Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Global Concerns

By Beverly Keel

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Country music is coming up from down under--at least that's what a recent wave of Australian artist signings suggests. Although the signings were all made independently of each other, the effect could be similar to that of the recent Canadian invasion that brought Shania Twain, Terri Clark, Michelle Wright, Paul Brandt, and Lisa Brokop to the country charts.

Among the Aussie activity of late: Arista Records recently released Words, the debut album by Sherrié Austin, who grew up in Townsville, Australia, before moving with her family to California; Capitol Records has been working with The Ranch, a trio featuring Australians Keith Urban and Peter Clarke (along with American Jerry Flowers); MCA Nashville has signed Olivia Newton-John, the '70s hit-maker who was born in England and raised in Australia; and Atlantic is in negotiations to sign the Dead Ringer Band, a family of four that still lives in Australia. In addition, other antipodean residents are coming to town seeking some American exposure. Among those are Sherry Rich, who recorded her album, released on Australian-based Rubber Records, in Nashville.

"I don't think there's anything other than a coincidence involved, really," says Arista Nashville president Tim DuBois. "There is a healthy country-music industry there, not nearly as big as ours, but the population as a whole isn't as big as ours. It's natural over time that people would find their way into our system, and hopefully we'll find our artists having more success down there."

John Lomax III, a Nashville artist manager who represents the Dead Ringer Band, says, "It's because country music realizes it needs to broaden the scope of the music it presents." For her part, Sherrié Austin says the two cultures are more similar than many people realize. "Australia has cowboys, but they're called jackaroos," she observes. "They have ranches, but they're called stations.... I describe [Sydney] as a big suburb of Texas."

Traditional Australian country music is a narrow, parochial genre that perhaps most resembles Irish folk music. Urban and Austin, however, were raised on American country music--in fact, they received a better musical education than many of the American acts singing today. Austin listened to her mother's Skeeter Davis, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash records, and she sang "Jolene" and "Queen of Hearts" for her stage debut. By the age of 13, she was playing Australian country-music festivals, and two years later, in 1985, she opened for Cash's 1985 Australian tour.

Urban's parents raised him on Charley Pride, Jim Reeves, and Don Williams. By the age of 7, he knew he wanted to move here, and he began preparation for his trip a year later by entering country-music talent shows. Like Austin, he made his stage debut with a Dolly Parton number, "Apple Jack." "I think we have achieved what we did because I was immersed in the music growing up," Urban says. "To some degree, that goes back further than I see in other people's music. In an interview, I'll be asked what influence Garth Brooks has had on me. I'm sorry to say, none. My greatest influences were Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb."

Rather than using their nationality as a marketing and publicity hook, these singers, along with their labels, have chosen to play down their heritage. "I never think of myself as an Australian country singer," Austin says. "I just think of myself as a country singer."

Aussie country
Sherrié Austin, who performs this Thursday at the Calsonic Arena in Shelbyville along with Tracy Lawrence and Trace Adkins.

Urban says listeners will judge his music differently if they know of his background before they hear the music. "What I've done with my career is taken a similar approach to what Chet Atkins did with Charley Pride," he says, referring to RCA's refusal to release photos of the black country singer until radio stations were already giving his songs airplay.

The analogy might seem extreme, but "it's difficult to get our music across if they know we're Australian," Urban insists. Early on, he wouldn't conduct interviews until after reporters had seen his show; that way, they wouldn't develop preconceived notions. "That's not to say we're not proud of where we're from, but we don't want it to hinder our music in any way."

One wouldn't think that a simple question of nationality could hinder an artist's career, but Urban thinks otherwise. "In this day, being set apart from other acts is an obstacle. It really boils down to the familiarity of the music and the timing. Is what you've got to offer popular right now? If not, could it be, if you were to get support from the industry? We fit into the latter part of that."

Admitting you have a problem

On Tuesday, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) held Nashville's first-ever symposium on substance abuse in the music industry. Panelists included artist manager Stan Moress, Warner/Chappell's Tim Wipperman, and CMA executive director Ed Benson. To ensure a candid dialogue, the meeting wasn't open to the public or press; attendees had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

"It's hard to determine how big the problem is," says Nancy Shapiro, NARAS senior executive director. "But we can tell by our response that alcohol and drug abuse has just about touched everybody in one way or another. Lots of industries come together to help people that find themselves in need or crisis, and the music industry is no different. No longer are we going to look the other way when we suspect or know somebody has a problem. We want to reach out a helping hand to people in need."

The symposium, which follows similar meetings in Los Angeles and New York, is sponsored by the NARAS-established MusiCares, which provides financial assistance, insurance, and treatment to musicians. MusiCares has a substance-abuse intervention program for people in the industry, and it offers a 24-hour 1-800-MUSICARES help-line to provide confidential referral and intervention services.

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