…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Friday, September 22, 2006

demography killed the country radio star

L.A.’s last country music radio station, after 25 years serving that market, switched formats August 17. If I seem a little slow on the uptake on this one, it’s only because I had no idea anything of the sort had transpired until Saturday, when I went for a haircut and was filled in on the news by my gay black West Hollywood hairdresser, who’s despondent over the loss.

“When I went out for coffee the other day I heard strains of Carrie Underwood and started following the SUV she was coming from,” he said, doing a little Frankenstein monster walk to illustrate his blind desperation.

When I asked what format the station had switched to, he spat, “Hip-hop R&B crap,” then he joked that his “people” were after him, that they’d heard about some black guy listening to KZLA and just wouldn’t stand for it.

My hairdresser certainly isn’t the only one in distress. “I almost threw up, I was so upset,” said longtime KZLA listener Ruth Rogers, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I think it’s racist.”

Really, Ms. Rogers? What kind of racism would that be? The 53-year-old Orange County resident continued, “This is becoming a nation of minorities. I’m not going to turn on my radio anymore. Country music promotes patriotism and family values, and they’ve replaced it with something that just promotes money and hate.”

Oh, that kind of racism.

I’m not what I would call a country music fan, though I do like country music. I’m sure you get the distinction. The appellation “country music fan” just has too much baggage, an unpretty, jingoistic, Republican, NASCAR vibe. A Ms. Rogers, not-my-demographic vibe. So while I have a fair amount of classic country and country-influenced singer-songwriters in my music library, I hesitate to tell anyone that I like country music.

In truth, I was raised on the stuff, back when Southern California had any number of stations to choose from. My mom leaned toward KFOX, which played a mix of contemporary and classic country, and our radio was always on. Always—even when everybody was watching TV. It was all I knew for years. Very much like Chinese food in China is just “food,” country music to me was “music,” and as a kid I loved calling the radio station with special requests, first asking Mom what she wanted to hear then ringing them up. I was put on the air a few times, probably because the DJ thought it both disturbing and cute that a kid was asking for songs with titles like “Barrooms to Bedrooms” (among my mother’s souvenirs there’s a cassette tape of me requesting this very song, recorded straight off the radio with my boxy portable cassette player).

Through both subliminal and active processing, I absorbed quite a lot, and I can sing you a startling number of 1970s country songs, a talent on display this weekend as my partner witnessed the full extent of my childhood inculcation into the country music fold.

“You don’t remember ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man’? Conway and Loretta?” I asked, with the proper amount of shock, then tried to jog her memory by singing the hook.

“Hey! Looziana woman, Mississippi man
We get together any time we can
Mississippi River can’t keep us apart
There’s too much love in this Mississippi heart
Too much love in this Looziana heart.”

Blank expression.

We were in her Little Blue Truck™, leaving a local shoppertainment center. Before lunch we had gone to one of my favorite previously owned CD stores to search for the latest Hem album and a decent George Jones & Tammy Wynette hits package. Hem was swiftly located—and bargain-priced because the young people who work at the store have no idea who Hem is—but the only George & Tammy collection they had was a three-CD set, which I passed on. I’m not sure anyone needs that much G & T. After lunch I drifted into Tower Records, located at the aforementioned shoppertainment complex, in search of same. There were no George & Tammy CDs to be had, but I did emerge with hits collections from Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn. (Country convention demands that the man’s name be cited first.)

My present fixation with country music duets was sparked by the recent Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris album All the Roadrunning. It’s been in my car’s CD deck for months, spinning down only on rare occasions, when even I have to admit that it’s becoming the aural equivalent of wallpaper. I’m a longtime Harris fan, so I was destined to like the collaboration—inasmuch as anything she touches rates somewhere between pleasant and transcendent on my very subjective scale of liking. As an Associated Press reviewer noted, “Emmylou Harris would sound good matched with a singing hinge.” He went on to dismiss the album as lacking chemistry. I couldn’t disagree more.

All the Roadrunning is one of those albums that took a few listens before I embraced it with ferocity, then I was surprised at how much I liked Knopfler’s songs—all originals—and vocals (his fretwork always being unassailable). But the way they came together with alternating sincerity and playfulness is what really won me, and their interplay reminded me of some of the great country duet partnerships.

