Volume I, Issue II Winter 2002

Capos & Consontants

Talkin' about a revolution:
'Crossroads' hits the airwaves

'MTV Unplugged,' which separated real artists from video-age wannabe's and mercifully made the world safe again for acoustic guitars, was my favorite music show of the '90s. But as that once glorious series descends somewhat quietly into middle age, an upstart program on another cable network is again reminding us of music's possibilities. The best music-themed TV series of the new millennium, easily, is "CMT Crossroads" on County Music Television.

Bringing together artists from country and rock, "Crossroads" is an inspired concept that gives a resounding raspberry to the notion of musical segregation. Erecting walls to divide music is a tired idea that has plagued the music industry, especially radio, for too long. We've seen other examples of those walls coming down, especially in the rap and metal genres and, most memorably and literally, in the infamous Aerosmith-Run DMC video for "Walk This Way." But Crossroads is doing it to far greater musical heights.

Acts as seemingly polar as Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr., Elton John and Ryan Adams, Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams, ZZ Top and Brooks and Dunn, Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, Chris Isaak and Dolly Parton, Travis Tritt and Ray Charles, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, have appeared, or will soon.

The show is the brainchild of my newfound buddy Brian Philips who, in a business crammed with short-sighted chickens, is a visionary and courageous television programmer. The Cameron Crowe of entertainment execs, Philips, CMT's general manager, hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a fan. "I like to think of myself as a typical modern country music fan in that I like Lynyrd Skynyrd as much as Garth Brooks," he tells me.

Before Philips came along, not many entertainment enterprises had tried mixing country and rock. Farm Aid does it to some degree. The obscure early '70s syndicated TV show "Rockin'," hosted by Kenny Rogers when he was still with the First Edition, toyed with the idea. And "Glen Campbell's Good-time Hour," a bright spot on the TV music landscape in the late '60s and early '70s, also featured a variety of artists from virtually all types of music singing each other's songs.

But "Crossroads" is the first really effective alliance of the two musical genres since the glory days of California country rock — the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the Eagles, etc. Somewhere, Gram Parsons is watching this show, and smiling.

Putting this groundbreaking show on a major country music network was a big gamble for Philips, who came to Nashville-based CMT from Dallas, where he'd worked his magic on country radio station KPLX. When he arrived, KPLX was 22nd in that market and the third of three country stations. But by the time he left, Philips had turned it into the hottest station in Texas by widely expanding the playlist to include singer-songwriters and other artists who were on the fringes of country. Pretty revolutionary for consultant-polluted country radio.

"We're sort of doing the same thing here at CMT," he says. "I wasn't sure if we could pull it off, but I felt there was a market for it."

There sure is. Once considered dangerous territory, CMT is now a hot commodity. The recent installment with Kid Rock, the surprisingly talented Detroit white-trash hip-hopper, and Hank Jr., the pedigreed good ole boy, was the highest-rated cable show when it aired. The latest installment, with the Dixie Chicks and James Taylor, is a rare transcendent television musical event and quite simply one of the finest music shows I've ever seen.

"We're bringing a younger, more male audience to CMT with these shows," says Philips, who's also responsible for giving air time to such artists as alt-country marvel Kasey Chambers, who's beginning to get country radio attention thanks largely to Philips's bold decision to put the video for her recent single "Not Pretty Enough" in heavy rotation.

"It's time everyone acknowledges that rock and country are so much closer than people like to think," says Philips. "People who love Kenny Chesney love Jimmy Buffett. People who love Garth Brooks love James Taylor. Country fans love Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles. And rock fans love Willie Nelson and Travis Tritt and Vince Gill."

Now that the show has garnered big ratings and proven itself viable, everyone apparently wants to appear at the Crossroads. Philips tells me he's getting calls from just about everyone you can name in country and rock.

When asked about a few Crossroad potential pairings I'd like to see — Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Mark Knopfler and Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels and Loretta Lynn, Brian Wilson and Glen Campbell (Glen was once a Beach Boy, remember), Don Henley and Merle Haggard, among others — he's way ahead of me.

"We're already talking to most of the people you just mentioned," he says.

A Stetson resting comfortably over shoulder blade-length hair, "Crossroads" is, at its heart, a salute to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Buck Owens, Rick Nelson, Roger McGuinn, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, Richie Furay, Randy Meisner, Jimmy Messina, Glenn Frey, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt, Tim McGraw, and all the other pioneers who have demonstrated through their music that country and rock are close kin.

Now, if only more country radio stations would heed CMT'S call and start mixing it up, then we'd really be talkin' about a revolution.

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