The spring Arbitron radio ratings book is out, and there's a shocker in it. Long-time country market leader KILT (100.3) has been toppled -- not by its rival Q Country, but by Q's Cox Communications sister station Country Legends 97.1. That's right, the number one country station in one of the largest country markets in America plays no song recorded since about 1986.

Since flipping the station's format from Rap/R&B, the station's ratings have doubled, and now it is in fifth place overall among English-language stations in town, a decimal point ahead of KILT at 3.6 to 3.5. (Among stations whose target demographic is primarily white Anglos, Country Legends is number three.) Furthermore, the stations are heading in opposite directions. In the winter ratings book -- the first after the format switch to classic country -- the geezer station had a 2.5 rating, and KILT merited a sturdy 4.2.

"When KIKK flipped to smooth jazz, we saw a hole there," says Country Legends program director Michael Cruise. "Honestly, we didn't know the hole was that big. We're a little surprised at how well it's doing."

Cruise says that KILT was placed in an awkward position when KIKK bit the dust, one that has gotten even more difficult since Country Legends started operations. "They're trying to play more of the honky-tonk stuff KIKK played and they are also dipping back farther into their gold to compete with us. They're playing more Merle and Willie and stuff like that. I kinda see them as a department store -- they are trying to have a little of everything, whereas we have two boutiques."

Cruise says that Country Legends has obvious appeal to the 25-54 demographic, and adds that Q Country is popular with 18-24 year olds, and that advertisers are finding this bundle appealing.

Ironically, Country Legends is thriving on songs that dominated the playlist long ago at KIKK, a station which is, of course, no more. Perhaps if KIKK had blended classic country instead of classic rock in with the Cory Morrow and Pat Green, perhaps if they played Waylon and Willie more and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young less, maybe if they spun Bob Wills instead of Bob Seger, perhaps then KIKK and its ill-fated "Houston's Country Alternative" experiment would still be around. But they didn't and now they are a smooth jazz station, and Country Legends has yet to hit its ceiling.

One person who agrees with this theory is 80-year-old Joe Parsons, AKA the River Oaks Redneck. The acronym-addicted Parsons host the Redneck Jam every Wednesday at Blanco's and sends out a weekly newsletter. "I've been saying for years we need a mix of classic country and the more modern Texas stuff," he says. When asked if he was aware that Country Legends took over the number one spot, Parsons said he was and chuckles. "Am I supposed to be surprised?"

Parsons says that nobody he knows listens to KILT anymore. "Everybody I know who has anything to do with country music listens to 97.1 now, or to stations on the Internet like KHY from Plano or Gruene With Envy. They sure as hell don't listen to KILT. It's not their kind of music."

While Country Legends has already won over Houston's hardcore country fans, there's still room for improvement.

"It needs DJs," says local country artist Opie Hendrix. And Racket and Parsons both agree with Hendrix's view. Normally this isn't a position Racket would take -- for him, the lowest circle of hell is populated solely by endlessly guffawing "morning zoo" DJs perpetually pissing themselves over things that aren't funny especially at six in the morning. Country Legends needs a different kind of DJ -- a scholarly jock to tell us about the songs.

Cactus Music and Video general manager Quinn Bishop says even as it is now, the station is as educational as it is entertaining. "I'm getting to hear all the songs I didn't hear back when I was listening to the Clash and stuff like that," he says. "But it does need more DJs. It sounds pretty canned. The music is the personality of that station right now, but if they added some DJs from the era of the music they are playing, it would only enhance the station. And there are plenty of out-of-work DJs in this town." (Country Legends does have a morning DJ now -- "Tubby" broadcasts every morning from five to ten.)

Cruise is taking an if it ain't broke don't fix it approach. "We're gonna be really cautious about adding stuff like that," he says. "We're doing fine as it is."

Bishop loves the fact that it plays music from the '50s through the '80s. "You'll hear Hank Snow doing 'Moving On' right next to 'Hello Country Bumpkin,' and some songs that weren't even very big hits. It's almost a no-format format" he says.

