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Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens Share Insights with Some of Today's Hottest Artists
By Peter Cronin   © 2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

In 2003, CMA created the Artist Relations Committee as part of an ongoing effort to educate and involve the artists in all that the organization does on behalf of Country Music. Chaired by Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn and Co-chaired by ASCAP Senior VP Connie Bradley, the committee agreed that while CMA is rightly concerned with moving forward, it should never lose touch with Country’s colorful past and with the rich history that points the way to the future. 

There are great members in the artist community that can provide insight into where CMA has been and where it needs to go. The May CMA Board meetings in Dallas presented the perfect opportunity for a cross-generational artists “summit.” Moderated by CMA Close Up Editor Peter Cronin, the panel brought together some of today’s hottest Country artists – Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn; Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry; Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts; and John Rich of Big & Rich – with living legends and Country Music Hall of Fame members “Whispering” Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens. The conversation quickly took on a life of its own as panelists tackled a number of Country Music-related topics. Following are some excerpts from this lively and historic panel. 

Photo: (l-r) Board President Mike Dungan, President/CEO, Capitol Records Nashville; Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn; John Rich of Big & Rich; Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry; Tammy Genovese, CMA COO; Little Jimmy Dickens; Bill Anderson; Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts; and Board Chairman Victor Sansone, President/GM, ABC Radio Group, Atlanta. Photographer: Matt Slocum

SONGWRITING

ANDERSON: “When I got [to Nashville] in 1960, I think there were three or four publishing companies. It was the beginning of the artist/songwriter thing with myself, Mel Tillis, Roger Miller, Tom T. Hall and people like that. There weren’t many people making a living writing songs, and there was very little co-writing. You went into your room at night, pulled down the shades, tried to get in a mournful mood and wrote a sad song. For years I thought that was the way you had to do it. And then about 10 years ago I discovered this great thing called co-writing, and boy it sure is a lot more fun that way.”

BROOKS: “Didn’t Roger Miller once say, ‘I don’t really get the co-writing thing; Picasso didn’t co-paint did he?’ I spent 10 years writing for a living before Ronnie [Dunn] and I started. I can’t think of a higher-pressure job for a person starting out in the business. There are a handful of guys that make their living at songwriting, but there’s only a few slots out there. It’s really challenging.” 

RICH: “Your ears are more important than your mouth when you’re writing songs. We saw Gretchen Wilson go from being a bartender to selling 4 and a half million records. We were at my house watching CMT. She’s sitting there in a T-shirt and sweatpants and flip-flops, a Bud Light in one hand, a lit cigarette and a Copenhagen dip in the other. Two or three videos roll by with female artists and she goes, ‘I can’t look like that, I can’t sound like that, and I can’t say what they’re saying, ‘Cause that’s not me.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want to sing?’ She said, ‘I’m just a redneck woman standing in the front yard with a baby on one hip.’ She was saying the lyrics of the song right then! We wrote that song in about 60 to 70 minutes, and that’s what opened my mind up to finding out what’s unique about an artist and creating the song about what is unique about them. As soon as I started incorporating that into my songwriting, everything went to another level.”

ANDERSON: “You never get tired of hearing somebody record one of your songs, and I’m just as excited about it happening today as when I found out Ray Price had cut ‘City Lights’ back in 1958.”

DICKENS: “I was riding in Minnie Pearl’s airplane with Hank Williams and he said, ‘Tater, you need a hit.’ And I said, ‘Who doesn’t?’ Hank said, ‘I’m gonna write you one. He started quoting the lines to ‘Hey Good Lookin’ and he wrote it in 20 minutes. He said, ‘You record that, it’ll make you a hit.’ I said, ‘First thing I do when I get home, I’ll record it.’ A week later, I met Hank in the radio station, and he said, ‘Tater, I cut your song today!’” 

TOURING

ANDERSON: “In the early ‘60s, the Wilburn Brothers asked me if I would do a private show for the employees of the Eastman-Kodak company. They said, ‘We’ll pay you $35 to ride to Rochester, N.Y., in the back of our Cadillac, do a show on the stage, tear down, go down in the basement, do a dance, get in the car and go back home. Well, I’d been making $50 a week as a disc jockey and I thought, ‘$35 a day! There’s not that much money in the world!’ This was in the days before interstates; it would take you seven or eight hours to drive to Cincinnati and another three hours to drive through Cincinnati. You finally end up in Rochester, a few hours before the show. We took showers, set the equipment up, did a two-and-a-half hour concert, tore everything down, went into basement, set it all up again, and played a two-hour dance. When the night was over, we packed up our stuff in the car and started right back to Nashville. That’ll take something out of you. If you’ve never ridden in a Chevy coupe with five musicians and a bass fiddle, you haven’t lived. But I wouldn’t take anything for those days.” 

GENTRY: “Eddie and I do the same thing, but not in that extreme. Playing clubs around Kentucky growing up, instead of having the bass on top, we were in my Camaro with the hatchback popped open with speakers hanging out, and guitar straps and cords going every which way in the wind. That makes me appreciate what I have today, being able to drive on tour buses, the bigger crowds and everything else. But I still don’t forget.” 

