Saturday, December 20, 2008

2008: The Country Year in Review

It was one year ago when Taylor Swift celebrated her 18th birthday and first #1 in the same week. One year later, she’s now 19, has 3 #1 hits and has sold 5 million records, making her the year's top country seller. What a difference a year makes! She released her second album, "Fearless," in November. It sold over 600,000 copies the first week, and was well past platinum by the end of the year. She won two CMT Music Awards in April, including Music Video of the Year. Taylor made one of the most memorable awards show performances during the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, where she did "Should've Said No" with an on-stage costume change and ended the number under a cascade of water. It earned her a standing ovation. Taylor toured with Rascal Flatts all year, which allowed her to perform in front of over a million fans.

While Taylor was #1 in album sales, Kenny Chesney had country's top tour. He celebrated his 40th birthday in March, had four #1 songs, and two Entertainer of the Year trophies. He also released another album, “Lucky Old Sun,” featuring the #1, “Everybody Wants to Go To Heaven.” Kenny performed for over a million fans for his 6th straight year, but it wasn’t without incident. During his first his first stadium show in Columbia SC, Kenny caught the side of his foot in a hydraulic lift that brings him on stage. Although nothing was broken, Kenny had a sore foot for several weeks.

Several country stars became parents for the first time in 2008. Luke Bryan and his wife had a boy they named Bo. Keith Urban and wife Nicole Kidman welcomed daughter Sunday Rose. Rascal Flatts guitar player Joe Don Rooney became father of son Jagger. Dierks Bentley added a daughter named Evie.

Alan Jackson was busy in 2008. He released an album in April that featured 17 song that he all wrote by himself. Two of the songs went to #1 during the year. He celebrated his 50th birthday in October. His record label held a party in Nashville to commemorate sales of 50 million albums in his 19 year career.

Trace Adkins spent the first half of the year competing on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice. For four months, TV viewers watched as this cool cowboy competed with a tough group of celebrities. Tiffany Falon, wife of Rascal Flatts Joe Don Rooney, was also part of the show, but was the first to be eliminated. Trace made it all the way to the finale, where he lost to the “evil Brit,” Piers Morgan. The night of the finale, Trace found out his hit, “You’re Gonna Miss This,” had just become the #1 song in the country.

Carrie Underwood spent most of 2008 on the road, promoting her second album, “Carnival Ride.” She started the year on a co-headline tour with Keith Urban. Then she did her own headline tour. At the end of the year, she had performed for over a million fans. She also picked up the ACM and CMA Female Vocalist awards for the second time, as well as a Grammy.

Toby Keith released his second movie in August. It was based on his hit song, “Beer for My Horses.” Three months later, he put out a new album titled “That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy.” Toby’s “Biggest & Baddest” tour featured Montgomery Gentry. He made his fifth USO tour of the Middle East.

Toby wasn’t the only country star who was in movies during 2008. Trace Adkins played the devil in two films during the year. Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw starred in “Four Christmases.” Tim also released a cologne, a children’s book, and his 3rd Greatest Hits CD.

Sugarland released their third album in 2008. “Love On the Inside” sold over 300,000 copies its first week, and was one of the year’s top sellers. They won a string of awards, including the ACM Single and Song of the Year for “Stay.” In November, they were named Vocal Duo of the Year for the second time by the CMA, plus “Stay” was selected at Song of the Year.

It was also a stand-out year for Brad Paisley. He picked up his first Grammy in February. He had three #1 hits, including “Letter To Me” and “Waitin’ On a Woman.” He launched his Paisley Party tour in June, featuring Jewel, Chuck Wicks, and Julianne Hough. During that tour, Chuck & Julianne began dating. In November, Brad released his first “guitar album,” featuring a duet with Keith Urban. He also won Male Vocalist of the Year from the ACM and CMA.

There were a number of artists from other genres who found success in country during 2008. Jewel was one of the first. Hootie & the Blowfish lead singer Darius Rucker had his first country #1 with “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” Kid Rock had a Top 5 country hit with “All Summer Long.” Jessica Simpson released her first-ever country album during the year. Hannah Montana, also known as Miley Cyrus, recorded a Top 5 duet with her father Billy Ray Cyrus.

Lots of artists had breakthrough hits during 2008. Lady Antebellum had their first Top 5 with “Love Don’t Live Here.” It helped them win Top New Country Group from the ACM and Top New Artist from the CMA. Chuck Wicks made a Top 5 debut with “Stealin’ Cinderella.” Newcomers the Zac Brown Band went straight to #1 with “Chicken Fried.” Former Trick Pony lead singer Heidi Newfield had a Top 10 with “Johnny & June.” Plus we had debut Top 20s from Randy Houser, Ashton Shepherd, and Crystal Shawanda.

But the newcomer with the biggest hit of the year was James Otto. His song, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” spent two weeks at #1, and became the most-played song on country radio in 2008. The song was actually released in August of 2007, and didn’t peak until June of 2008. That long, slow rise powered the song to the top of the year’s airplay chart.
All in all, another incredible year in country music!