What a surprise! The no-format format of simply playing good music is beating out Nashville's focus-grouped, touchy-feely assembly line suburban music crap. Maybe if the hitmakers in Music City would follow a similar approach, people wouldn't feel such a need to retrench in the oldies.

As for Cruise, he's just glad he doesn't have to be singing that old Stealer's Wheel tune "Stuck in the Middle With You." "I'm really glad I'm not stuck in the middle," he says. "I'm glad I've got my two boutiques."

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Fans of Simpleton Mark I (with Simon Reynolds on guitar) and Mark II (with Jon Black) are in for a treat on August 16 when both six-stringers will play with the band at Fitzgerald's. "We're getting Si back because he smokes Jon's ass," jokes Simpleton/Faceplant and newly-crowned best bassist in town Marc Armaos. Faceplant is also on the upstairs bill, as are Downfall, Arizenme, Four and Head Drug, with six more bands playing downstairs...Worlds will collide on August 15 at Stuka. Fans of both children's TV and swirling, orchestral indie-pop should be intrigued by the Starlight Mints show -- the Mints are now lead by former Blue's Clues host Steve Burns, who contrary to urban legend, is not dead of a heroin overdose. (The rumor, which had plenty of currency a few years ago, got started when a drug-addicted character the versatile Burns played on Law and Order died in police custody.) Houston's own Modulator opens... "We are funkier than you," claim New Orleanians Papa Grows Funk, who will be appearing August 15 at the Continental Club. Given that they are Big Easy-bred, that's an easy claim to stake and prove, as New Orleans is home to the Meters and is probably the funkiest city in America if not the world... Dwayne Casey is no longer Blue October's bassist. Casey said it was a long story and he didn't want to elaborate, but he seemed to be having a great time wandering around the Press Music Awards Showcase free of band responsibilities. Are they mod? Are they glam? Are they neo-arena rockers? Call 'em what you will, but Panic in Detroit's J.Robbins-produced debut EP is as enjoyable as it is short. (How short is it? 17 minutes and change.) If you like first-rate guitar pop with hummable melodies and no shortage of punch-to-the gut power, you'll be at Fat Cat's on August 19, where these guys will be playing with Minus the Bear. In other music transactions, Eric Dane has left Jimmy's Pawn Shop and is now concentrating full-time on his duties in Greg Wood's band...Get ready for a strafing from mytwilightpilot. The Pasadena chemical kids and moody indie-psych rockers will release 555, their debut on New York City's Feel Records, on August 26. The album is in that nether zone between an EP and a full-length -- it's four songs clock in at a total of 32 minutes. On the release date, the band will talk about and perform a few cuts from 555 on Jeffrey Thames's Sound Awake program on KPFT at 3:30 p.m., and three days later the band will perform an in-store at Cactus at 6 p.m. Later that night, the band will celebrate the release in grand fashion at the River Cafe, with Strangelight and Mansion opening... Robert Earl Keen has announced the title and the release date of his next album. Farm Fresh Onions will be ripe for the picking on October 7, and Keen is describing it as a live-in-the-studio type album that spotlights his band. Long-time Keen guitarist Rich Brotherton produced the album, which takes its whimsical title from a sack Keen brought home some grapefruit in. Keen's wife told him that "farm fresh onions" sounded like a good song title, so Keen put pen to paper and made it so. Keen says the fun title extends to the music it advertises. "This album is about being able to tap your toes," he says. "And I know it worked when my eight-year-old daughter said to me, 'Dad, you put more music on this album.' It's true!"...And finally, if you want to read a brief Q and A with Racket's kinder, gentler alter ego John Nova Lomax and his mortal enemy at the Chron Michael D. Clark, pick up the new copy of Houston In Town magazine. It's the mag's first music issue, and also includes articles on Pam Robinson of Pamland Central fame and a cover story on Randall Jamail.

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