DICKENS: “It hasn’t all been fun. I had a manager one time who booked me into a phone booth on New Year’s Eve. Standing room only.”

BROOKS: “If you don’t have great songs and some hits, you don’t get to have all that fun.” 

RECORDING

ANDERSON: “When I came along it was a singles oriented business. You’d cut singles, you’d try to get hit records and then it would be on the radio. A regular record session was normally three hours, four songs, and you’d cut your next two singles. If your singles did well, they’d put out an album. We did not go in and cut album projects. 

DEMARCUS: “It has changed sonically and I think for the better. I love the process of being in the studio, and I love hearing my songs on the radio. That’s what pumps me up.”

RICH: “I’m recording stuff on John Anderson right now. I just love him. He’s got one of those voices that’s never going to be duplicated. John Anderson – bring it on!” 

NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND EVOLVING FORMATS

GENTRY: “If I can go and pick up the one or two good songs from an album for two bucks, why would I go out and spend $18 on an album I’m never going to listen to? The generation growing up is seeing that.” 

DEMARCUS: “I don’t know … we had a pretty good first week about a month ago, and I think people still like to hold that jacket in their hands and look at the lyrics. It still matters to a lot of people more than we think.” 

BROOKS: “When I started getting into music, when I was into an artist, the single was cool, but once the dance was over I wanted to hear the other music they made. Knowing those obscure cuts on an album is all part of the cool factor of being a fan. Word of mouth is still very much a part of music culture. My kids are like that. There’s still the real music fan who wants all of it.” 

DICKENS: “I think that’s because they like the artist. When people buy music today, they go looking for that one artist, and whatever is on that album they’re going to buy it, ‘cause they like that person.”

IMAGE AND CAREER BUILDING

RICH: “These two guys have nicknames – ‘Whispering’ Bill Anderson, ‘Little’ Jimmy Dickens. I look at the MuzikMafia as my version of the Rat Pack, the camaraderie and supporting each other. Gretchen Wilson, who’s she? She’s the ‘Redneck Woman.’ ‘Big and Rich,’ what’s that? That’s Country Music without prejudice. ‘Big’ Kenny, ‘Two Foot’ Fred, ‘Cowboy’ Troy and on and on. I think Country Music is going back to that. Rascal Flatts has a total identity. Montgomery Gentry, that chain microphone, your whole thing, there’s a character going on there. And I think if Country Music starts focusing on that character, as Mr. Dickens said, they’re buying that character. Kenny Chesney has now officially replaced Jimmy Buffett as the biggest island guy in the world. But it all starts with the song, down at the creative level at the bottom building it up.” 

ANDERSON: “You guys have got one thing we didn’t have, that helps you get that identity, and that’s the music videos. When I came along, you had to put out record after record for people that never associated a name with an artist. Today you’ve got that video in their living room and they can see what’s different about Rascal Flatts and Brooks & Dunn.” 

RICH: “People can decide they don’t like you a lot faster too!” 

ANDERSON: “When we came along, if you sounded like anybody else, it was, ‘We’ll see you later.’ You had to be unique in the way you sounded; you probably don’t have to be that different today.” 

DICKENS: “One time, Marty Robbins said I want to thank Little Jimmy Dickens for helping me with my career and getting me into this business, because I figured if he could make it, anybody could.” 

RICH: “The cookie-cutter method in Nashville is unhealthy. I think you ought to use different players, different studios, different engineers, different tactics; you ought to mix it up to give that particular artist a fighting chance to have their own sound. I’ve learned that lesson, and thank goodness, had some success at it.”

COUNTRY MUSIC FANS

ANDERSON: “I learned from people like Little Jimmy Dickens and the Wilburn Brothers. If you made a fan in those days, you made a fan for life and they would accept you through the lean years as well as the good years. The relationship between the artist and the fan was really close in those days.”

BROOKS: “They are the people that give us jobs and allow us to do what we do every night. Once you forget that and don’t take the time to give back to them a little bit – a few moments to hug or sign an autograph – you’re hunting down the wrong path.”

THE CURRENT STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

RICH: “I think [the labels] are taking some big chances. They certainly took a chance with us, Big & Rich.” 

GENTRY: “We were definitely left of what was being played on mainstream radio at the time we got signed.” 

ANDERSON: “The Opry is bigger than any one artist. The most exciting nights at the Opry are when there’s just the right mix of veteran artists and new people. My fans, the ladies with the blue hair, are cheering for Big & Rich and Brooks & Dunn. And then the young kids come down to take my picture. When it works, it’s total magic.

RICH: “We’re something totally oddball, and that’s what turns me on about what’s going on in Nashville right now. There’s so much undiscovered knowledge and wisdom out there and bridges to be built. I think we could triple our business around the world, and I don’t think that’s a pipe dream.”

On the Web: 

Bill Anderson – www.billanderson.com  

Big & Rich – www.big&rich.com  

Brooks & Dunn – www.brooks-dunn.com  

Montgomery Gentry – www.montgomerygentry.com  

Rascal Flatts – www.rascalflatts.com 

 

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