Today we continue the conversation with Eric Weibard, author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music.
Eric Banister: I’m doing some research on Red Foley in broadcasting, and going through some old issues of it. I came across an article, just a couple of days ago actually, 1948, and Roy Acuff left the Grand Ole Opry and they brought Red Foley in. Most books just say that. “Roy left. Red came in, took over his portion.” But I came across an article finally about, “How to lose your top star and not your ratings.”
Through the whole article they talked — in 1948, and this is what blows people’s minds I think — in 1948 they were talking about they hired this group to come in and basically focus group the Grand Ole Opry listeners, in 1948. The histories just wanted it to remain that folksy barn dance. They would go, “Oh, well Red Foley was popular and good ol’ Roy left so Red came in.” But it talked about how many people they polled, and what percentage of the people wanted music, but they didn’t want too much of this kind of music, or this kind of music. So that’s how they settled on Red Foley. That kind of stuff is really fascinating to me.
Eric Weibard: Right. And he’s fascinating. I mean, he’s definitely one of those people who looms larger when you look at music through the eyes of like the perspective I’m bringing to this book. When you think about less in terms of, “Who is the greatest artist who sort of defines the genre,” and more like, “Who is the savvy artist who saw possibilities for how to expand the format?” Who said, “Country can be this, but it could also be this and this. I need to be open.” He was someone who, sometimes through marriage, and sometimes through family connections, but a lot in just the benign quality he brought to his inclusiveness.
It just ended up bringing a lot of stuff in, so he wasn’t the hard-core country figure in some ways, but the space he made had room for a Porter Wagoner in one spot, or Brenda Lee, and a million people.
EB: Yeah, and while he’s having these kind of — I wouldn’t even call them country-politan at the time — but he was doing…
EW: In some ways he was foreshadowing that, yeah.
EB: And at the same time he’s doing duet records with Ernest Tubb, who is hard core.
EW: Right, right, I know. And in that way it’s not unlike Dolly, who could swing both ways. Is Dolly Parton hard core or softshell? That’s an unanswerable question. No one would ever accuse Dolly Parton of not being a true country figure, but also, no one would ever accuse Dolly Parton of being a purist.
I think those are two things that you would get almost universal agreement on. Because 100% country and she’s never made music that has to be heard as purely country. When she feels like it, she does anything she wants.
To me, the thing about county in particular — and I’m really building on Diane Pecknold’s great book on country music — is that it’s the one category where the industry had a very clear sense of itself as an industry. And the artists and the fans were all interested in seeing how well country as an industry did. So it wasn’t just that they were rooting for particular performers to do well, but they wanted, in this collective sense, to see, “Where can country go? How big can it get? Can we make sure it doesn’t die?”
So in that way, it’s a rarity. Country is format and genre, and it’s comfortable, its fans, its artists, its people, are comfortable rooting for it as a format. It’s the only one that I can think of where that is really understood. Like someone would get up at an award show and say, among other things, “I want to thank the country music industry.” And it’s not being said in a cynical way. A rocker would always talk about the music industry in a cynical way. You would expect that. Not so with country.
EB: I was curious about country, because it is such a genre and a format. Then you have, especially it happened since the ’40s, but it’s still a topic today, “Country is not what it used to be.” You touch on it in the book. I think you put it in the book, or there is a quote, where they talk about pop music. You could find four or five different stations, four or five different versions of pop music, or rock music. But country is country.
EB: And there’s no… Even though they’ve tried: “classic country.” They tried, and the funny part to me is there is a whole bunch of stations that do “classic country,” but the classic country that they play is really the “pop country” of the ’70s, that in the ’70s people complained wasn’t “classic country.”
EW: Yeah, it’s another way that country has got some unique qualities. To me, the most tragic story of the music genres is rock. Because rock was so against the notion of being a format, of being self-conscious, of promoting itself as a category, that rock radio kind of disintegrated. It became this form that could not escape its past, that just was going to play Led Zeppelin until the end of time.
Maybe there would be room, “Once in a while we’ll put in Nirvana or Pearl Jam,” kind of sounds, right. But by and large, rock has been such a failure, as far as exposing big audiences to new music without having to turn that process into this crazy game of getting a song on a TV show, or a million other kind of weird [ways]…
Country, it’s remarkable. I mean, we can quarrel with what country radio decides to play or not play. When my students ask me, “What is country?” I basically say, “It’s whatever country radio is playing.” But that fact, that it’s not ultimately going to be bound to absolute rules about sounds, and subject matter, it has just meant that country has never stopped breaking new performers.
