Rucker Proves That Sometimes, The Best Marketing Is No Marketing At All
Don’t look now, but Darius Rucker, lead singer of 90s rock group Hootie & The Blowfish, has a country hit on his hands. “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” currently sits at number 14 on Billboard’s country singles chart and continues to pick up spins. What you probably haven’t heard is that Rucker is the first black artist to chart a single in the country top 20 since Charley Pride last did it in 1988. That’s a noteworthy accomplishment, but Rucker’s management deserves great credit for downplaying the milestone. In fact, that much of the country audience remains oblivious to this historical tidbit goes a long way toward explaining Rucker’s success.
Critics sometimes become too accustomed to viewing mainstream country stars as pre-packaged commercial confectioneries ripe for consumption by the radio audience. This conception, questions of its accuracy aside, misses a more important point: it’s not the packaging that appeals to country radio listeners, it’s what’s inside the package, and these days that’s mostly a homogeneous crop of artists who conform to a narrow commercial ideal. Different, non-traditional artists may stand a chance to gain a foothold even in this environment, but it’s a mistake to believe that one can package a non-traditional artist into the radio playlist, especially when the packaging itself is constructed from an artist’s non-conformity. Great music, even when made by non-traditional artists, still works on country radio, but even great music becomes considerably less appealing when wrapped in a backstory that does little except argue that the music should not, in fact, be played on country radio.
Contrast Rucker with struggling newcomer Rissi Palmer. When Palmer’s “Country Girl” became the first country single from a black female artist to chart since 1987, the feat was greeted with a ballyhoo of press, including an article in The Houston Chronicle ambitiously titled “Black Woman Singer Rissi Palmer Breaks Color Lines” in which Palmer spoke extensively of obstacles associated with being a black aspiring country artist. Palmer’s race isn’t important only to her press: her historic charting single, “Country Girl,” is a direct reference to Palmer’s race in which she extols her country virtues while reminding listeners that “you don’t have to be a Georgia Peach from Savannah Beach” to be a country girl.
But image doesn’t mark the only point where the paths of Rucker and Palmer diverge. While Rucker’s single continues to rise, Palmer’s debut peaked at number 54 on Billboard, follow-up single “Hold On to Me” just cracked the Top 60 and debut album Rissi Palmer moved only a handful of units. Country music fans could hardly have been less impressed by 1720 Entertainment’s new and unique artist, and I blame much of Palmer’s failure on her race-based promotion.
The failure of these kinds of marketing campaigns isn’t limited to independent labels. RCA Nashville’s Crystal Shawanda has produced a remarkable debut album in Dawn of a New Day, but it’s impossible to read any Shawanda publicity that does not make significant mention of her Ojibwe heritage and the fact that the title of her debut album is the English translation of her Native American name. Shawanda’s “You Can Let Go” has fared better than Palmer’s debut single, but she’s still sitting on the wrong side of the top 20 without significant upward mobility.
It’s ironic that RCA should make such a mistake, for they wrote the book on launching a non-traditional artist when they signed eventual superstar (and black American) Charley Pride in 1965. Paul W. Dennis explained the circumstances well in a recent installment in the Forgotten Artists series:
The (race) situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued [Pride's] first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get Country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. DJs of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were the Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and Mays of producers, so the records were destined to get played.
Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.
History should’ve preempted the failed promotions of both Palmer and Shawanda, but let it not be said that the promotional giants can’t learn a lesson. When our own Jim Malec attempted to schedule an interview with Palmer, he was granted access only after he agreed not to ask about Palmer’s race, which Palmer’s representative Hot Schatz Public Relations described as having been “beaten to death.” Malec cancelled the interview after deciding that prohibition made it impossible to interview an artist who had worked so hard to craft a race-based image.
Lest the independent observer conclude that country radio audiences are simply racist, it’s important to note that the recent failure of new artists who are wrapped in a coat of a different color hasn’t been limited to non-white artists. The recent flurry of high profile pop-country crossovers has produced a significant number of new artists with promotional baggage independent of their current management: Jessica Simpson’s former life as a pop-princess is inseparable from her re-vamped country persona, Jewel can’t make a radio appearance without playing “You Were Meant For Me” or “Foolish Games” alongside cuts from country album Perfectly Clear, and Bon Jovi and The Eagles are such historic figures in rock music that, even sans marketing, it’s impossible for them to unassumingly drop a single on country radio.
By and large, these entanglements haven’t served the stars well, even if some of them possess stronger country credentials than several country radio mainstays. Simpson’s “Come On Over” looks headed for hit status, but Simpson has endured an embarrassing did-they-or-didn’t-they controversy concerning booing at her debut country performance and handlers have to fear downright audience hostility when Simpson plays the Grand Ole Opry on September 6th. Jewel scored only a modest hit with the excellent “Stronger Woman” while The Eagles and Bon Jovi look to be one-and-done on country radio.
This trend faces its most significant test to date with new Nashville Star Melissa Lawson, who has staked her career on hopes that the country music audience will be able to identify with an overweight mother of five. Lawson’s situation is unique in that the “every woman” demographic is well-represented within the country audience, while Palmer and Shawanda represent populations that are only a negligible portion of the fanbase, but her fate rests on the unproven assumption that audience empathy will translate into record sales.
The situation of Nashville Star runner-up Gabe Garcia is much less ambiguous. Past and present suggest that if he is to stand a chance, he’ll resist John Rich’s attempts to make him into a “Hispanic country star” and drop a strong honky-tonk single on country radio without racial pretense.
Nonetheless, the most important lesson for Garcia, Lawson, Palmer and all of the others is not about marketing but about artistry. Artists with non-traditional images have generally succeeded on county radio by making staunchly traditional country music, and Darius Rucker has not neglected this portion of his craft. Word is that during Rucker’s recent visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame, he was especially impressed by one artist, Kitty Wells, and left with an armful of her records. “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” may not qualify as traditional country, but it does represent near-flawless execution of contemporary country and excellent songcraft consistent with traditional country themes. Rucker sounds like a country singer, and he hasn’t made the mistake of using his marketing machine to attempt to convince fans that, as a black rock star, he really shouldn’t be one. A lot of aspiring country stars could learn something from that.
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