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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.
"The singers [from overseas] are just as good," notes Parker, "but they generally lack technical know-how, good material, and there's that language barrier."
Fara nods in agreement.
"They're about 15, 20 years behind us in country-western production," he states. "Scandinavia is the leader in doing it right--they're building a solid foundation in good session players and their songwriting is getting stronger all the time." The country on the lowest country-western evolutionary rung is a continuing surprise to Fara and Parker.
"England's the last in songwriting," Fara says. "You'd think they'd be closer, but 75 percent of their songs are bad covers of what's already been done here."
Both Fara and Parker have solid personal credentials in the music business. For five years before founding Comstock, they toured the Western U.S. and all of Canada with a country band that used their own name. (Patty Parker, the lead singer, was also the group's drummer.)
Frank Fara is a Valley native who might be better known to many as Frank Fafara. In the early Sixties, he opened and ran Phoenix's Stage 7, one of the first rock nightclubs, on Seventh Street. It now is the home of the Phoenix Jaycees. As the lead singer for the house band--the Stage 7 Combo--Fara opened up for the likes of Conway Twitty, Del Shannon and the Everly Brothers. As a solo singer, he also scored a pair of Top 10 hits: "Only in My Dreams" reached No. 5 in Cashbox and earned him a write-up in Billboard, while "The Golden One" cracked the Top 10 (ending up a notch under Dion's "The Wanderer") in December 1961.
Parker is a licensed producer in Nashville. As such, she produces those Comstock signees who have taken the final plunge and headed stateside. Parker books studio time in Nashville and employs session players. As she is licensed, she has access to and utilizes the top studio musicians in town. Regulars in the session include Garth guitarist Chris Leuzinger, top-drawer fiddler Rob Hajacos, keyboardist (and Chet Atkins' musical director) Tony Migliore and Curtis Young, Nashville's preeminent back-up vocalist.
Once the CD is cut, Comstock sends it out to stations across Europe and Scandinavia as well as to about 300 of what Fara calls "breaker stations" throughout the States--stations still willing to try the untried. Comstock also books tours for the acts and works to get their names in the media as much as possible.
By any standards, Comstock has been very successful. Inger and her Rhinestone Band, for example, have not only become the hottest thing going in their home country of Sweden, but they also recently earned the Critic's Choice Pick of the Week from Billboard.
Local artist Steve Cooley (late of the famed Bunkhouse Boys) currently has his hit "Bright Lights of Vegas" high on the charts in Holland, Denmark and England.
Rick Dean--he of "riddim" fame--just completed Livin' in Love, his first full-length CD for Comstock. It features boogie-woogie piano king Pig Robbins. He also recently opened for Emmylou Harris in Holland. Several Comstock-produced videos featuring American and Canadian artists have found frequent rotation on Country Music Television and The Nashville Network.
Comstock's most recent success story is Denmark's Cari Schauer. The songwriter and guitarist's single "Soul Shaking Man" earned this write-up in the "Disc Claimer" record-review section of Nashville's esteemed Music Row magazine: "Interesting slide guitar riffs slip beneath a blues-mama vocal. . . . A real distinctive effort that builds nicely as it goes along. Who produced this thing?" Patty Parker, that's who.
As Comstock's word-of-mouth reputation continues to transcend borders, the label receives inquiries from heretofore unheard-from locales like Czechoslovakia and, recently, Russia.
"One day I was sitting here," Fara recalls, "and I got this call. It was someone who was talking like [Russia-born comic] Yakov Smirnoff. I thought it was my brother-in-law just fooling around, and I kept waiting for the punch line. Even as I hung up, I thought it was a joke. Then I got a fax--from Russia--wanting us to help produce a country-music festival there." Fara isn't sure how the Comstock name got to them. But he has long since ceased to be surprised about it.
"The American dream is alive and well," Fara says with a laugh. "But you've got to go overseas to find it.