Is Country Radio 'The Place Where Difference Goes To Die'? Nashville Insiders Are Divided

ABC/Image Group LA
 Chris Stapleton performs at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.

In a recent New York Times story about Chris Stapleton’s stunning post-Country Music Association Awards sales success, author Jon Caramanica notes that the singer’s new single, “Nobody to Blame,” is being promoted to country radio before somewhat snidely referring to the format as “the place where difference goes to die.”

Is country radio getting a bum rap here, or is the Times dig — which suggests the format suffers from a homogenized sound — actually a fair one? That’s a question that leaves the music industry divided. 

Several of Nashville’s top songwriters agree with the newspaper’s characterization.

“‘Where difference goes to die’ is a good line that contains a good bit of truth,” says songwriter Mark D. Sanders. “Hopefully country radio, which is always changing, albeit slowly, will find its way back to songs in which women are more [than] ‘shake your moneymaker’ sexual objects. The ‘blow-job country’ we’ve inherited from hip-hop is an emotionless wasteland.”

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“The day Bill Anderson and I wrote the song ‘Too Country’ [cut by Brad Paisley], Bill remarked that back when he came along, the kiss of death was to sound like someone else,” says songwriter Chuck Cannon. “He said it seemed to him that sounding like everyone else was now the objective. He had a valid point.

“It ain’t only the milk that got homogenized,” continues Cannon. “In the country format, you have to be way more than a casual listener to hear the differences in the artists.”

Artist-songwriter Benton Blount says, “Artists may not be expressing it enough, but there is indeed a fear that if they don’t make a record [that is sonically similar to] what’s currently being played on the radio, no one will touch them. They are scared to be different.

“For me, this whole [Stapleton] thing is just hope that I don’t have to shave my beard, wear skinny jeans tucked into my boots and only sing about girls who like pumpkin spice lattes,” adds Blount. “There is a place for all types of country. I’m just personally happy to see the kind with Southern rock soul in a rough exterior getting a chance to compete with the kind that seems to require a flat-bill ball cap.”

Shore Fire Media director of content Brian Mansfield, who is based in Nashville, says it’s easy to make the assumption that country music is homogenized. “The differences in country music are less obvious from a distance than they are up close,” he says. “The songs historically move more slowly on the charts, they don’t burn as quickly, and the core acts take longer to get established. Demographically, the differences aren’t as striking as they are at pop radio. It’s almost exclusively white, almost exclusively North American and almost exclusively male ... If you’re not a person who spends a lot of time listening to the acts on country radio, you’re not likely to immediately hear the differences.”​

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Consultant Geoff Mayfield, a one-time Billboard senior chart analyst, calls the Times’ characterization “an unfortunate oversimplification,” but notes that “historically, there has always been a uniformity to country radio that is even more narrow than most other popular formats. 

“This is the same format that caused that whole ‘tomato’ headache a few months back,” he notes, referring to when radio consultant Keith Hill called female artists the “tomatoes” in the “salad” of country music, “and certainly the indictment then was a lack of variety ... but how many times have you heard complaints about how it’s hard to get a new record started on country radio? That same tendency to keep those playlists tight holds hands with a narrower sound at country radio than country labels provide.”

Rezonant Music Publishing CEO Tim Wipperman also thinks there’s some validity to the Times’ comment, but notes that with radio’s recent embrace of Kelsea Ballerini and a strong start for Stapleton’s new single, “there does seem to be a welcome shift.”

“The [Times’] comment hits at the dichotomy of country music and country radio,” says Marco Promotions VP Rick Kelly. “While country — or country-leaning — artists like Sturgill Simpson and Stapleton and [Jason] Isbell have had banner years, outselling many chart-topping radio artists, programmers have not embraced them. Largely these artists are more critically lauded than the artists that make up much of country playlists. Lots of music fans consider country radio to be a foreign thing that has nothing to say to them. So they go online or to their peers to find the music that they like. Isbell had the best take on the state of country on Twitter when he said, ‘Hate to break it to y’all, but Nashville didn’t “ruin” country music. Lotta good burgers in this town; nobody forcing you to eat McDonald’s.’”

Others say the format has always featured a disparate group of artists and sounds. “Country music and radio has historically had its sonic ebbs and flows,” says Clint Higham, president of Morris Higham Management, which reps Kenny Chesney and other stars. “Go to Apple Music Radio and plug in ‘country hits 1968,’ and you will find Glen Campbell next to Jack Greene. And then go every year from ’68 forward and you will hear music just as diverse. Some good, some terrible, but it’s always had bookends of very diverse sounds and artists … I am happy, as I think most are, to see something unexpected or out of the norm like Chris Stapleton win and be accepted by the masses, especially when it’s this great.”

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WEGX Florence, S.C., music director Randy “Mudflap” Wilcox thinks the genre specializes in righting the ship when the music gets stale. “The country format, more than any other, grows and changes to meet the needs of its listeners,” he says. “When the music gets too AC, you get a wave of artists that counters that. When it gets too bro, you have artists waiting in the wings to balance that out. The format is good at self-correction; perhaps a little slow about it in the eyes of those of us on the inside, but for consumers and fans the shifts seem to be at just the right pace — as evidenced by the health and stamina of the genre.”

Noting that the format is “highly successful and [the] most listened-to,” veteran radio programmer Clay Hunnicutt, now president of Big Loud Records, asks, “Why drag country radio or the format down? All styles can coexist. For every Luke [Bryan] there’s a Stapleton; for every Carrie [Underwood] there’s an Alison Krauss … Great music will find its way no matter what, including getting by the haters.”

Not surprisingly, some country radio staffers take issue with the Times’ quote. “I don’t think it’s where difference goes to die. It’s currently where difference goes to fight —and win, in Stapleton’s case,” says WCYQ (Q100) Knoxville, Tenn., morning host Krisha Brook. “It’s clearly becoming time for the bros to sublet their high rises.”

Cumulus/Montgomery, Ala., operations manager Wes McShay, who programs the cluster’s country WLWI, says, “Stapleton has sold 250,000 units in the past two weeks. That’s hardly ‘death.’ Luke and Florida Georgia Line sell pretty damn well, too. We’re the only ‘birth-to-death’ listenership format. There’s plenty of room for differences.”

But WCTK Providence, R.I., PD Bob Walker has a different take. “We are not in the music business. We are in the business of connecting our audience with our clients,” he says. “You want art? Go to the museum. Then on the way home, drive past the movie theater showing the biggest, mass-appeal hit movies. Which one is going to [achieve] a wider reach for our clients?”

Kelly agrees. “There was a time when radio programmers were arbiters of taste, but that was a pretty long time ago. Now there are more ways to find the music you like than ever before,” he says. “Country radio … is not about music It’s about commerce. Once we all accept that, these arguments are moot.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.