In the Country of Country
So I was driving around this morning with another one of my car tapes playing when tunes from Crystal Gayle and Don Williams came up back-to-back, and I was transported back to my days as a country radio DJ.
I was no latecomer to the format. My parents listened to country radio extensively when I was growing up, so I knew quite a few of the format's core records long before I ever played one on the radio. And it was a short leap to country from the kind of radio I loved. Starting in the mid 70s, Chicago AM giant WMAQ brought Top 40 formatics and style (and even, for a brief time, legendary Chicago jock Fred Winston) to country radio, and for a while, if you listened to country in the Midwest, you listened to WMAQ. So I didn't mind all that much when my first commercial radio gig turned out to be at a country station. I figured I could handle it.
My favorite records were the ones that were the likeliest to cross to the pop charts--from people like Gayle and Williams. Crystal Gayle had a fair amount of crossover success, with "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," "Talking in Your Sleep," "When I Dream," and "Half the Way," but she should have crossed over even more--her 1983 hit, "Our Love is on the Faultline," for example, would have been a smash if it had come out a few years earlier. Williams, meanwhile, was less likely to cross over to pop--but there was something about his big, warm voice that made his records hard to resist, like "I Believe in You" (which did cross over to pop) or "You're My Best Friend."
The records I hated most were the ones that fit the hillbilly stereotype--I know that Ricky Scaggs is authentically Appalachian, but it was hard for me to imagine anyone with more than a sixth-grade education wanting to hear something like "Heartbroke" more than once. And I also detested the records in which rural love-men sang sweaty ballads about getting laid. T.G. Sheppard did a lot of this stuff. "War is Hell on the Homefront Too," about his adventures servicing a woman whose husband has gone off to war, may have been the single most offensive country record of all time, albeit a fairly large hit. (We were told not to play it on Veterans Day.) Gene Watson, too, who once recorded a song called "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You." There were female versions of this, too--Billie Jo Spears' "Blanket on the Ground," for example, in which a long-married couple go a-boinking in the back yard. Not sexy, just embarrassing.
I got out of country radio in the mid 80s and didn't return until about 10 years later, when I did a few fill-in shifts at a country station operated by the same group that ran the classic rocker I worked for. The same percentages I had observed in the 80s still seemed to apply--about half the records at least nodded in the direction of art, and the other half were churned-out product. Even the genre's major stars--George Strait comes to mind--seemed to be phoning it in about half the time.
One thing that made country radio different from other formats was the personal interest listeners took in you as a jock. When I did fill-ins on the country station, listeners were always calling in to find out who I was and where I came from and when the person I was subbing for would be back. You learn pretty quickly under those circumstances that if you think a particular record is lame, you'd better not say so. And in the end, your opinion doesn't matter because taste is accountable to no one. Take it from me--a guy who's written nice things about "Afternoon Delight" and the Partridge Family.