Back to Basics
Nashville label takes its time breaking traditional artist
By Beverly Keel
NOVEMBER 1, 1999: Jerry Kilgore, the first male singer on Virgin Nashville's roster, is practically an anomaly in today's country music industry: He's a traditional country music singer who's over 30 years old. While the rest of the industry has taken a pop turn with acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Shane Minor, and the Dixie Chicks, Virgin Nashville president Scott Hendricks is sticking to the country roads that laid the genre's foundation. Ironically, that may be the most daring move he could've taken.
Unlike most of country's current new acts, who were born in the early 1980s and had their musical tastes shaped by Mariah Carey or Metallica, Kilgore, 34, grew up in Tillamook, Ore., listening to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. He assembled his first band at 19 and worked for two years in a Portland honky-tonk. He then put in three years working Arizona clubs and another three fronting a band in Salisbury, N.C., before moving to Nashville.
After arriving in Music City, he soon found success as a songwriter, penning Tracy Byrd's "Love Lessons" and John Michael Montgomery's "Cover You in Kisses," which gave him the confidence and determination to cut his own material. Songwriters Jeff Stevens and Steve Bogard produced four songs on Kilgore and played the demo for Hendricks, who decided to sign the singer.
Last month, Virgin Nashville released Kilgore's debut album, Love Trip. Produced by Bogard, Stevens, and Hendricks, the album is a collection of smooth, easygoing country songs reminiscent of George Strait. The label bills Kilgore's music as "new country that tastes vintage." Like Strait, he's a handsome, hat-wearing, straightforward performer. But unlike Strait, he's attempting to break into the industry during a time when male singers have started donning leather pants and dancing around in their videos. It seems that the industry once influenced by Ricky Skaggs is now taking some of its cues from Ricky Martin.
"I want people to know that I'm just a normal guy," Kilgore says. "A lot of the big singers over the years have been normal guys. You know, Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, and Randy Travis are just simple guys...and that's what I like about country music."
When trying to figure out how to market their new signing, Kilgore's label and management envisioned him as a throwback to the real men of the 1970s, such as Steve McQueen and Robert Redford. The photo and video shoots were based on this masculine image. Barn scenes were out, while more contemporary settings were in, such as Werthan Industries.
"There haven't been any real men in country for a while," says Kilgore's manager, Marc Dottore of Titley-Spalding. "A majority of our headliners are substantial guys, but we haven't produced anything recently other than young kids.... There's a place for the Shane Minors and Keith Urbans in country music right now, but there's a strong yearning for more traditional, more real, more identifiable characters. The average country music consumer can't really relate to Shane Minor. They like him, but country music is about life and people's stories and what they've gone through. It's not, 'Hey, baby baby.' "
Perhaps even more notable, Virgin is going against current industry norms by choosing to build Kilgore's career slowly, region by region. "Obviously, it's very hard to 'brand-name' a totally unknown artist in this genre," says Virgin general manager Van Fletcher. "It's hard to do that quickly, unless you just have a huge song that comes out of the box and pulls them out. We are looking at a two-year plan in which we'll try to grow Jerry's name and make his face recognizable."
Kilgore spent the last four months on an exhaustive tour of influential radio stations, and he'll spend the next three months playing club dates in medium and smaller markets such as Charlotte, Indianapolis, Chattanooga, and Houston. Virgin is conducting direct-mail campaigns in each city, contacting households that have been profiled as country music fans, and the singer is doing local press and CD signings in each city.
Kilgore is among the first artists who will suffer from The Nashville Network's decision to cancel its country music-related talk and news shows, so local press coverage has become even more valuable. "We've got an environment right now where more outlets of country music are going away, so it's been a little tough," Dottore says.
The album's first single, "Love Trip," has been on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks and currently rests at No. 39. The industry trend of having a single remain on the chart for about 14 weeks has nearly doubled to between 20 and 30 weeks. "That makes you be even more patient and try to really capitalize on every city you visit," Fletcher says.
A second, yet-to-be-determined single will be released after the first of the year, at which time Kilgore will return to the same cities that he's working right now; on that tour, though, he'll expand to another 20 markets. Then he'll repeat the same pattern when his third single is released. "It's going back to the basics," Fletcher says. "Instead of starting from the top and hoping you get a huge big single...we are looking at this as a 24-month plan and just building it, knowing that Jerry Kilgore will have a second, third, and fourth album."
Dottore observes that this approach to breaking its artist isn't necessarily all that radical--given that Kilgore and his handlers are following a pattern established decades ago. "Country music used to be about shaking hands and meeting people and building your fan base one at a time, and that's what we're doing."
Kilgore's traditional style has caught the ears of the Grand Ole Opry, which is featuring him as the first artist in its new promotional campaign, sponsored in part by Country Weekly. "The Opry is trying to lock into new talent that makes sense for them early on, and hopefully as that artist's career builds, he'll stay with the Opry," Dottore says.
Virgin viewed the singer's age neither as a benefit nor as a drawback, so the label has chosen not to address it at all in promotional materials. "I think it helps me," Kilgore says. "I just feel there is room for everything. There's room for the artists who are 16 and 20. I personally buy stuff from guys I think have lived or been there, done it, and I think we still have fans out there like that."
The label has also chosen not to spotlight Kilgore's traditional sound as a promotional hook, says Susan Levy, Virgin's vice president of artist development. "We talked about addressing the point that he was country-sounding, maybe stamping [the CD] with a warning: 'Contains country music.' But I think Arista had done something similar with Brad Paisley.
"I'm not convinced that those people who were buying Tracy Byrd and George Strait records...are gone. It's much harder to reach them than it was a couple of years ago because the national attention isn't on us anymore and because of the reorganization at radio." But Levy points to the success of newcomer Paisley as an indication that consumers still want traditional male singers.
"I don't think it's up to us as an industry to declare the traditional country male singer as over," she continues. "I think Scott did the right thing: found an act who was talented and signed him. That's all you can do in the music business: take people who you think are good, sign them, and hope you will find an audience for them.
"Someday, when radio finishes its reorganization and the youthful people that this genre is working very hard right now to appeal to graduate from high school...we may be in the position to go back and find those core listeners again. If and when the process leads up to that point in time, will there be people like Jerry Kilgore available? I don't think it's the right thing for labels just to pursue trends. You have to sign acts who are talented and hope to influence trends."
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