Bucking the Trend

There are 10,000 professional country musicians in Nashville -- and ten wanna-bes for every one of them. Sometimes it's a thin line between the two. Late last year former Houstonian Chris Cagle was living in wanna-be-land. The gas company had turned off the heat in his cinder-block house. He had no job and only a tiny space heater to keep the cold December winds at bay. On Christmas Day, Cagle hit bottom: His "holiday dinner" was a box of instant corn bread and a can of ranch-style beans, while his "company" was a video titled Rudy, an uplifting story about a puny working-class kid who longs to play football for Notre Dame. Cagle watched it six times that day. His dream of making it in country music seemed as ridiculous as Rudy's dream of stepping onto the football field as a member of the Fighting Irish. Cagle thought about going back to Texas.

"I couldn't tell my family, because I didn't want them to come and save me," the aspiring musician says.

That very night, Cagle got on his knees and prayed to God to show him his place in music. "I told him that he put the dream in me. I had sacrificed, but now I was tired. I told him he had to intervene and get me over the door."

Less than a week later Cagle had a major-label deal. It's a story made in country heaven. "I think man is stupid to believe we control our own destiny," says Cagle. "Every morning when I wake up, I expect good things from God."

It's been said that God moves in mysterious ways. Perhaps in Cagle's case, it would be more accurate to say he moves in indirect ways.

Cagle met Donna Duarte in a Nashville restaurant. She professed to be interested in music, so Cagle innocently invited her to a local studio where he was recording some demos. Even more innocently, Duarte asked for a tape and then passed it along to her boss, Scott Hendricks, president of Virgin Records Nashville. Not long afterward, Cagle was in the studio again, this time recording for Virgin. His debut album, Play It Loud, was released in October, and his first single, "My Love Goes On and On," reached No. 16 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Hendricks's own path to Virgin was as circuitous as Cagle's. Hendricks used to be president of Capitol Nashville, the home of Garth Brooks. The relationship between Brooks and Hendricks was never warm and fuzzy. When Brooks's album Fresh Horses sold a mere four million copies, the country superstar blamed Hendricks for failing to aggressively market the rock crossover project. When the time came for Brooks to release his follow-up, Sevens, he refused to turn in the tapes until his own handpicked management team was in place.

As a result of the power play, Hendricks was replaced in November 1997. The executive quickly became the martyr of Music Row. But at least he had a soft place to fall. Although he received several offers from other labels, Hendricks ultimately decided to remain with the company that had, to all appearances, unceremoniously dumped him. EMI, Capitol's parent company, offered Hendricks the opportunity to start a new label, Virgin Nashville. Why? Because in Music City, loyalty is worth more than gold. Hendricks could bring on the Capitol staffers who also had been dismissed, including Duarte. Besides, what goes around comes around: More than a few people in Nashville were glad to see Garth Brooks's attempt at mainstream rock fall on its ugly face.

As the Brooks anecdote indicates, Hendricks doesn't always play it safe. Which brings us back to Chris Cagle: The label executive, going against the conservative trend in Nashville that favors surefire pop-oriented acts, sees a lot of potential in this Texan. In fact, Hendricks sees Cagle as the label's heavy hitter of the future. It's a gamble, of course. Sales are down for everyone but the top established acts. Labels have begun slicing staffs and budgets. Radio playlists are tighter than ever.

But Hendricks has a plan. He has decided that Cagle shouldn't be a product of the same Nashville system -- the same studio players, the same songwriters, the same producers. As a result, Cagle, unlike a lot of debut country artists, wrote or co-wrote almost all of the songs on Play It Loud.

"I'm so fortunate that I was given the rope to swing from -- or hang myself from," says Cagle. "I told Scott I'm willing to bet my career on it."

Cagle argues that other genres have gone through generational changes. So why should country be immune? The young country audience plays on the same Internet, watches the same television shows and messes with the same electronics as the young rock crowd. So why does the Nashville industry expect these young fans to like the same things their parents did?

By contrast, Cagle brings a post-Garth Brooks energy to his music. When he opens his mouth to sing, you can't mistake him for anything but country. Maybe that's a result of having been raised in Sugar Land and the Goose Creek Country Club area of Baytown.

A 1987 graduate of Ross S. Sterling High School in Baytown, Cagle enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington, but music quickly won out over classes. He began performing all over the Arlington-Fort Worth area, playing what he calls the Metroplex "B-spot" clubs. In 1994 Cagle moved to Nashville. He spent the next five years waiting tables and tending bar, while polishing his songwriting skills. His skills vastly improved after he met the legendary Harlan Howard, who taught Cagle how to compose a true country song.

Cagle has learned his craft well. Because here's the thing about Play It Loud: Nearly every one of the ten songs could be a hit.

"A song is a bag of attention," says Cagle, quoting a Nashville industry maxim of sorts. "If you have a hole in the bag, you lose the attention."

Virgin Nashville is making sure its star pupil doesn't lose anyone's attention. The label has him on a tour of 140 radio stations across the country. A typical itinerary includes 25 stations in four or five days. It's all part of Hendricks's plan to bring Cagle to the people, not vice versa. It's part marketing and part old-fashioned campaigning.

"We do listener-appreciation shows and talk to drive-time jocks," says Cagle. "I play acoustic guitar in the studio. I'm not a flat picker like Ricky Skaggs, but I can play with nearly anybody."

Now that Cagle is on the track to stardom, he has some advice for those who want to succeed in Nashville:

"I would not sing cover tunes in clubs, so I would be forced to sound like everyone else," he offers. "Shut up and watch. Learn as much as you can by other people's mistakes and experiences. Keep honing your craft. Write. Sing a strong 45 to 60 minutes a day. Exercise. One day you're going to be at a party. They are going to pass a guitar around. When it gets into your hands, you better be ready to play the best song you have at the time, because somebody there is going to be from Mercury Records. Everybody is in the music business here."

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Aaron Howard