Today’s guest post is from Brian Thies, retired educator from Hampton, Iowa. Brian and I live in a community that supports the arts and we often get to hear musicians from around the United States. Brian is also a writer, and both of us had the opportunity to meet and work with the artists that performed at Tuesday on the Town. This interview came as a result of meeting the team behind Tim Culpepper. Elbert West is a gifted musician in his own right. He’s lived and worked in Nashville for a long time, and has figured out how to take a young musician and mold him into a new star with an old sound. Here’s Brian’s post:
The future of country music might be found in its past.
As hot as guys like Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, and Brad Paisley are, there still seems to be a void to fill. According to Elbert West, who has worked the Nashville scene for over 30 years, there is a growing number of fans who insists there needs to be more country in country music.
“Fans are searching for an authentic, organic country sound like there was back in the mid-1980s,” said West, who has found success as a performer, songwriter, and manager in Nashville. “Because of guys like Randy Travis, the period of 1986 to 1994 was the biggest in country music history.”
During the last 10-15 years, traditional country music has become more pop because of the success of superstar artists like Lady Antebellum, Zach Brown, and Carrie Underwood. While pop’s glitz and glamour have attracted a lot of media attention, many long-time country music fans aren’t thrilled. They would much prefer to keep their music simple and pure; like it was in the “good old days.”
According to West, it was Travis’ “rags-to-riches” life, as much as his distinctive country sound, that made him “the voice” of country music during its glory years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Randy had a real story to tell,” said West. “During the early Eighties, he was rejected by every major record label in Nashville. His early demo tapes were criticized by record executives as being ‘too country.’”
Even Hollywood would have a hard time writing a script to match the twists and turns that were part of Travis’s rise to country music stardom. In 1975, while his brother, Ricky, was serving time in jail for a high-speed car chase, Randy won a talent contest at a nightclub in Charlotte, North Carolina. The club’s owner, Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Hatcher took an interest in the young singer, hired him as a cook, and gave him singing jobs at her club, Country City USA. For 19 years, Hatcher and Travis shared a secret romance.
In 1985, Travis’ song “On the Other Hand” climbed to number 67 on the country charts, and after Warner Brothers re-released it in 1986, it became Travis’ first number one hit. His song “Forever and Ever, Amen” arguably launched the neo-traditionalist country era.
Because of artists like Travis, Garth Brooks, and Dwight Yoakam, from 1987 to 1994, country music sold over 400 million albums—more than all other music genres combined.
It’s that distinctive twangy, rough-around-the-edges sound that West believes many country music purists long for. “I was born in Bristol, Virginia and grew up knee deep in Appalachia,” said West. “I’m looking for someone to work with whose music is filled with Appalachian harmony.”
West is convinced Tim Culpepper has that sound, and he signed him to a contract with Honky Tone Records. “Tim has a clean sound and his music tells a story,” explained West.
Much of West’s optimism for Culpepper and artists like him comes from the changes in the business side of country music. For many years major labels dominated; in the early 1990s there were 24 of them. That usually meant that unless an aspiring singer could cut a deal with a big record company, there was little or no hope of a successful career.
Today, it’s vastly different. Now the trend is toward small, independent labels, and that has translated into more opportunities for artists like Culpepper.
A new marketing strategy is also important. It’s no longer about expensive advertising campaigns by major labels like Sony or Warner Brothers. “Country music is all about relationships,” West emphasized. “Today, if someone wants to be successful in country music, they have to get out and get close to the people. They must ask fans what they want.”
In an era where many musicians rely on social media to connect with fans, West feels there is a better—old-fashioned—way. “The most effective social media is when you talk to someone you know and tell them about an artist and why you like them,” West said. “Personal contact is best form of communicating. Face to face is far better than Facebook.”
There is also something old school about West’s approach to grooming Culpepper for his shot at country music stardom. “We’re not going to rush,” West said. “We’re going to take the time to do it right and do our best.”