Country Music and the Wow Factor
One of the things that became clear in writing about “The Wow Factor” last week is that there is still a lot of respect for veteran programmer John Sebastian from his peers, and from the radio people who are a generation or so younger. Those readers have been particularly excited about having the softer/poppier ‘70s back on FM radio in general. All told, last week’s First Listen was one of the year’s most-read, most-responded-to columns.
Younger programmers are more skeptical, based on some of their responses, both to the column and in discussing the format on social media. Some of them are enjoying the new Soft AC boom as well, but they’re seemingly more partial to the Breeze and other ‘80s based formats that don’t go as far or as deep as stations like WRME (Me-TV-FM) Chicago or Wow Factor’s home base of KOAI Phoenix.
What boosters and detractors agree on is that they’re not sure about Sebastian’s decision to include ‘90s and ‘00s Country titles, including some that never crossed over to pop radio. It’s those songs that most differentiate the format from Me-TV-FM or Bobby Rich’s new KDRI (the Drive) Tucson, Ariz. They’re also responsible for some of the most provocative segues — e.g., early ‘70s hit “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” by Edison Lighthouse into “I Love This Bar” by Toby Keith.
As noted last week, pop-to-Classic Rock-to-(eventually)-Country is Sebastian’s own programming journey. On the way, he undoubtedly encountered a lot of older listeners who discovered Country at a variety of possible times (Urban Cowboy, Garth, maybe even a recent boom). I just came from visiting a cousin and uncle at different ends of his 55-72 target in Houston. In that market, where even “Pancho And Lefty” was a pop hit, their pop-to-country path is a common one.
In my funky/eclectic Northeastern suburb, I’ve also heard from a number of men my age who have recently gotten into Merle Haggard/Johnny Cash Classic Country, with no interest in the newer stuff. The recent broadcast of Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary is having an impact, too. The show’s viewers are streaming and buying numerous titles — some are the Classic Country songs that were already in pop culture (“Ring Of Fire,” “Crazy,” “Jolene”), but also outliers from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to “Go Rest High on That Mountain” — sort of an update on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack phenomenon.
Programmers never figured out what to do with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and then it was gone — a true relic, briefly fetishized. They’ve never quite figured out what to do with the overlapping of Pop, Classic Rock, and more recent Country either, and the many failed attempts to do some sort of Country/Classic Rock hybrid format prove it. Even the ‘70s paradigm of using Pop/Classic Rock gold in a Country library faded in the ‘90s when the music got better. Sebastian tried to bring it back during a Country lull in the mid-‘00s. Then Big & Rich, Dierks Bentley, and Luke Bryan came along, improving the current product and living the Country/Rock hybrid. The crossovers went away again.
When fans of classic Top 40 tell you they loved the format “that used to play it all,” it’s often the presence of Country crossovers to which they’re referring. But pop programmers have been inconsistent about acknowledging Country crossovers over the years. In the early ‘80s, they tried to join the bandwagon and we got “Elvira” at Top 40. (I didn’t mind that. Some people did.) In the early ‘90s, they unsuccessfully tried to ignore Country radio, and only “Achy Breaky Heart” and Restless Heart got a few pop spins. But Country has been either the biggest or one of the biggest music formats for more than 25 years, usually bigger than CHR. As “Friends in Low Places” demonstrates, Country hardly needs pop radio’s permission to infiltrate pop culture.
That doesn’t mean that any Country hit could now be programmed as a pop song — 15 years of trial and error in testing various potential crossovers for AC radio attests to that. Even in the most “Country lifegroup”-driven markets, there is still often 25-30% of the market that has no interest in the format. Even in this era of “oh, I listen to a little of everything,” if there’s an addendum coming, it’s still often “except Country,” and that affects what the pop audience knows. But the kids of the early ‘10s — who made both Country and Top 40 thrive in that era — may change things going forward.
Even now, just as the much smaller Alternative format can sometimes send over a “I Melt With You” or “Blister in the Sun” over many years, Country also has its stealth exports. One of the most recent is Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel.” I can say with assurance that song already had a pop footprint before last month — even if most AC stations would never consider it. Now, it’s appearing in the Bank of America ads that run adjacent to the Burns’ special, and downloads have zoomed up as well. That pop footprint is certainly expanding.
What listeners know and what songs endure always vary — and that’s why there is music research. The Wow Factor is playing two of Keith Urban’s Country hits from the early-to-mid ‘00s. “You’ll Think of Me” was one of the biggest pop crossovers of its era. “Raining on Sunday” didn’t cross the same way. I would not expect them to test similarly with a Mainstream AC audience. But sonically, they’re of a piece, and I understand why Sebastian would think they both fit. And he’s not concerned with a 37-year-old Mainstream AC listener anyway.
In what I do as a music researcher, I am always on the lookout for the unlikely song that might have infiltrated a listener’s consciousness. Of course, I want to help you “play the hits.” I also want to make sure we didn’t miss any. And the hits aren’t always what we think they are. Country radio has always informed some pop listeners’ frame of reference. Ken Burns’ Country Music has influenced it as well. Country Music will probably give its biggest boost to Classic Country stations and streaming playlists. It will be interesting to find out if Country successfully differentiates or confounds “The Wow Factor.” But we can start with “pop listeners know at least a little more of it than you might think.”