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It's showtime for The Statlers

By Tom Netherland, June 2001

Independence. Musicians crave some measure of it, yet many never quite attain it short of getting the ol' heave-ho. Staunton, Va.'s Statler Brothers have managed to pull it off.

After 34 studio albums for Mercury/Polygram Records since 1970's classic "Bed of Roses," the longtime hitmakers left the label five years ago. Little did they realize that it would be five years before another all-out stab at an album of new material would come along.

But there's a twist for the band's latest, "Showtime." See, it's released on their own label, Music Box Records.

"Well, it gave us the freedom to do exactly what and how we wanted to," says founding member Don Reid. "It's a good deal for us. A good business deal."

As such, Reid, 56, suggests that they may sign other acts to the label.

"That's a possibility," he says. "We're kind of testing the waters ourselves right now, but there's a possibility that that might happen. There's a lot of talent. You run into it all over the place. We're gonna first consider whether we're gonna do it, and then we're gonna consider who we're gonna do it with."

In the meantime, Reid and older brother Harold, Jimmy Fortune and Phil Balsley have some records to sell.

"There's all kinds of things to be taken into account," Reid says. "Distribution is your biggest thing (theirs is handled by Portland, Ore.-based Pamplin Music Distribution). We can go away and cut the album, get it packaged. That's no problem. It's the marketing, it's the distribution and making sure you get it in all the stores. That can be a harrying experience."

Now, given that the Statlers resided in the house of Mercury for nearly three decades and sold millions of albums, one wonders why they chose to leave. Be sure to realize, too, that their exit was a band decision; Mercury did not cut them loose.

But that doesn't mean it wouldn't have happened. As the mid-'90's rolled around, off the merry-go-round of radio airplay went the Statlers. Labelmates such as Shania Twain vastly outsold the veteran group. Oh sure, they still sold out shows as much as always, but for so-called contemporary country radio, it was as if the Statlers didn't even exist.

"We were with Mercury for a long, long time," Reid says. "As you well know, people in our category are not radio-active anymore. They've got a big catalog on us and still have great sales on the albums, but it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time."

No question about it. From the 46-time (!!) Music City News award winners' viewpoint, they no longer were a priority at Mercury as they'd been for so long. See, image didn't sell the Statlers' records, at least not a contrived image.

"That label like any other was looking for new acts," Reid says. "They can get new acts - they want new, young and fresh talent, of course - and they can get 'em cheaper. And they can handle 'em. This is a big thing with record labels, why they're constantly looking for new acts because they are easily handled and are cheap labor."

There, you have it. No big surprise, but Reid's comments highlight what many have known for so long about major labels in Nashville: It's all about the dollar. And that little ol' thing called control.

"The labels are trying to be more controlling today than they've ever been before. I think the artists of today have very little say in what they do and in what they record and in how they record. There's just so many people with their finger in the pie. I think that's why we have so little varied country music today. It's taken the style out of it. It's taken the individuality out of it. It's cookie-cutter stuff."

Little wonder, then, that the Statlers elected to veer clear of Nashville's current dictator-like regimes. With such power behind Music City's wheel, honest-to-goodness stylism appears to have become passˇ. At least among the big wheels that appears to be the case.

"Oh boy, there's no mistaking your Hank Snows and your Johnny Cashs and your Marty Robbins'. These people had style from the first two notes," Reid says. "It's just not the way now. And more emphasis is put on electronics and instrumentations instead of the voice and the song. That's what it ought be, the voice and the song."

Make no mistake, pardners, once you hear the Statlers sing, you've heard a sound not quite like any other.

"That's the most important thing, to be recognizable. That's more important than talent. To be original is more important than anything when you're in this business. That's what all the people who stick around, like your Merle Haggards, they're original and boy you know it's them."

Haggard said as much in an interview last October. Hag said that what's wrong with today's music is that it strives for perfection. "Music was never supposed to be perfect," Haggard said. "We're humans, and humans aren't perfect."

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