Saturday, July 15, 2006

Bob Seger's Latest Road Heads Straight on Through to Country

July 15, 2006
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES, July 14 — Given that the rock legend Bob Seger first bemoaned the eclipse of “old time rock ’n’ roll” in 1978, one can only imagine how he feels now. Rock music remains a popular radio genre, but part of its audience has been drifting away. So where is a resurgent rock star, known for hits like “Hollywood Nights” and “Night Moves,” to turn? To country music fans.

As part of the promotion for “Face the Promise,” Mr. Seger’s first album of new material in 11 years, his longtime label, Capitol Records, is shipping his first new single, “Wait for Me,” to country radio, in addition to stations that play classic rock and adult-contemporary formats.
There are also plans to pair Mr. Seger with an established country artist on “Crossroads,” the odd-couple performance series on Country Music Television, and in other nationally televised performances. And an album of Seger covers performed by country artists may be in the offing, too.

Mr. Seger’s return comes as a new crop of artists better known for their rock or pop hits are crossing into country territory. Earlier this year, Bon Jovi scored a No. 1 hit on the country chart with “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” a song performed with Jennifer Nettles of the hot country act Sugarland. Michelle Branch, who broke onto the pop charts as a teenage singer-songwriter, showed up on country radio with the debut of the Wreckers, the rootsy duo she formed with a friend.

Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, lent his trademark wail to a new single by the country singer Keith Anderson, aptly titled “Three Chord Country and American Rock ’n’ Roll.” And Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who had recorded albums with Chet Atkins, is back on the country charts thanks to a collaboration with Emmylou Harris.

Many trace the most recent crossover fervor to the unexpected success of “Picture,” a song performed by Kid Rock with Sheryl Crow, on country stations four years ago.

Those efforts represent only the latest moves to blur the lines between pop, rock and country: 40 years ago, Ray Charles reimagined Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold in recording his trailblazing album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.”

But the transformation of the radio landscape in recent years seems to encourage crossovers once more. In particular, the country format has displayed relative resilience as other formats that once provided a natural home for these artists now appear unreliable, if not outright unwelcoming.

Slipping between musical genres in the compartmentalized world of record labels and radio formats is not taken lightly. Many country programmers are leery of providing exposure to acts donning country-music trappings as a last resort after failing to maintain popularity with pop or rock fans. (That perception cut short the prospects for “All I Ever Needed,” a country single released in 2004 by Bret Michaels, better known as the lead singer of the hair-metal band Poison. He has continued his makeover, though, by appearing as a judge on the USA Networks contest series “Nashville Star.”)

“I think the consensus is that just because you have an established brand from another genre you don’t get a hall pass to come to country and immediately get airplay,” said Eric Logan, executive vice president for programming at XM Satellite Radio and a former country radio programmer.

But as it happens, prospects for artists who try shifting genres (or at least radio formats) appear to be growing stronger. As listeners change the way they listen to music and discover new releases — twiddling with iPods or Internet stations, for example — programmers say they are being forced to consider more experimentation with their playlists to keep fans engaged. Some predict this will mean regular appearances by outsiders between radio mainstays like Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith.

“There used to be a huge group of people that were considered exclusively country music listeners; they grew up in a house where only country music was played,” said Brian Philips, CMT’s general manager. “Now, how would it be possible to grow up in a house where only one type of music was accessible, given 300 channels of television and infinite possibilities on the Internet? The hybrids and the fashion make all the sense in the world to people who are out there just looking for new sounds.”

That helps explain why Mr. Philips’s network has welcomed the singer Jewel, known for breathy folk-pop hits like “Who Will Save Your Soul?,” on several programs as she promotes her new album.

The reach of country outlets is formidable: CMT reaches an estimated 83 million homes. And in radio, country remains the most popular genre nationwide, accounting for roughly 16 percent of the country’s 13,000 stations, according to Arbitron. Moreover, its overall share of the audience has remained relatively stable in the face of major declines in the pop and rock fields.

In particular, the baby boomers who tuned in to the FM-dial rock revolution of the 1970’s have switched to other formats, including news and talk, or tuned out altogether. In the last five years alone, the rock sector (which in Arbitron’s definition includes “classic” rock and “album-oriented” rock stations but not current “alternative” rock outlets) has lost approximately 15 percent of its audience. Now, even a hit on older-skewing rock stations is not nearly as meaningful as a performance on country airwaves.

Consider: “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the most-played song at the 38 “heritage” rock stations monitored by Billboard in a recent week, reached a total audience of roughly 2.9 million people; “The World” by Brad Paisley, the most-played song at the 131 monitored country stations, reached approximately 38.2 million, according to the tracking service Nielsen BDS.

The Seger efforts are part of a broader push to bring his new album to the widest possible audience, including making it available on iTunes — a departure for Mr. Seger, who along with Radiohead and the Beatles is among the few remaining holdouts vetoing digital sales of their music catalogs.

Mr. Seger’s representatives say that while they expect his music to resonate with all sorts of fans, his image as a workingman’s heartland poet meshes especially well with country sensibilities. General Motors clearly thought so, adopting his hit “Like a Rock” for its long-running series of commercials for Chevrolet pickups.

His recordings have been covered by numerous country acts, from Kenny Rogers to Brooks & Dunn. One of Mr. Seger’s biggest singles, “Shame on the Moon” from the 1982 album “The Distance,” was written by the country performer Rodney Crowell. In Mr. Seger’s heyday and for years afterward, his songs could occasionally be heard on an array of radio formats, including country. But longtime country programmers in the genre do not recall Mr. Seger’s music being presented to them specifically as carrying country appeal.

The official date when Capitol hopes country stations start playing his single is not for two weeks, but it has already received airplay on about a dozen such stations.

“In my opinion we’ve relied on country audiences from the first record we put out,” said Punch Andrews, Mr. Seger’s longtime manager. These fans, he added, “don’t see all the fuzzy lines that everybody wants to draw. Rock ’n’ roll and country have always been basically the same. It’s just a few instruments that change.”

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