Friday, October 24, 2008


It was a windy day when our plane landed in Salt Lake City. The sun was shining, but there were storm clouds in the distance, so it was going to rain…we just hoped it wouldn’t interfere with the concert. The storm began as I drove to the venue. But as I got off the interstate, and traveled the local streets to the amphitheater, it started to clear up. It was still a little windy, but the rain was over.

I pulled into the artist entrance, saw all the buses and trucks, and knew I was at the right place. The guard had my name on his VIP list, so I parked the car and went to find the folks from Toby’s record label. In addition to Toby’s manager, ShowDog had sent the West Coast regional and the VP of National Promotion to make sure all went well. We met up outside the door to one of the backstage lounges. They were getting it ready to become The Thirsty Monkey, Toby’s exclusive backstage experience for a small group of contest winners.

They had instruments set up, couches, chairs, and a table with refreshments. Off to the left was a road case with a couple of framed documents given to Toby by the Marines during his recent trip to Iraq. We were about two hours before show time, and soon, the contest winners would arrive for a private pre-show party with Toby.

About a half hour later, the winners arrived, escorted by on-air folks from the area radio stations. They came in, sat down and got ready for an exclusive pre-concert concert. Several other artists from Toby’s label were there. Carter’s Chord, The Trailer Choir, and Toby’s longtime back-up singer Mica Roberts. The last to arrive was Toby Keith himself, dressed in a white sweatshirt, cargo shorts and a baseball cap. He welcomed everyone, and then sat down to play a song from his new CD. The told the group about meeting one of his heroes, Eddy Raven. The two wrote a song for Toby’s new CD called “Cabo San Lucas,” and Toby played it for the crowd. Then Carter’s Chord, The Trailer Choir, and Mica Roberts each got a chance to sing a song. After that, Toby signed autographs and posed for pictures.

After the Thirsty Monkey show, we followed Toby to his bus for the CCUSA interview. Toby’s bus is a huge black rig with extensions on the sides that allow for more interior room. On one side was a huge flat screen TV, where Toby was watching a college football game. On the other was a booth where Toby & Lon did their interview. It had been about a year since their last conversation, and there was a lot to cover. Toby’s second movie, “Beer For My Horses,” was released in August. He’d had another incredible trip to Iraq. And he’d completed a new CD called “That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy.”

The first order of business was to talk about the tour. Toby’s Biggest & Baddest tour was wrapping up this weekend. He’d been out all summer with Montgomery Gentry. They first met during Brooks & Dunn’s Neon Circus tour in 2001. Toby told Lon that despite the high price of gas, his fans had come out in record numbers in 2008. The next subject was Toby’s movie, “Beer For My Horses.” Toby said it was a pleasure to make the movie. When asked if he’d do another one like it, Toby said, “Beer for My Horses was my baby, and it may be my only kid!” However, he’s reading scripts for parts in other movies, perhaps for 2010.

The main subject for the conversation was Toby’s new album, “That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy.” In addition to this weekend’s edition of Country Countdown USA, Lon also hosted a world premiere of the album, which is airing on radio stations all this week. They talked about most of the songs on the CD, including Toby’s current #1 song, “She Never Cried In Front of Me,” and the new single, “God Love Her.” Toby described the new song this way: “I wanted to write about a preacher’s daughter baptized in dirty water. This is my kind of song, about a bad boy on a motorcycle and the girl who loves him.” Lon & Toby also talked about Toby’s 11 year old son, Stelen, this year’s USO Tour, and an upcoming Christmas Special with Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central.

The interview ended just in time for the show. We left the bus, and on our way to the amphitheater, we ran into Eddie Montgomery of Montgomery Gentry, who was getting ready for the show. Eddie & Lon chatted for a bit, and then Eddie got the call to go on stage. Lon brought his wife, so they went to their seats. I went to the sound board out in the middle of the amphitheater. It was the final night of the tour, so there were a few pranks. During Montgomery Gentry’s set, someone from Toby’s band came up dressed like Eddie. Then during Toby’s show, Eddie himself came out to join Toby on “Get Drunk & Be Somebody.”

It was a great show, with Toby running through all of his hits, including a few that he hasn’t done in a while. You can share in all of our experiences with Toby at our web site: There are audio clips from the show, as well as pictures and video. Plus you can enter to win a 2009 Ford F-150 and go on the road with Toby next year. Our thanks to Toby, his management, and his record label for all their help in bringing this experience to the fans. This is Toby’s 15th year as a recording artist, and we’ve been there from Day one. We look forward to at least 15 more years with Toby in the future.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Randy Houser's Late Night With Letterman
by Lon Helton, Country AirCheck

Nothing was "normal" about last Thursday night's "Late Show With David Letterman." First, and foremost, while Country sightings are rare on their own, it's unheard of for a Country singer with a debut single barely inside the Top 50 (when he was booked) to get a shot as the musical guest. It was also a rarity for Letterman himself to order the booking. But Lettermen's hand in re-arranging the song for that night's performance is something that Late Show Musical Director Paul Shaffer says never happens.