I mean, one way to judge different kinds of radio stations is, “What ratio of new stuff to old stuff do they play? And how old does the old stuff go? How much of this is about making sure a fan doesn’t turn it off because they hate the new stuff? Or turn it off because they don’t know it.” It’s a real challenge, and these days more than ever because they have the personal people meters, or whatever you call it. The PPM devices that let them know instantly if someone is giving up on a song, giving up on an approach.
I think that it’s a fascinating thing that country recognized that if it got atomized, if it tried to divide into “young country” and “old country,” or working class listeners versus upscale listeners, that it just wasn’t going to have enough listeners, and it wasn’t going to be good for the overall effect of giving new performers the chance to become career artists. All that stuff is tied up in this particular commercial approach.
And I guess the only other thing I would add to that is, one of the things that I came to realize doing the book is that, while the notion of music formats is a rather straightforward notion, once you get it in your head what it’s about, every form of music that gets formatted seems to do it in a slightly different way. By the end of the book, when I’m talking about Latin radio, that divide between regional, Mexican stuff, and the kind of poppish, super-star stuff that’s more like Jennifer Lopez, or whatever, that’s a divide that’s different than the ones in other music.
Every category that I would look at would have some things in common. It was still about commercially reaching a set of listeners, but the forms it took were always different. Because in each case, the people who were involved in the stories had different histories. They had different needs, and so, yeah, I feel like there were more stories to tell along those lines. I was just trying the best I could to outline some of the big parameters of the thing.
But I definitely have this sense, as I started to do this work, of like, if we’re really going to look at it from this upside-down and backwards perspective, where it’s as much about commercial strategy as it is about artistic excellence, there is going to be a lot to get to. And each version of it is going to have some little, embedded surprises.
So yeah, like realizing that the country thing, that time and time again people would go, “Oh, it’s time to divide country into this category and that category.” Then they would try it and realize, “No, it doesn’t work!” That was one of the surprises. I had never had that thought about country until I was seeing it again, and again, and again. But it’s not like that’s a new idea.
One of the amazing things about country is, it’s where Bob Pittman gets his start. So if Clive Davis is somewhat famous to us now, as the master of record labels, he’s been doing record labels, and matching artists to songs, and it doesn’t matter if it was the late ’60 or now, he always seems to have the knack for it.
Bob Pitmann, when he was 20-something, is a country radio programmer who helps country understand how to become a slicker, pop-oriented format and get bigger. Maybe five years later, he’s inventing MTV. And these days, he runs what used to be Clear Channel, now called iHeartRadio. Here’s a guy who essentially, for the last 40 years, has never not been obsessed with the question of broadcasting, and how to do broadcasting in these ways.
For many people, dating back to the ’70s, he’s been one of the most reviled figures of all time. Like in the initial era, he would always talk about how people in country hated him. He was based out of Chicago and he made the Chicago station the biggest in the country. People didn’t like his attitude, his brusqueness, his dismissiveness towards older ways of doing things, but it worked.
So yeah, it’s funny how there were people embedded in this process, whether it’s a Clive Davis for records or a Bob Pittman for radio, who just, for some reason, they were drawn to that. They were interested in almost the chess game, of matching a playlist to create a particular audience, setting up an artist with these songs to create a particular hit that found a certain following. They were not particularly interested in what’s absolutely good or bad, but they were fascinated with what gets a reaction. Like, “What makes people listen?”
What Pitmann realized is that the Olivia Newton-John/John Denver approach was a loser. That the idea that you would expand country by bringing in middle-of-the-road performers and making country a little blander to bring in people who might dislike country wasn’t going to work. What you really wanted was to expand the number of passionate fans, and let the passionate fans bring in some of the outliers, rather than only appeal to the outliers and lose the passionate fans.
His trick was, “Who are the performers? Can I streamline who we play? So we’re creating a sense of passion, but it’s a country passion. It’s not going to cross over into other realms.” So I could totally see him seeing a song like that as being a perfect song to almost draw a line in the sand. And even though some people might have said, “You can’t do that. That’s going to repel too many people.” Pittman’s attitude I think would have been, “A committed 20% versus a passive 80%, that 20% is going to actually take us somewhere.”
EB: Yeah. And even Clive Davis, he signed the Outlaws, who are mainly known today for one song, or two songs. But when he signed them, they were the first rock band signed to Arista. And in looking at their chart rankings and gold and platinums, they were huge. He really pushed them as a southern rock band that was more than a southern rock band. He really tried to break them out of that sub-genre I guess. Which I thought was interesting, because he was mainly known for doing that with straight pop acts, or soul acts.
