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Wright explains the reasons why

By Joel Bernstein, September 1996

If looking for "The Reasons Why" today's country music industry is in down cycle, look no further than the story of Michelle Wright's album of that name.What was to have been her third U.S. album was never released in this country despite being another huge success in her native Canada.As "For Me It's You," her fourth - oops, make that third - U.S. album, is finally released, Wright still has to deal with the same record company and radio programmers who put her American career on a two-year detour.

When discussing the situation, she sounds like a woman in pain from biting her tongue so hard.But let's start at the beginning, which for Michelle Wright was a farm in Ontario. Her mother was a professional country singer.

Wright also listened to Detroit's Top 40 stations. "I loved Motown and Soul Train," Wright says.

She says she always knew she would combine her love of R & B with her love of country music. "I think we have really embraced that," she says. Her music is a funky form of country unlike anyone else's on radio. She points out, "I'm the only alto in the format."

Wright left home at 19 to forge her own singing career. Her first album was released in Canada on an independent label in 1988. By 1990, she was on Arista in both Canada and the U.S. Her eponymous album was a huge hit in her home country and made inroads into the U.S. market with the single "New Kind Of Love"reaching number 32, although follow-up singles barely dented the American charts.

Canada is loaded with outstanding country music talents, and while some (e.g., Shania Twain, Terri Clark and Paul Brandt) have done well here, others remain unknown. This latter group includes Canadian CMA award winners Prairie Oyster, Patricia Conroy and Charlie Major.

Asked whether Canadian artists have to move to Nashville to have a shot at the U.S. market, Wright says "You have to make yourself known here. I spent 10 years in clubs and going back and forth, I didn't wait for anyone to knock on my door, but I didn't actually move here until I got a record deal."Wright's second U.S. album, "Now And Then," came out in 1992 and provided her biggest hit, as the single "Take It Like A Man" reached number 10 on Billboard's country chart.

The song was quite a departure from the country norm, a song so tailor-made for Bonnie Raitt that even after all these years every time it's encountered the first instinct is to think that it is Raitt.

But other singles from the album failed to sustain her momentum. The most successful of the follow-ups was "He Would Be Sixteen," reaching only 31. Of course, in Canada she continued to have huge success. There, she has been Female Vocalist Of The Year four times and Entertainer Of The Year twice.

Although displaced as Canada's biggest female star by Shania Twain, Wright is far from a Shania-basher.

"It would be such an embarrassment to our industry if we didn't acknowledge what she has done. For her to be ignored would be childish. She sings just as well as anyone else and all the criticism of her is a crock," she says.

In 1994, came "The Reasons Why." The opening single, "One Good Man," only reached number 48. Arista decided to delay the album in hopes of creating some momentum.

The label intended to release the track "Safe In The Arms Of Love" as a single, but Martina McBride beat them to the punch. In Canada, Wright's version was the successful one, but in the U.S. it was a battle not even worth fighting.

The album had no single. As Wright puts it, "You come to radio with a ballad after a number 48 ballad, they don't want to talk to you."

After some attempts at rerecording tracks just for the U.S. market, the album was scrapped in this country.

It's one thing to give up an unknown artist's project when radio isn't interested. But the new trend is for even somewhat established artists to get their albums postponed, and sometimes cancelled, when the first single doesn't do well and radio shows no apparent enthusiasm for the remainder of the album.

Common industry practice is to release a single to radio several months before the album's scheduled release.

If the album already has a hit single when it hits the stores, the disc will sell that much faster.

"It was difficult for me," Wright says of the project's postponement and ultimate cancellation. "I was very concerned. You can have an idea and work it to the best of your ability. We believed it was a wonderful record. But I couldn't beat anyone up to play it."

Is it right that the industry be so totally radio-driven that even established artists can't get an album released without a big hit single?

The business side of Michelle Wright can rationalize it. "Your fan base is not enough. I have 200,000 fans in The U.S., but that does not recoup. It's naive to think that, as loyal as our fans are, they are not still prone to purchase the newest, hottest things instead."

Wright obviously tries to be very careful in what she says. "I depend on radio for my living. I don't want to say anything that will piss them off."

And while saying that whether it's "right" is "a very complicated question," she admits that "we are absolutely at the mercy of radio."

"We are the artistic, creative people," she says. "We have the talent and the passion. Sometimes it's dictated to you by people with no passion for the music. That's really tough to swallow. It would be nice if the artistic people were the ones in charge."

"You make a record from the heart. On 'The Reasons Why,' I had my heart on my sleeve." Wright had just broken up with her longtime boyfriend. "It's an album about hope and hurt." With a new boyfriend, "For Me It's You" is "a very very different record. It's about good loving and feeling good."

Although American consumers will get the opportunity to buy "For Me It's You," it's no thanks to radio. The first single, "Nobody's Girl," has reached only the same mid-chart levels as "One Good Man."

When it's suggested to Wright that most of what individuality does exist in today's country mainstream is among the female singers, she agrees but expresses concern. "We've got to be careful not to do to the women what we've done to the men. I hope that (greater individuality) will continue, but if the past is any indication they'll try to do something to stop it."

Meanwhile, Wright pursues her art and, passion. "I enjoy every little bit of this business," she says, referring to touring and performing rather than the commercial aspects. "I think I'm a better singer again on this record. It's so interesting for me to grow and learn more about my voice."

She can only wish that American radio listeners would also learn more about her voice.