIC CHURCH: The Rocker
Traditional Nashville wisdom would dictate that|
LAURA BELL BUNDY: The Broadway Star
Laura Bell Bundy 's country résumé is one-of-a-kind. The Lexington, Ky., native moved to New York at age 9 to appear in Radio City Music Hall's "Christmas Spectacular," and years later starred in "Hairspray" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical," where she played the lead role of Elle Woods.
While living in New York she began performing country music at Manhattan clubs including the now-defunct CBGB and Birdland. When she decided to move to Nashville to pursue a country career, Bundy, who already had a relationship with MTV thanks to its airing of "Legally Blonde: The Musical" in 2007 and the subsequent "Search for the Next Elle Woods," sought out CMT senior VP of music strategy Jay Frank and shared her vision of her music.
Frank was intrigued. "We immediately saw that she had a completely unique vision," he says. "She has the spirit of Dolly Parton that does really exist in a lot of artists today. There's an entertainment element that hasn't been quite as prevalent in country music the last few years."
After she signed to Universal Music Group Nashville, CMT became part of the A&R process. "As she finished new songs she would send them to us, but would also send them to CMT," UMGN chairman Luke Lewis says. "They were very vested early on."
Bundy's unique musical vision consists of two distinct sides: a country take on smoky, sultry vocalists like Norah Jones ("Country you can make out to" as Bundy refers to it) and a mix of Muscle Shoals and old Nashville, aka "country meets Amy Winehouse."
"We wanted to do something throwback," Bundy says, citing Parton, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Jerry Reed and Conway Twitty among her influences.
The decision was made to do two different "sides" of one album, which would be called "Achin' and Shakin'." The first single would be the uptempo and campy "Giddy On Up." "We knew it was engaging, but we also knew that it was polarizing," Lewis says. "We felt if we went straight to radio, we'd be shut down pretty quickly."
CMT stepped up, committing to airing the video sight unseen. "We said, 'We trust you. We trust this vision,' " Frank recalls.
CMT's commitment was important to Universal because of the poor track record Nashville labels have had in recent years breaking new female artists at country radio, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift notwithstanding. "I wouldn't try to convince anyone that we knew exactly what we were doing," Lewis says. "The thing we did know was that we had a lot of support from CMT." (There is no financial arrangement between CMT and Bundy, according to Frank.)
The finished video, conceptualized by Bundy and complete with a Broadway-style production akin to a naughty "Annie Get Your Gun," rewarded Frank's faith. "It nailed who she is," he says of the sometimes-bawdy singer. "It wasn't like anything else on the channel or in country music."
The network promoted Bundy and her music heavily on its website, mobile outlets and CMT and CMT Radio. In the first quarter, "Giddy On Up" was one of the top five most-streamed videos on CMT.com and one of the top five best-researching videos on CMT, according to Frank. "It completely reacted with the audience," he says.
A second video, "Drop On By" from the "Achin' " side of the album, has aired on the network but wasn't shipped to country radio. "It has done well, but not to the same success that 'Giddy On Up' has had," Frank says. "But it does emphasize that we're working with an artist and we believe in an artist instead of believing in a song."
Thanks to her visual appeal, Bundy has enjoyed TV exposure not usually afforded a brand-new artist, including a performance slot on the Academy of Country Music Awards and a visit with ABC's "Good Morning America."
The ACM Awards performance in particular riled many in Nashville who felt Bundy had cut to the front of the line by scoring a full performance slot while other new artists with more success were limited to lesser slots if they were included at all.
Lewis will hear none of it. "You could argue that she's already a star," he says, citing her Broadway exposure. "She has stage experience. There's a lot of artists in country music that haven't spent a lot of time onstage.
"She's not only multitalented, but she also has vision about how to sell herself without sounding like a barker or a carny," Lewis adds.
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