Whatever happened to country music power couples anyway?

Through the 1970s, country radio was lousy with duets, and they weren’t isolated tracks from otherwise solo albums, they were from dedicated duet albums, from superstar singing partners who were often dating or married—making their songs of love and loss that much more resonant.


If you don’t, you have something in common with my partner.

“How about George & Tammy’s ‘Two Story House’?” I asked, quoting its bouncy refrain: “ ‘How sad it is we now live in a two-story house.’ ”

“Why is it sad that they live in a two-story house?” she asked flatly.

“Because there’s no love about,” I said, solemnly. “They strove so hard for success, they had no time for each other and they fell out of love.” Then I broke into song again:

“I’ve got my story
And I’ve got mine too
How sad it is
We now live in a two-story house.”


“You see,” I said helpfully, “they each have their own story about what went wrong, and they also each have their own story.

“Yeah, I get the complicated layers of meaning,” she said, with no small amount of sarcasm. “But no, I’ve never heard the song.”

“ ‘Golden Ring’?” I offered, not even pausing this time before singing the final chorus.

“Golden ring (golden ring) with one tiny little stone
Cast aside (cast aside) like the love that’s dead and gone
By itself (by itself) it’s just a cold metallic thing
Only love can make a golden wedding ring.”

I studied her face for a glimmer of recognition and found none.

“Sweetie, I didn’t grow up in your mother’s house,” she said.

For years I had been under the delusion that these songs were ubiquitous, part of our collective American experience, our national fabric. Come to find out, not everyone grew up under the unrelenting influence of country radio. Weird.

Weirder still, I had failed to notice the long, slow death of country radio in my own hometown.

“The Los Angeles radio market is basically 40% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 8% black, and country fans are about 98% Caucasian,” said Rick Cummings, a top executive at KZLA’s parent company, Emmis Communications Corp., according to the Times. “My job is to attract as large an audience as possible.”

And so it was that immediately following rush hour on the morning now known unironically as “Black Thursday” by KZLA listeners—who call themselves KZLAnation—the morning drive show DJ was reportedly told to segue from the Keith Urban track he was playing to a Black Eyed Peas song, after which he and his fellow staff members were let go.

I know from experience that format changes are as a rule executed unceremoniously. For three golden years, 1994–1997, 101.9 KSCA played an “adult album alternative” format that won my heart. For the first time since high school I felt like a radio station “got” me, that I was part of a recognized demographic who liked singer-songwriters and artists who blended elements of rock and folk and pop and soul and jazz and country into music that sometimes defied categorization and almost always ducked the top 40. Then one day I turned the ignition in my car and Spanish-language programming filled my interior; my little bright spot on the dial was gone forever.

While I understand that my piddling singer-songwriter demographic isn’t an advertising magnet, the death of country radio is more curious. Los Angeles reportedly accounts for 3% of all country music sales nationwide, making it the number 1 sales market in the genre for most major record labels. The very night KZLA crooned its last, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw played their first of three sold-out nights at the Staples Center: capacity 20,000. That’s a lot of cowboy boots for a supposedly urban market. Sure, on any one of those three nights I could likely have rolled a bowling ball from one end of the arena to the other without hitting a Democrat, but still, those folks deserve a radio station too. It placates them.

“What will all the Republicans listen to?” I asked my hairdresser.

“Now, now,” said my demographic-defying friend. “They’re not all like that.”

I couldn’t help but notice that when he talked about KZLA listeners and country music fans, he said “they,” not “we.”

Country music is appealing, I think, in a broader way than it’s marketed. The audience doesn’t have to be 98% Caucasion, nor should anyone who likes country be made to feel like an outsider for being black or gay or Democratic or antiwar—or for not appreciating a goddamn car race.

I don’t miss KZLA, whose play list was dominated by your Tim McGraws, your Brad Paisleys, your Gretchen Wilsons—whoever was hot at any given moment. Even my mom had stopped listening to the radio long before the death of KZLA, her taste having gone completely retro. She’s resorted to a mail-order catalog (with no Web presence—that old-school) called Country Music Memories, where she can purchase Boxcar Willie, Stanley Brothers, and Ferlin Husky CDs with abandon.

