From 'Hee Haw' to 'American Idol': Inside Country Music's Roller-Coaster Ride On TV
Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini spent large chunks of time together during the second week of June as they shot footage during the CMA Music Festival for ABC's Aug. 4 special, CMA Fest.
The following week, on June 12, Ballerini was the guest artist on an edition of NBC's songwriter competition Songland, and the previous month, Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton wrapped another season of hosting ABC's American Idol and NBC's The Voice, respectively.
Once a tough sell to TV programmers, country is more frequently included in networks' outreach to middle America. There are no definitive numbers that document the trend, though Hollywood's music consultants suggest that the volume of heartland-based contestants on music competitions has played a major role in expanding country's presence.
"We go everywhere, so we get a lot of country," says SyncroniCity president Robin Kaye, a former Nashvillian who has served as American Idol music supervisor for eight seasons. The show "always has had a lot [of country singers] auditioning, and I think we've always had a fairly good representation of country. This year, I think we've had the most country guest artists that we've ever had."
The upsurge is particularly noteworthy in 2019, the 50th anniversary of three significant TV debuts. ABC's The Johnny Cash Show and the CBS properties The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and Hee Haw all launched during the first six months of 1969, landing in primetime in an era that already had Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs performing bluegrass theme songs for The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. Dean Martin covered country titles almost weekly on his NBC variety program, and CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show routinely trotted out such guests as Sonny James, Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley.
That late-'60s prime-time boom, however, was short-lived. Cash vanished from the ABC lineup after just two seasons, while Campbell lasted three on CBS. Hee Haw was purged -- along with The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres -- when the Tiffany Network decided to "de-ruralize" its lineup in 1970-1971.
Despite occasional exceptions -- including NBC's Barbara Mandrell & The Mandrell Sisters and ABC's much-derided Dolly! -- networks shied away from the genre as a weekly vehicle during the '70s, '80s and '90s. But several Garth Brooks specials in the '90s perhaps set the stage for a resurgence.
"He appealed to everybody," says Kaye, "and he put on, like, a rock show even though he was country."
Reba McEntire became the genre's first lead star in a sitcom beginning in 2001, and Idol -- during its initial years on Fox -- quickly discovered America's appetite for country, in great part through Carrie Underwood.
"They started to make her a pop star, if you remember that first single ["Inside Your Heaven"]," says Grand Ole Opry host Bill Cody, who annually delivers an overview on the history of music in TV to participants in the Nashville-based professional education program Leadership Music. "When ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel' came, there was no looking back, and I think that probably helped. She's really beautiful -- I mean, she could never have sung a note and been the next cover girl -- but coming off that show, she obviously had people beating a path to her door."
Underwood epitomizes the developments that helped country garner new respect on TV. In addition to emerging from a talent show, her songs have a pop-crossover sound, while her appearance and the material's subject matter veer more toward heavily populated urban and suburban lifestyles, reflecting changes in the country audience and in America at large.
"By far, the population of the U.S. was out on the farm," says Cody. "That's obviously not the case now."
Additionally, country's status as a niche, non-pop genre fits with a trend in TV programming to increasingly represent cultural diversity, which has not only resulted in more roles for minorities but also in an upsurge in non-pop/rock supporting music.
"The music that's being placed in a scripted series show is really driven by the storytelling, and I think there is an interest in putting more diverse stories on television," says TuneFind.com managing director Amanda Byers, whose company tracks music usage on TV. "We see [an uptick] with a lot of different genres -- as the stories get more relevant to different types of music, that music gets a boost."
Some of country's surge also may come from filling a vacuum created by hip-hop's increasing influence on mainstream music. Rap's spoken content is, by definition, a poor fit on singing competitions, making country's continued focus on melody a heightened asset. Plus, spoken-word is more likely to clash with dialogue when it's used as background music, and there are technical considerations that make hip-hop cumbersome to clear.
"There are often a lot of samples, a lot of writers, and for each synch opportunity, you have to get clearance from everyone," says Byers. "It can be a little bit of a bear, process-wise, and then on top of that, there are sometimes issues around content that are challenging for major networks: having clean versions of songs, or being stripped of brand names and that sort of thing."
But that doesn't mean country is the perfect solution, particularly when it comes to placement in dramas or sitcoms. The songs are often written with vivid lyrical images, and those mental pictures may not pair well with on-camera visuals.
"You can't have lyrics that are so specific and narrowly focused that they distract from the scene," says Byers. "If you're going to have a song about Boston, for example, you can't play that over a scene that's clearly not there and not relevant to it. Place names become challenging; people's names become challenging. That kind of stuff narrows your opportunity in synch."
So does the actual production approach to most country songs. Country fans generally appreciate the focus that artists and producers in Nashville place on the words. But that language can clash with the lines of the actor on TV.
"The way the songs are produced, the lyrics are mixed much hotter, much more present than they are in rock or hip-hop, and they distract from dialogue," says Creative Control head Joel C. High, whose credits range from a host of Tyler Perry titles to the current Kevin Costner indie film The Highwaymen. "If the story is not right that the song is telling, it's useless."
That said, High -- a self-proclaimed "punk-rock kid from Los Angeles" who had a fascination with Hee Haw -- has been known to secure alternative country mixes that downplay voices, and he believes that country could fare even better in TV if publishers were more aggressive.
"I get the feeling that there's an old history of not using country music
in film and television, and so I don't know that they push it," he says, conceding that ABC's Nashville was an exception. "Maybe there's just a feeling music supervisors don't get it. I think that's a big mistake. Music supervisors get into it because they love music. I like to hear everything."
Ultimately, that TV exposure is a plus for country. The genre has fewer crossover opportunities on radio than most other formats, but the more country songs appear on the tube, the more awareness it creates with the audience at large. That makes the growing presence of Bryan, Shelton, Ballerini and all those competition pieces essential to the format.
"Pop or hip-hop [audiences] wouldn't necessarily hear country much," notes Kaye, "although I think it's changing from TV uses. People who would not ordinarily listen to country are being exposed to it on TV."