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Rock's New Sturm and Twang

Root-rock has its day -- Major music labels are hoping to find the next "Hootie and the Blowfish"

Perhaps Donny and Marie should start thinking reunion.

Not that the world really needs an infusion of dippy mayonnaise-pop, but the TV siblings' credo — she's a little bit country, he's a little bit rock & roll — meshes nicely with a prevailing current in the music industry. Following long-in-coming successes from Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow, not to mention steady-selling journeymen like John Mellencamp and Tom Petty, record execs are betting that listeners want more twang than wail on their airwaves in 1995: Across the industry several major labels have targeted roots-rock acts as potential breakthroughs this year, hoping that jangly, on-the-porch offerings from budding stars like Hootie & the Blowfish and Dave Matthews Band, and from relative unknowns like Grant Lee Buffalo, Wilco, and the country-rocking Jayhawks, will quiet the feedback roar that has dominated the current wave of hot-new-things.

Recent history provides inspiration for their hunch. While such brazen punk-pop acts as Green Day and the Offspring gobbled up most of the headlines and MTV airplay in 1994, the year's best-selling rock album actually belonged to Counting Crows, whose earnest debut, August and Everything After (nearly 4 million sales), quietly reopened the market for roots rock. ''Counting Crows really broke the ice,'' says Atlantic Records president Val Azzoli. ''But it's like Hootie — we're almost at a million records, and when I say that to people they look at me like I'm sniffing glue. At one point this band got no press, because there was nothing to write about: 'Four guys from the South. Great. Did they murder anybody?' 'No.' 'Fine, call me when they're a hit.'''

Now that Hootie, who've climbed to No. 25 on the Billboard pop chart, can make that call, other acts and their labels are hoping to exploit the same promotional avenues:

Touring. Acts like Hootie and Dave Matthews, both of whom sold thousands of albums before signing with majors, often develop sizable regional followings (as well as an onstage proficiency lacking in most alterna-baby bands) through incessant touring. ''At Dave Matthews shows,'' says RCA director of artist development Tom Derr, ''you have fans singing lyrics to songs that aren't even recorded yet!''

AAA Radio. ''Triple A has opened the door for a lot of artists who don't fit into the modern rock and/or album rock station sound,'' says KBCO music director Scott Arbough. Indeed, the growing clout of ''adult album alternative'' radio stations — often credited with breaking both Sheryl Crow and Counting Crows — holds a variety of attractions for labels: (1) a demographic (25-to-54 years old) traditionally fond of a country-inflected rock sound; (2) a willingness to program unknown acts and to play several cuts deep on a particular record; and (3) a buzz-making reputation that helps their core artists cross over to more traditional (and more powerful) formats.

The ''New'' VH1. ''If there's one particular format that came to the party (for Hootie) and stayed at the party, it's VH1,'' says Azzoli. The music network's fall makeover, and its need to establish an identity distinct from sister channel MTV, created an outlet both friendly toward older-skewing acts, and one capable of launching bands into the platinum stratosphere. Now, says VH1's senior VP of music and talent Wayne Isaak, ''roots-rock music is something that certainly gets our early attention, because the VH1 audience is the heart and soul of a roots-rock audience.''

''What we're seeing,'' says Arbough, ''are places like VH1 and Triple A radio following growing baby boomers — people who still like music but don't necessarily want to hear Jimi Hendrix all the time.'' And the boomer market — older, larger, and, most importantly, richer than the oft-courted Gen X legions — beckons like a siren audience to record labels.

But selling roots rock often requires greater stamina than more definable genres do. The major-label debut CDs of both Sheryl Crow and the Gin Blossoms, for instance, each took more than a year of work to crack the million-copy ceiling. Less-than-glitzy images, and mainstream radio's obsession with niche formatting, make for a slow ascent on the charts. ''Every station is a struggle,'' complains Azzoli of mainstream radio. ''They're like, 'Aww, well, it doesn't really meet our format. I don't feel comfortable with this type of music.'''

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