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Nashville Scene Looking Good

Image crucial to success in the country biz these days

By Beverly Keel

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  When the stars casually stroll down the red carpet at next Wednesday's Country Music Association Awards, their calm demeanor will belie the focused effort it has taken to get them ready. After all, it's not as though they just grabbed an outfit from their collection of stage clothes; more likely, they've embarked on a weeks-long, countrywide search for just the right dress or suit.

Let's face it: Image and appearance play a crucial role in the success of a country artist. It always has--the difference is that Nudie suits and Western wear have been supplanted by designer outfits. What's more, in the pop-oriented country industry of the '90s, an artist's presence at the CMA Awards has the same kind of impact that an actor's appearance might have at the Oscars. A week from now, we may not remember who won what, but we'll certainly remember who looked the best and the worst. Shania Twain, for instance, had the nation abuzz over her crotch-dusting black skirt and dog collar ensemble that she wore to the Grammies. People are no less curious about what the Dixie Chicks will be wearing next Wednesday night.

Regardless of how fashion-conscious they are, country music performers simply wouldn't have the same impact if they didn't retain the services of stylists such as Trish Townsend. These professionals are hired to make sure a singer's appearance fits his or her public persona. Thanks in no small part to Townsend and her colleagues, rhinestones and bad haircuts have gone the way of polyester leisure suits, replaced by hip Gucci dresses and immaculate coiffures.

No time of year does this fact resonate more strongly than in the fall, when country artists are trying to make the best possible appearance. Once considered an afterthought, stylists are now a routine part of the photography and publicity process, earning anywhere from $600 to $1,000 for a day's work. In other words, their time is considered as valuable as that of a Music Row session musician. Most acts wouldn't consider stepping into a photography or television studio without first consulting their stylists, and major acts have an annual clothing budget of $75,000 or more.

Integral as they are to the modern country music industry, stylists still aren't taken very seriously. After all, observers might reason, how hard can it be to shop? "They think it's fluff," says Townsend, who works with about 25 pop and country stars, including Vince Gill, Mindy McCready, LeAnn Rimes, and Lee Ann Womack. "But there's a lot of pressure there. Labels have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an artist to make the music right, but unfortunately, sometimes people pay more attention to the image than the music."

That said, Townsend insists it's ridiculous to assume that image ever completely eclipses the music. An artist's recordings are ultimately what makes or breaks his career; styling is just part of the overall package. "It's a cop-out [to] blame lack of sales on an image," she says.

Critics can decry the degree to which image-consciousness drives the current country music industry, but it's a necessary part of keeping a foothold in the marketplace. "Country is more mainstream now and is crossing over," Townsend points out. "You would be surprised at who has a Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain CD in their collection."

The bulk of Townsend's work is done for video and photo shoots. She sees her role as being the mediator between performer, label, and photographer or video director. She tries to stay consistent with the label's marketing plans and the photographer's creative vision while making sure the act is entirely comfortable with his or her look. It's not always easy making everyone happy. "Everybody dresses themselves, so everybody has an opinion. My goal is to try to make [my clients] look different. The main thing is, they have to look like a star. Some of them finesse that a lot better than others. "

Rimes' stagewear offers an interesting example of the ways in which an artist's clothing reflects the overall direction of her career. While she wore traditional country garb when her career took off, she now dons Prada, Cynthia Rowley, and Miu Miu. But from the outset, Townsend points out, "LeAnn chose to dress more maturely. I think it was smart, because she was the first young artist to come out in a long time, and her music initially appealed to an older audience with 'Blue.' "

But Townsend is sticking to more trendy, teen fashions for new MCA act Alecia Elliott. Since youth has become an asset in a business dominated by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, Elliot's clothing will emphasize her young age.

Vince Gill affirms that one of Townsend's main strengths is knowing who she's buying for. "She's like a really good record producer--she enhances the artist. Instead of saying, 'This is how I like it,' she's there to help them put their best foot forward."

Gill himself somewhat begrudgingly admits that looks really do matter in country music. "There are certain things that are:Everybody else does it, so you've kind of got to do it," he says. "It becomes a big part of the equation, and it comes from the labels too. I remember my RCA days, I would hear the reason that my singles weren't doing well was, 'You look like crap and you need a better haircut.' " Gill, of course, disagreed.

"If you ask me personally, I would tell you that [image doesn't] really matter to me," he says. "But in the business that I'm in, there are times when I really want to look nice. When I show up on TV and host the awards or whatever, I don't want to be in a pair of jeans that are too long and bunch up at the bottom. It's good to have some help because some people are much better at it than others."

Needless to say, some country stars will look better than others on Wednesday night. Quite frankly, the attire won't be much different from last year's: Alan Jackson will likely wear either a traditional Western suit or jeans with a nice jacket, and Vince Gill will host in a black formal Dolce & Gabbana suit. Martina McBride will probably be classically elegant in a long dress, while Faith Hill and Tim McGraw will be both hip and glamorous, perhaps wearing Gucci, Richard Tyler, or Dolce & Gabbana. The Dixie Chicks will open the show in Pamela Dennis outfits and then change into other Pamela Dennis creations for the rest of the show.

The goal, Townsend explains, isn't for country artists to look like their pop counterparts, but to look like America's best dressed. Thus country stars will be drawing on the same designers who dress the Oscar and Emmy nominees. "As fashion and music are all mainstreamed together," Townsend says, "I try to keep the look as universal as the music, so that it appeals to all age groups and tastes of music.

"When it comes to the CMAs, the one thing I tell every artist is, 'Respect this venue.' You can get away with a lot more at the Academy of Country Music Awards if you want to get funky or over the top, but the CMAs is the classiest evening that country music has. That's our night of being represented to our finest."

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