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No Country for Older Men: What Happens When Radio Stops Playing Your Music?

Alan Jackson Vince Gill Trace Adkins
Rick Diamond / Frederick Breedon / Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Take a look at the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart this week, and you’ll find quite a bit of diversity. Hot young acts like Florida Georgia Line and Parmalee have current songs riding high, as does ‘The Voice‘ winner Cassadee Pope. David Nail and Eli Young Band are in there, and so are Luke Bryan and Keith Urban. But one thing you won’t find in the current country charts is any older artist.

That’s not because older artists aren’t releasing new music. There are very strong current releases from some of the most recognizable artists of the last several decades right now, including perennial sellers like Alan Jackson and Trace Adkins. But you probably wouldn’t know it from listening to country radio.

There are several reason for this. There’s an age-old argument in Nashville as to whether there’s an inherent ageism at country radio — take a look back at generations past, and you’ll see that at a certain point in their mid-to-late 40s, artists just tend to drop naturally from radio playlists. And while that’s undeniably true, it’s also more complicated than that.

"It’s a lot harder to get people excited about the same old, same old than it is to hype a new sound."

The reality is that if you’re lucky enough to have any success in the music business at all, there is going to come a day when you are better known for what you used to do than for what you are doing now. That’s an inevitable by-product of the passage of time, and the fact that any given artist can only be the next big thing once. Naturally, radio jumps all over a hot new artist, and it’s easy for fans to get excited about that and light up the phone lines. As years go by, there comes a point when you’ve pretty much seen most of what any given artist might have to offer commercially, and they start to cool off. It’s a lot harder to get people excited about the same old, same old than it is to hype a new sound.

There’s also a business angle that plays into this — when a record company signs a new artist, it’s usually to a multi-album deal that’s locked in at a certain rate of remuneration. If that artist succeeds wildly within that period of time, they are usually still earning the same relatively small royalty on each unit sold, while the record company is keeping the bulk of the money.

By the time the artist reaches the end of that deal and is in a position to re-negotiate for a higher royalty rate, a few years have passed, tastes and marketplace trends begin to change, and the record company has to make a decision as to whether it makes sense to re-sign that artist at a higher rate — meaning they will have to sell more units for the label to reap the same profits — or whether it’s simply easier to let them go and sign a new artist to a less expensive deal, and bet on the possibility of making that into a huge new success that’s more profitable for the company.

So where does that leave an older artist who has had success at radio in the past, but is approaching — or past — the age where radio is less of an option? As it turns out, it can lead to artists making the best music of their career.

Trace Adkins is one example of an artist who is using the next phase of his career as a laboratory for musical experimentation. The 51-year-old was candid about his chances for radio play when he released ‘Love Will’ this year.

“I mean, I’m a realist. I look at this career that I’ve had, and it’s been fantastic. It’s been more than I ever could have dreamed or hoped for or wished for,” Adkins said. “And I may be getting to the end of my competitive run at radio. You what I’m sayin’? And this may be it . . . if they play this one, maybe I’ll stick around a little while.”

Those words proved prophetic — ‘Love Will’ didn’t score a breakout single, but Adkins hasn’t exactly been sitting around licking his wounds. He released his first Christmas album, ‘The King’s Gift,’ recently, and, free from the constraints of having to cater to radio, turned in by far the most adventurous music of his career. The album features Celtic carols that marry American folk music with such unusual instrumentation as weissenborn, mandolin, uilleann pipe, penny whistle, violin, viola, cello, harp and organ.

Vince Gill predicted his own downturn at radio in a song called ‘Young Man’s Town’ in 2003, from the ironically-titled ‘Next Big Thing’ album, which saw him accepting the changes that were taking place in Nashville’s music scene with a detached bemusement: “Sometimes you’ve gotta stand back and watch them burn it to the ground / ‘Cause even though you built it, it’s a young man’s town.”

Far from giving up on his music, Gill has moved forward into a stage of his career that has seen him recording exactly what he wants to, including 2006′s ‘These Days,’  a 43-track box set of all new songs in which he explored country, bluegrass, jazz and rock, winning a Grammy for Best Country Album in the process.

His most recent album is ‘Bakersfield,’ on which he joined forces with celebrated Nashville steel guitar player Paul Franklin for a tribute to the music of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The album was not only critically acclaimed, it also debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart — not bad for a project that arguably couldn’t have gotten released at the height of Gill’s radio success.

"The internet — which has had a tremendously negative impact on sales for major label artists due to piracy — can play a major role in the re-invention of a legacy artist."

Alan Jackson is another artist who is making lemonade out of lemons.

“It’s always been that constant pop-country battle. I don’t think it’s ever going to change,” he told the Baltimore Sun with resignation in September. “What makes me sad today is that I think the real country, real roots-y traditional stuff, may be gone. I don’t know if it’ll ever be back on mainstream radio. You can’t get it played anymore.”

Instead, Jackson shifted gears entirely to record the aptly-titled ‘The Bluegrass Album,’ fulfilling a long-cherished dream of releasing a bluegrass record. The country legend — who has had as much success at country radio as virtually anyone in the history of the genre — has simply made an end run around the tastes and needs of programmers with his new project, taking it directly to the fans.

In somewhat of an ironic turnabout, the internet — which has had a tremendously negative impact on sales for major label artists due to piracy — can play a major role in the re-invention of a legacy artist.

Tracy Lawrence formed his own company and embraced a new, edgier set of production values for his latest album, ‘Headlights, Taillights and Radios.’ The internet and social media played a major role in his marketing strategy, which he says in turn empowered him to make whatever music he wanted to.

“You know, if you just focus on making singles, you lose the personality of the record,” he notes. “Because everything is not meant to go to radio. It’s not meant for that mass consumption. And that’s where you find the true personality of the artist, the true life experiences. Those things that shine through the cracks, man, that’s where the true stuff comes out, for me.”

Travis Tritt is another artist who’s used those changes to his distinct advantage. He bounced back from years of complicated litigation with a former label with the release of his newest album, ‘The Calm After…,’ on his self-owned Post Oak Recordings.

“The trade-off is having the freedom to do the kind of music you want to do, when you want to do it. If you’re an established artist who has a fan base, it’s extremely liberating,” he told The Boot in July. “Having that level of freedom, combined with the level of profit, I think is an acceptable trade-off for the opportunity it creates for people to come in and pirate your stuff.”

Tritt is currently planning to shoot a live acoustic DVD, and he has talked of the possibilities of doing projects in numerous different styles like gospel — a proposition that would have been unlikely at a major label. Tritt argues that if anything, being free from the major label and radio paradigm is better.

“It becomes very exhausting, very frustrating, knowing full well that if you could just get the music out directly to the public — you know what your fan base is and what they like,” he states. “And not having to play by anyone’s rules other than my own is extremely exciting, and it makes me more enthusiastic about doing the music now than I probably have ever been in my entire career.”

Lawerence concurs. “You know, if you sit back and believe what record labels tell you, yeah, there is an expiration date on the box,” he acknowledges. “But I don’t think fans have that same mindset. I think as long as you’re relevant and you’re making good music, there is no expiration date to those fans. George Jones was living proof of that, and you know, Charlie Daniels is still out there banging it out after how many decades? I think country fans are loyal. I think as long as you can find ways to continue to reach your audience, and you’re passionate about what you do, and you continue to put on good shows, you can do this for a long, long time.”

Next: Is Traditional Country Music Dead?

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