EW: Well, I would say “yes and no.” The thing about Clive Davis was he was ultimately an artist and repertoire man. He believed in matching an artist with repertoire, and he recognized that in some cases the artist had to generate their own repertoire, but in other cases, the artist might be delusional. So his sense of it was, “If you’re really a genius, yeah, I want you to do your own thing, make your own mistakes, and the audience will follow you. If you’re not a genius, I still want to work with you, but I’m going to bully you, and find you material. Because you don’t necessarily know what’s right for you.”
He had similar attitudes towards things that were political. It was an era of black nationalism, so if you were going to break a rhythm and blues record, you really needed to have people in your company who were African-American. You needed to brand the music as being connected to black identity. And so here’s this white guy, but he totally buys into that. He hires black executives. One of the reasons he signs the Isley Brothers is he feels like they understand what their repertoire should be, so he could trust them to create their own repertoire.
So he never challenges the prevailing, political mood. He just works within it. If a lot of people feel one way, he’s like, “All right. I get it.” And then he figures out how to keep going within that. If it changes, he’s like, “Okay, I get it now,” and switches gears. So that’s his thing. It’s a fascinating thing that in his first memoir, which is published after he gets fired from Columbia, he’s really justifying himself more than ever before in his history or since.
He is explaining carefully why Bob Dylan as an artist is different than a middle-of-the-road performer. Why you have to see this as a world where different people expect different things from music, and a good record company executive gets that and works within what the world offers. Then in his second memoir, he has this twist, which is with all his open-mindedness, he ends the book by talking about how he realizes he’s bisexual, and people don’t like to think about bisexuality as an identity. They tend to believe that someone is ultimately either leaning one way or the other way. But he feels he truly is bisexual.
I just think that is so perfectly in line with his attitudes as a record label. He’s just the guy who was sexually open to everything, and he was musically open to everything, and he was financially open to everything. So yeah, he is kind of one of the secret heroes of the book in some ways.
EB: What led you to pick the specific people that you picked to represent each area?
EW: Yeah, in some cases it was very much about what was available. With the Isley Brothers, I felt like there was a great story that had never been told. It just amazed me that a group that had hits for 40+ years — so they were such a sterling example of longevity within a particular category — had only ever been written about at length in the liner notes to a box set. I mean, they just basically had never gotten their due, so on that level, that one, the attraction was just, “Wow. I get to tell this amazing story that no one has laid out at length?” I honestly couldn’t believe that that story hadn’t been told before, and I kept looking for someone who had told it, and they just hadn’t then. So that was amazing.
So the Isley’s was just like “untold story, I want to tell the story.” With Dolly, the story had been told a little bit, and I wanted to tell it. But there, the motivation was also just that there was such a great collection of clippings about her at the Country Music Hall of Fame. They had subscribed to clipping services for many, many years, and so between that and the trade stuff they had, they let me document her career in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for pretty much any other category of music. So I felt that she was right.
I knew it would need to be a country figure. There were a couple of other people that I could have thought about. A lot has been written about Johnny Cash, so I didn’t want to go in that direction. There had been stuff written about her, but she was perfect for this approach, and the archival stuff was there.
With A&M, it was simply the fact that that collection of papers was given to UCLA, so it provided me with an ideal archive. With WMMS, same thing, ideal archive. So in those two cases… I really thought about doing a chapter on Clive Davis, as opposed to A&M, and I went back and forth. Clive Davis is the perfect figure, but I decided that having the paper trail to understand A&M from the inside made more sense than trying to track Clive Davis through his speeches. It still may not have been the right decision, but yeah, we make choices. That one was a really close call.
Elton John, I went back and forth with him a little bit. I loved just the simple fact that he had had that 30-year run of Top 40 hits. It meant that once again, as with the Isley’s, I knew that his story could stand in for changes in a category over and extended period of time. The only downside was I wasn’t positive I should be doing it around a British figure. But what I ended up feeling as I did the work was that that was fine, because Top 40 became this global phenomenon, more than any other category of American music, I think. And so, having a non-American-born figure in that slot was actually better in some ways.
But it leads to this funny thing where people will tease me, because the book’s called, “The Rival Mainstreams of American Music,” and there’s a British guy on the cover. So there’s a funny duality there. And the other thing about Elton that I realized was going to be good was, more than any other figure in the book, people wrote a ton about him at the time. There are so many mediocre books about Elton John, like dozens. People could not stop because they were fascinated by his success, and yet, all the books are flawed because he’s not public about his sexuality.
