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It’s Still Difficult, But It Might Be Easier Than Ever for Outsiders to Crack Country

When Beyoncè announced the March 29 release of what’s expected to be a country-leaning album, Cowboy Carter, she alluded to a moment when she felt unwelcome in the genre.

But current chart numbers suggest that the carpet has been rolled out for her, assuming she’s willing to keep walking the path. Her single “Texas Hold ’Em” jumps to No. 33 in its sixth week on the Country Airplay chart dated March 30, while it remains at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs. The Airplay position is lower than the slots the song occupies on other genre charts, where she has been historically established. But country radio develops slowly. Only two of the 32 songs ahead of her on Country Airplay — Nate Smith’s “Bulletproof” and Keith Urban’s “Messed Up As Me”— have charted for six weeks or fewer. The performance of “Texas Hold ’Em” suggests that the genre may be as open as it ever has to figures invading country from other entertainment formats.

“I kind of see things starting to open up,” says Country’s Radio Coach owner and CEO John Shomby.

Beyoncè is hardly the only artist making a move into the format from another entertainment base. Post Malone spent 18 weeks on Country Airplay in a pairing with the late Joe Diffie, Diplo has released two country-shaded projects, and Lana Del Rey is reportedly recording a country album. Additionally, actors Charles Esten and Luke Grimes recently released their debut country albums, contemporary Christian artist Anne Wilson has signed with Universal Music Group Nashville, and retired St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright made his Grand Ole Opry debut on March 9.

There’s no guarantee that any — let alone all — of them will stick. But it’s not like country music is a closed society.

“Take a look at Jelly Roll,” Shomby says. “This guy was a rapper, for crying out loud — he wasn’t even a famous rapper, but he was around. He’s welcome with open arms.”

It hasn’t always been that way. There’ve been plenty of figures from other music formats — such as Jessica Simpson, Connie Francis and La Toya Jackson — who made brief forays into country, then disappeared. So did former NFL quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Danny White, plus actors Dennis Weaver and Maureen McCormick. 

The country music business has long been skeptical of people it perceives as carpetbaggers. Even artists who’ve had some success when jumping into country — such as Tom Jones, who scored a No. 1 single with 1977’s “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow” and a top five with 1983’s “Touch Me (I’ll Be Your Fool Once More)” — have been flummoxed by its expectation of a commitment.

“With country stations, if you don’t record country all the time, they feel then that you’re not a country artist,” he complained in ’83. “If you only come out with an occasional country album, it’s hard to get it played on some stations because they stick with their regulars.”

R&B and adult contemporary stations, he allowed, operated with the same sort of provincialism.

But plenty of artists have made successful transitions into country, too — Conway Twitty, Dan Seals, John Schneider, Exile and Darius Rucker, to name a few. All of them faced skepticism on their way to acceptance. Seals’ former manager, Melody Place COO Tony Gottlieb, recalls when Seals was confronted about it on late-night TV.

“This guy who’s from Nashville — obviously tuned into the Nashville scene — asks Dan, ‘What do you say about failed pop artists coming to Nashville to pursue country music careers?’ ” recalls Gottlieb. “Of course, as Dan’s manager, I wanted to strangle the guy because he had just ambushed him right on live TV.”

Seals had actually been raised on country — Ernest Tubb and The Louvin Brothers — and he proved himself over the long haul. His fourth single, “God Must Be a Cowboy,” became the first of 16 top 10s, including 11 No. 1s. Like Twitty and Kenny Rogers before him, Seals did three things that most successful outsiders have done to become insiders: He committed to country; his music targeted the center of the format, not its sonic periphery; and he recorded high-quality songs.

“You can be new one time,” observes Mike Reid, who segued from his original career as an all-pro NFL lineman into a country singer-songwriter in the 1980s. “But you better always be good, you know. The audience is going to tell you if you’re any good or not.”

The audience likewise will decide whether members of the current crop — including Beyoncè and Post Malone — make an authentic connection with their country endeavors. Pushback is to be expected in the beginning.

Maverick partner Clarence Spalding saw that play out in the early 1980s as the road manager for Exile, which began making country records five years after a No. 1 pop single with “Kiss You All Over.” Spalding’s current management client list includes Rucker, who was known as the frontman for multiplatinum pop/rock band Hootie + the Blowfish before he recorded as a solo country artist.

“There’s a divide — there always is — when anything new comes in town,” Spalding notes. “It’s, you know, ‘That’s not country,’ ‘That is country,’ ‘What is country?’ I don’t know the answer; it’s a subjective thing. If the consumer accepts it as country, then it’s country.”

Transitioning into the genre might actually be easier now than ever before for multiple reasons, beginning with the makeup of the music itself. From the soul-tinged sound of Thomas Rhett’s core hits to the hard-rock influence in HARDY’s material, the genre is much more flexible. 

“It’s a wider avenue to go down, and so it’s going to be more forgiving than if it were the traditional country song,” suggests Reid. “You better not go near that unless you know what the hell you’re doing.”

Additionally, Taylor Swift’s reverse transition more than a decade ago, from country singer to pop stadium-filler, has made genre-hopping more acceptable. 

“She could probably put a country album out tomorrow, and nobody’s going to question anything,” Shomby says.

Like Swift, Beyoncè, Post Malone and Del Rey are all courting country while they are still going strong in their original genre. Many of their predecessors tried to jump to country only when their pop careers had sunk, creating a negative view of the practice in Nashville.

Radio programmers are operating differently, too. Many modern PDs came into country from other formats and view country’s boundaries with more elasticity, and since they often work for stations in multiple formats, they’re less concerned about the exclusivity of any single genre. Plus, digital service providers have created a more fluid environment.

“Clearly the technology has changed this,” says Gottlieb. “This discussion would not have occurred in the same context six, eight years ago before the DSPs had such a major impact on what we’re doing.”

Perhaps the biggest factor, though, is sheer quality. The country industry has historically felt demeaned by the rest of the business. The fact that visiting artists are approaching country while they’re hot is viewed positively on Music Row. But the quality, and authenticity, of the work weighs most heavily in the reception it receives.

“If it’s a really, really good song, I hope they play it,” Spalding reasons. “And if it’s not a really good song, if it just has a big name on it — you know, don’t spread the crap.”

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