Me, I prefer your Donna Fargos, your Loretta Lynns, your Bobbie Gentrys, and to Tammy Wynette I guess I’d have to say, Tammy why not? So I do miss country radio, at least in theory. I miss the radio of my youth, when it was just “music.”

By the way, if anyone knows a gay country music lover in SoCal who’s available, my hairdresser is tall, fit, and handsome. He does a mean two-step, and he’s a Democrat.


Blogger sporksforall said...

One of the things I find most interesting about 70s country stars is their hair. It is so period and so largely consistent from head to head.

Great post, my love.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous g_lou said...

I thought I had finally found my radio home at Fabulous 690 AM, The Lounge. All standards all the time. One sad day, the station went Spanish format on me- oh, the sorrow. Aren't there enough Ella and Frank and Mel fans out there for an AM station?

11:48 AM  
Anonymous hopskipjump said...

Your blogs always make me think and smile. I was NOT disappointed!

Welcome to the club - people old enough to even realize that demographics change.

The last time I was really hooked on the radio, FM had "underground."

Hope you're feeling better.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Slangred said...

Almost every time I hear a country music song circa 1940s through 1970s--and it's not very often that I do--I rather enjoy it. I'd never ever call myself a country music fan, and remember often describing my own eclectic music tastes as a young(er) adult by saying "I like everything but elevator music--I even like some country stuff" to distinguish myself demographically from country music fandom while admitting that quite a bit of it appeals to me aurally and aesthetically.
The dearth of good radio in the "entertainment capitol" has always had me scratching my head, although I still scan the ones we have for singing-along-in-the-car moments, because, well, I must.
I remember summer days with my best friend, spent with a tinny transistor radio and a boxy cassette recorder like your own, waiting for an AM pop station to play one of our faves, so we could hit those play and record buttons and catch it for posterity. Great memories.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous funchilde said...

omg this is funny! i've been lurking for a few weeks but just had to comment. i'm african american and while not a country music "fan" i don't dislike it either. I've even been to THE Grand Ole Opry! I am a fan of classic soul and old school hip hop and i can't stand the new hip hop crap either to your "i'm not turning on the radio anymore because the minorities who don't own but .2% of the media nation-wide are taking over the airwaves" my first thought was: who listens to the radio anymore? Unless its NPR I'm rockin to my own cd's or my MP3 player. Tell grumpy mcracist that she can always subscribe to sirius satellite radio. and your hairdresser sounds like a doll!

12:43 PM  
Blogger treecup said...

Oh, KSCA, how I miss you!

2:30 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

I grew up on that very same music. We still have several stations out here that play the new country stuff, with a smattering of oldies now and again. Another benefit of the east coast? Mebee so, mebbe so.

funchile... grumpy mcracist... lmao

5:33 PM  
Anonymous funchilde said...

*grin* i liked that one too, i guess i DO have talent!

scout, thank you for your sweet words on my humble blog.

yes, i think the east coast is good for some random A&$ music. Yesterday at brunch in a public place I heard: We are the World. I haven't heard that song in at least 10 years!

6:54 PM  
Blogger Trop said...

I just downloaded the Knopfler/Harris collaboration from Lycos Rhapsody. Great find. My wife LOVES country and I've become rather fond of it too, especially the classics.

1:12 PM  
Blogger KMae said...

I personally LOVED Dottie West
back in the day!!

10:20 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

I think country is just one of those genres (much like rap, ironically enough in light of this post) that people either get, or they don't. I prefer my country with an old hillbilly twang--Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Sr.--although I think "Big Iron" (Marty Robbins) kicks serious butt, too.
Sorry to hear we lost another niche station--imho, LA radio blows, big time, and always has. On the rock end of things, every now and then we get a great station that threatens to stick (we currently have Indie 103.1 filling that role), and old standby KROQ rumbles along. Um, 1 or 2 stations? For the #1 music capital of the world? Grrr.

4:39 PM  

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