What became so great about all this material is it all was there to be rethought from the perspective of now. And so, that fact, which I wasn’t really even thinking about when I decided, “All right, 230 years of Top 40 hits, let’s do them.” That fact became to me the funnest part of that chapter. The way that chapter structured, section by section, is about, “Here’s what the public Elton was doing. Here’s what the private Elton was doing.” Public. Private. In some cases it’s sexual. In some cases, it’s Private Elton is sending a cake to a radio station program director.
And then finally, you get to the end of the story, and the public and the private coincide. It’s the funeral of Princess Diana after the funeral of Gianni Versace, and now Elton is fully out, and everything about his public life and his private life has kind of merged, so the story stops being a revisionist story. That one was fun to just see what form it would take.
But there were things that I flirted with along the way. Like who would you do as a rock figure if you wanted to not do it on a radio station, but a specific performer? Would it be a Bob Seger? Aerosmith maybe. I could never find the right person to stand in. I didn’t want to do Bruce Springsteen. Way too… I didn’t feel like I had a new story to tell about Bruce Springsteen. So in a lot of ways the choices were either stories that hadn’t been told well, stories that needed to be retold. Stories where the archival sources were irresistible. Stories where I felt like I could take something in a new direction.
Eric Banister: I thought using the radio stations were great. If I had to pick a favorite chapter, that’s probably it.
Eric Weisbard: Yeah, because a radio book needs a radio chapter.
EB: Yeah. It was so behind-the-scenes, and I think if you had chosen a rock figure, say like Aerosmith, you could have told that story. But the way the radio station worked, you saw the music move through it. Some of the same characters were there, playing Aerosmith, and then playing Candlebox, or whatever.
EW: Yeah, yeah. Now to me, the other challenge of that chapter was, “Can you tell a story about rock that isn’t rockist?” If to a certain extent, the rockism versus poptimism arguments had almost been framed along the lines of, “Stop paying attention to rock and start paying attention to these other subjects.” And that chapter was not in the dissertation. It was only in the finished book. It’s something I worked on after the dissertation was done.
I realized, “No, I can come back to rock, and I can bring the same kinds of questions.” Because in fact, what happened to rock radio was they only ended up playing certain kinds of rock for certain kinds of people, and not other kinds of rock for other kinds of people, and the choices that they’re making along the way. If you tell it that way, rock is not necessarily this imperialist form conquering everything around it and not caring. Rock is actually a perpetually embattled form on radio, with as much insecurity about what it’s doing as country radio had, or as R&B radio had. It didn’t quite know what it was supposed to be on radio.
So, from this format perspective, because rock could never figure out how to be a format, it was really fun to do that chapter. And it made the book, I think, much less reductive. If that chapter isn’t in the book, one thing is it wouldn’t have had a radio station chapter, so that would suck. But the other thing is, it would have ended up feeling like a book whose premise was, “We need to tell the history of pop music not rock music.” And what I ended up trying to do is tell the story of pop music, including rock music.
EB: In high school I wanted to go into broadcasting and my high school had a radio station that played over the local cable system. The records we had were what people had donated or what we carried in, so it was pretty eclectic. In the area we had a classic rock station, a country one and a Top 40 station, so we were playing things they weren’t, and getting requests from the listeners because of it.
EW: Right, right. It’s amazing. I mean, that’s another area where I’m only scratching the surface. One of the things that makes radio such a challenging area to study is very few of the broadcasts have been archived. You’re mostly left with playlists, and playlists give you some sense of what was specifically airing. But not nearly the visceral sense that listening to an hour of broadcast gives you, of just what that felt like.
And so wherever possible, and not as much as I would have liked, I tried to spot listen on radio and get a sense of this and that. But my hope is that there’s enough of that stuff lurking out there in people’s collections, and starting to become available as the Internet connects information, that we’ll get to where that side of it will get emphasized still more than I did.
Radio is at the core of my book, but it’s not ultimately a book about radio. It uses radio to talk about formatting, but formatting is the conversation, and pop music in general is the conversation. Radio is one piece of that. I feel like there’s a lot more to be done on radio in this later era, because the funny thing is, much of the work on radio has been on radio before television. Radio in the era of the programs, the Jack Benny’s, and all that stuff. That was a shorter number of years than radio in the era of playing records over the airways. And yet, there’s less prestige associated with the records-over-the-airwaves decades, and so it just doesn’t get studied as much.
I would love it if there was more breaking down some of the key stations, and thinking more, yeah, about how things interconnected, and why different time periods allowed different things to flourish or not flourish. I just think that if more people came at that subject, just interested in knowing how it related to the rest of it, we would learn a lot. So we’ll see.