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A new documentary strips bare the workings of Music Row

By Michael McCall

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Music City's treatment of recording artists, often compared to a treadmill, has never been illustrated more vividly or provocatively than by Naked Nashville, a British documentary series airing three consecutive nights, starting Monday, on Bravo. In fact, one of the most searing scenes features a new and embattled country star striding the apparatus while telling her side of a high-stakes power struggle.

As she briskly paces the treadmill, Mindy McCready, one of the few new artists to break through with a platinum debut album in the late '90s, insists she will not cave to pressure from her record company, RCA. Twenty-one years old when the documentary was shot, McCready repeatedly says she wants to emulate Reba McEntire, describing her idol as "a no-crap person." She wants to take charge of her career, which at this moment means slowing down the grueling schedule yoked upon her by her record company, booking agency, and publicist. As the scene starts to fade and McCready's movements slow to a crawl, the voice of RCA Nashville President Joe Galante breaks in. "What do you really want?" he asks imposingly. "I'm working on building an international superstar. Do you still want that?"

Naked Nashville doesn't attempt a comprehensive look at the industry. Instead, the series probes the character of Music Row by taking an in-depth look at some of its major insiders and one well-regarded outsider. The first segment, "Won't Die For Any Man," uses McCready to examine the gender bias still riddling Music Row. "Sex sells," says Tony Brown, president of MCA Nashville, adding he usually gets shown a female singer's photo before he hears her tape. He notes that doesn't happen often with male singers. "Now for a girl to make it in country music," Brown continues, "she has to [be] a babe."

"My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," the second installment, contrasts the big-budget preparation of newly signed Nashville artist Keith Harling with the unassisted real-life career of Texas honky-tonker Dale Watson. The series ends with a look at songwriters, using veteran Harlan Howard and award-winning tunesmith Matraca Berg as its moral centers. If anyone comes off as heroic, it's these two.

Much of Naked Nashville is revelatory, filled with rare insights into Music Row's machinations. Three phrases turn up repeatedly: First, making it in Nashville is very political; second, an artist has to be tough to succeed; third, every artist has to kiss a lot of ass. But how does any artist, budding or successful, simultaneously stay tough and kiss ass? The near-irreconcilable conflict in those statements, the documentary indicates, leaves country music with two basic types of artists: weak-willed performers who do exactly as they're told, or deeply conflicted individuals whose smiles show permanent strain.

Characters and connections also recur in each episode. McCready, in one instance, fights with RCA and Galante over her desire to record Matraca Berg's sublime "Oh Romeo." McCready loves the song and sings it with heartfelt beauty, but "Joe thought it was...a little too hip," she relates, her eyes and voice dripping spite. "He thought the people might not understand it."

The focus later shifts to Berg's own brief stint on RCA with Galante in the late '80s. On camera, Galante says Berg made music that critics liked, but he couldn't get it on radio and thus couldn't sell it. However, Berg confides she soon realized why RCA wanted her: not because of her talent, but because of her "babe" potential. The last straw came when RCA instructed her to prance around in a video in a flimsy nightie. She refused.

In the middle segment, Dale Watson relates his own encounter with Music Row's cookie-cutter idea of career development. Watson signed in 1990 with Curb Records, which put out one unsuccessful single. The label wanted him to wear clothes it bought and to record songs it picked. He refused. Later, we see Watson traveling cross-country in a beat-up old van. But he's singing his own songs and dressing how he wants.

And he's apparently succeeding--in eventual sharp contrast to Keith Harling. The lanky beefcake, signed by MCA Records, records a song he doesn't know, squinting at a lyric sheet and asking, "What's the words again?" Then he appears clumsily lip-synching in a video and modeling expensive dude-ranch duds. He'd be the perfect Music Row puppet, if not for one problem: His debut album underperformed, at least initially.

In the end, Naked Nashville raises serious questions about the Nashville system. As brutal as it is to Harling, who plays along because he thinks it works, it may be even harder on those like McCready, who discover just how fickle and arbitrary the machinery is. Here, as elsewhere in the series, journalist Robert K. Oermann acts as a kind of Greek chorus, lending conscience and context to the pettiness and desperate maneuvering on view.

Ultimately, Music Row comes off as an insular, out-of-touch fiefdom that treats its lifeblood--songwriters and performers--in a coldly inhuman way. Sitting on plush chairs in lavishly appointed offices, the aggressively hip, carefully coiffed, expensively tailored Galante and Brown dispense wisdom about how Nashville works like monarchs tossing crumbs from the throne. However, they don't answer the questions implicitly raised by Naked Nashville: Why does Music Row embrace Harling, who has no sense of himself as an artist, or McCready, who came to town with nothing other than a tape of her singing over pre-recorded karaoke tracks? Why them and not strong personalities and self-evolved artists like Watson and Berg (whose own versions of "Strawberry Wine" and "Oh Romeo" come across every bit as good as the versions recorded by Deana Carter and McCready)?

The answer, it seems, is control. Early in the first segment, Galante recalls his initial offer to the young blonde McCready, who scored an audition with him when she was desperate for a break. A few hours later, the young singer called back. "I thought, 'It's Mindy McCready; she's calling to tell me how excited she is,' " Galante recalls. To his surprise, she told him, "I'm very flattered that you've made an offer to me, but we just met. I don't know if this is the right thing for me to do." Those comments might seem prudent for someone about to enter the biggest and most important contractual arrangement of her life, but Galante laughs with piqued exasperation as he remembers the conversation. "We're making her an offer here as one of the biggest companies in country music to someone who doesn't have another offer," he says. "And she's giving me a feeling that maybe we're not good enough...I thought, 'This is unbelievable!' "

As it turns out, McCready regularly disagrees with Galante about what she should do. "His age group isn't buying country music," she says. "Mine is." But as the documentary makes clear, Galante holds all the cards. McCready's follow-up LP, If I Don't Stay the Night, failed to match the success of her debut, and given Galante's later, deeply chilling on-camera remarks, you can imagine the amount of label support she received. McCready may have gotten her way, but Galante was the one in position to prove his point.

Therefore, anyone with a passing interest in how Music Row works will want to see Naked Nashville. Afterward, anyone with a passing interest in music will want to see the system change too.


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