Hanging on to their country souls

A word to divas: Crossover albums risk losing original fan base

October 16, 2002|By Randy Lewis | Randy Lewis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Must a country music star trade her country soul to become a pop diva?

Find the answer in the latest singles from Shania Twain, Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes, each of whom parlayed country music fame into across-the-board pop success. All three have just released the first singles from new albums, but only one is a hit with country fans.

Twain's "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!" is getting country listeners good, making its debut this week at No. 21 on the Radio & Records trade publication's list of the most-played records on country stations in the nation. That's the highest debut on the country chart by a female performer in Radio & Records' 30-year history, and second overall only to Garth Brooks, says its country music editor, Lon Helton.

Twain's single, setting up the Nov. 19 release of her new album, Up!, is further shaping up as "an out-of-the-park smash across all formats," says Jeff Pollack, one of the nation's leading radio consultants.

Hill's "Cry" single, however, has stalled on the country charts and has not made significant inroads in pop - it's holding at No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 after eight weeks - while Rimes' "Life Goes On" is getting moderate pop airplay but has been all but shunned by country radio.

Only six of the 150 country stations that report to Radio & Records are playing Rimes' single; by comparison, 127 of those stations added Twain's single as soon as it was released.

"The critical lesson here," Pollack says, "is that if you want to cross over, you can never, ever abandon your core audience. If you do, you can't get them back."

Hill's album Cry "is completely devoid of any country music or of any country songs," says R. J. Curtis, operations manager at country station KZLA-FM in Los Angeles.

"I'm curious about how it's going to be accepted as a pop record, but if she isn't careful, this could be her `Chris Gaines' project, without the weirdness," Curtis says, referring to Garth Brooks' coldly received, alter-ego pop-crossover album of 1999.

Likewise, Rimes' new Twisted Angel album is full of pop, R&B and hip-hop rhythms and production work, leaving country fans and radio programmers feeling abandoned.

Twain, meanwhile, has released a song that Curtis feels "is very consistent with what she's done on her last two albums, and in this single she's effectively put one foot in both pools."

Adds Pollack: "Everybody wants to have a huge pop record because pop [sales] numbers are so much bigger than country numbers.

"It's a calculated risk ... Growing is great, but never abandon your base, or you can end up with nothing."

Randy Lewis writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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