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Frank Fara has seen the future of country music, and it's in . . . Denmark?
"That's right," laughs Fara, who, along with partner and wife Patty Parker, operates Comstock Records in Scottsdale. "Country music's come a long way from Tennessee."
For the past 15 years, Fara and Parker have produced and promoted country-music artists from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. While Comstock Records does bankroll a few acts exclusively, its real grits n' gravy comes from grooming an ever-increasing number of Reba and Randy wanna-bes from Europe and Scandinavia. Like the thousands of guitar-totin' Americans who yearn to make it big in Nashville, there are many across the water who want very much to pick and sing for profit.
These aren't folks who just want to see their names on the label of a 45 before they die--there are plenty of vanity recorders on both sides of the Atlantic who'll do that for considerably less kroner. Besides, Comstock doesn't have the time or inclination to cater to such pipe dreams. Those who send tapes to Comstock and are accepted by the label are almost always popular pros in their home countries. They have financial backers. They need Comstock to take the next step--creating a product that will attract major-record-label interest.
While the label is little known in America, industry insiders in Music City and the country cognoscenti in foreign lands know the Comstock name well. Major labels often refer outstanding acts they don't have room for or which need more seasoning to Comstock.
"Quality rules," Fara says quietly.
The process for getting here from there hasn't changed much, despite the big boom in country music. Comstock's unique combination of nurturing, professional production standards and aggressive promotion has made penetrating Nashville's ever-thickening Pine Curtain a reality for a dedicated few. Yet to understand the label's impressive record of success, one must know the nature of the overseas system.
@body:The Comstock office is located in a shiny business complex in north Scottsdale. Its walls are filled with mounted CDs, pictures and news clips of its success stories and large world maps stuck with flags indicating radio stations that play country music. There's a photo of Knud and Annie Nielson, whose popular show on Radio Bronby in Copenhagen, Denmark, is largely responsible for the current Scandinavian country-western revolution. There's also one of David Allan, an English "show host"--the European equivalent of deejay--whose BBC World Services program sends country music throughout the United Kingdom and beyond. Another flag marks Radio Luxembourg, whose unrestricted, 100,000-watt AM signal reaches all over Europe.
"Scandinavia is booming," notes the soft-spoken Fara, "but the U.K. started it (the foreign version of our country-music explosion) all in the last couple of years. Then it went to inner Europe." Indeed, the rage for country music that's gripped the colonies has spread to Switzerland, Germany, France, Sweden, Holland, Italy, Belgium, Ireland and Scotland. This isn't to imply that a bunch of W. Steven Martins in lederhosen or kilts are beaming Garth Brooks' latest to the European masses.
"Actually, there are only a small number of privately owned commercial stations over there," says Fara. "Up until just a few years ago, 95 percent of them were government owned, and virtually all of them continue to be multiformat stations. This means there are heaps of uncharted territory--literally.
"There aren't any Billboard magazines over there," notes Fara. "Individual stations chart what's being played and what gets the best responses. Each station plays what it really believes in--much like what we used to do over here. They'd much rather discover a new talent than just jump on our bandwagon."
It's that experimental nature--all but abandoned on Nashville-oriented stations, where a good bottom line has long ago supplanted a good bass line in priority--that allows Comstock to give marginal acts a fighting chance to make the big time. Parker describes how her label does it.
"With American acts, it's usually a matter of them having tried the usual routes with no luck," she explains. "But if they can get a record out overseas or on small American stations and show success, then their chance of major-label success improves." With foreign artists, however, the road is a tad trickier. Language, of course, is a primary obstacle.
"They want to get the dialect right," says Parker. "They want to sound like Nashville." She recommends that the artists begin with new material--their own, if it's good enough or the work of professionals; local songwriters Jeff Dayton (whose band backs Glen Campbell) and Joe Radosevich have found their work performed by Comstock's artists. "This helps broaden their vocabularies and personify a particular song. They realize that mimicking lyrics is one thing and artistry is another." Then, via fax, phone or cassette, Parker will help with style, phrasing, pronunciation and dealing with slang--like the Swiss singer with a heartfelt penchant for western-campfire songs.
"He'd sing, 'Git along little dogies,' pronouncing it like 'doggies,'" Parker smiles. "He was surprised to learn that they really weren't dogs at all." Then there's Dutch-born Rick Dean, who grew up in the West Indies island of Saint Martin. A song he sent to Parker contained the word "rhythm" numerous times--only Dean kept pronouncing it "riddim."
"I'll write or fax them the lyrics spelled phonetically," Parker says, "or maybe a tape of me singing the song. They don't take offense because they want so much to sound authentic.