For Some Veteran Country Acts, Making Lean, Mean Indie Labels Could Extend Recording Careers Beyond Hits

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Thursday July 12, 2012

From: The Nashville Scene

For some veteran country acts, making lean, mean indie labels could extend recording careers beyond hits
By: Jewly Hight

If you’ve seen Little Jimmy Dickens on the Opry this century, you’ve probably heard him introduce a song about like this: “A song from my latest album, ladies and gentlemen. Came out in 1965, I think it was.” It’s a joke befitting a still-performing, 91-year-old contemporary of Hank Sr., but it also drives home a fine point about country veterans who’ve reached the other side of their hit-making heydays and are decades younger than he: Nobody’s guaranteed a vital, lifelong recording career, especially not on a major label.

George Strait and Reba McEntire ‘” Country Music Hall of Famers who still impact the charts ‘” are the exceptions, not the rule. For most performers, the ebb of radio airplay and major label support is inevitable. And adjusting to humbler career circumstances can’t be easy for anyone who’s breathed the rarified air of stardom long enough to get used to it. Pride, or inertia, can keep a performer striving to reach the same old commercial heights the same old ways. But there’s a tiny yet growing minority of veteran acts who are shaking off the mid- to late-career status quo and teaming up with indie labels that aim beyond radio. (Sure, Taylor Swift’s independent label home, Big Machine, goes toe to toe with the majors, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Artist manager Marc Dottore knows how hard it can be to sell a recording artist on taking this sort of leap. “You were hungry,” he says. “You worked really hard. You got a record deal. You got a hit. Things got good. You made money. You were playing stadiums. You got a nice house. When you’re [used to] making six-figure records and getting big advances and all the sudden somebody like me walks up and says, ‘You should make a $30,000, down-and-dirty record and put it out with Sugar Hill [Records],’ [you’re] like ‘What?!’ “

But the acts Dottore currently manages ‘” Kathy Mattea, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith ‘” needed no arm-twisting to try something different. They’ve all made Sugar Hill albums in recent years ‘” Mattea’s Calling Me Home is due in September ‘” and been joined by Don Williams (And So It Goes came out last month) and Wanda Jackson (Unfinished Business was announced last week). And Merle Haggard started the decade with consecutive albums on sister label Vanguard. The first move, though, was Dolly Parton’s: She released a trio of bluegrass projects on Sugar Hill around the turn of the millennium.

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