The career of Universal South's Randy Houser took an unbelievable turn a few months ago when, according to Shaeffer, Letterman heard Houser's "Anything Goes" on one of Sirius Satellite Radio's Country channels. Letterman called New York, and asked his talent coordinator to book Houser. But Letterman took it a step further when he called Shaffer just prior to the 1pm vocal rehearsal on the day of the show to make a suggestion. Shaffer told a small group of folks hanging around on-stage after the show that Letterman said he was a little embarrassed to ask, but he wanted the second verse and the chorus added on to the end of the song. "He wanted to be sure those lyrics weren't lost on the audience," said Shaffer, "and he wanted them repeated."

So, here's Houser with the most incredible opportunity of his life, thinking all he has to do is go on stage and sing a song he had performed a thousand time before. Only now – the song was different. And the first time he heard of the changes was about four hours before show time.

At dinner after the show, I asked Houser if a curve ball of that magnitude shook him up. "I was a little freaked out," he admitted. "I don't get nervous about performing; never have. But that changed everything. I was expecting to put the energy into the performance without really having to think about what I was singing. But I had to concentrate on the new wrinkle Paul put in.

My only concern was making sure I got Dave's revisions right. I loved the fact that he had listened to the song and it hit him hard enough that he put the energy into changing it so he could have us perform it the way he heard it in his head. I'm not sure if he was trying to see what I was made of, but what it did was make me step up my game and concentrate on what I was doing. That was the first time I have ever performed the song that way, and it created a whole new passion and energy level for me as a singer of that song."
There was a lot of conversation among all of us who were part of Randy's entourage as to why Houser's single struck such a huge nerve with Letterman. No one really knew, so I asked Shaffer for his thoughts during our after-show chat. He prefaced his story by noting that these were his feelings – not necessarily something Letterman had said to him.

When discussing the song with Letterman on the morning of the show, Shaffer said he reminded Dave of a conversation the two had almost 20 years ago. "My relationship with my wife Cathy was on-again, off-again a number of times," recounted Shaffer. "Once when I thought it was off for good, David told me I really needed to make it work, and that she was the right person for me. He then told me that I didn't want to be one of those guys always looking for his pants in a darkened room. He said at the time it was a fear of his, as well." Shaffer added that Letterman didn't recall the details of that talk two decades ago. And, while Shaffer wouldn't say that was why the song and Houser's performance got Letterman's attention in the first place, it sure seems to provide a possible reason.

After hearing Shaffer's story, Houser told me, "The lyric about looking for your blue jeans on a stranger's bedroom floor is what Letterman wanted to hear again, and it's exactly the reason I wanted to cut the song in the first place. In the single, that verse goes by kinda fast. Letterman wanted us to do it again so it hit home, so it must have meant something to him."

As Houser and I were talking about the extraordinary series of events that took place around the Letterman show, he said, "Nothing about my career or life has been normal. It's not like I haven't worked really hard for it, or haven't worked at learning how to do what I do. But everything that's come to me, and all the door have been opened, I know there are unseen forces at work putting me in the position I'm in – it's something way outside of me at work. As a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life; that vision was put into me from somewhere else and for some reason. But to not only have that dream, but then to have been given the talent and to realize I could do it -- all that comes from somewhere else. And I won't ever forget that."

Other observations from hanging around Houser during his Letterman show appearance. The band and crew really seemed to dig Houser's performance. The crew applauded after Randy sang the song at the full rehearsal. After the show, I walked by one of the band members who was chatting with two of the Shaffer-hired back-up singers and overheard them raving about Randy's voice. And, these are folks who hear amazing talent on a constant basis.

It was interesting to watch Randy and his band in the green room while waiting to go on. Despite claiming he wasn't nervous, Houser paced the hallway like an expectant father. But the tell-tale sign was that everybody in the band hit the bathroom six times before going on in one of the biggest cases of pre-performance anxiety peeing on record.

The Letterman taping ran long last Thursday, and they had to cut about eight minutes out of the show we watched. One of the cuts was an amazing testimonial about Houser by Letterman. During a billboard for upcoming guests, Letterman held up a copy of Houser's CD and went on for 90 seconds about what a great singer he was and how the audience had to pay attention to the song. Dave called it one of the best Country and R&B performances he had ever heard and how the performance was going to bring down the house. It's a shame it hit the cutting room floor.

My thanks to everyone at Universal South and my tour guide Denise Roberts. Watching a new artist hit such a milestone so early in their career was incredible. An unforgettable experience was made even more memorable when we all piled into a New York City bar at 11:30pm and asked them to turn on the Letterman show. I'm sure the patrons thought we were nuts, but word soon spread about why we were there. It was just so cool to watch an entire bar erupt into applause, cheers and pats on the back for Randy when his song was over. What a night.
Click HERE to watch Randy Houser perform on Late Night With David Letterman

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Luke Bryan burst on the country scene last year with his huge hit, "All My Friends Say." The same year, he wrote "Good Directions," a multi-week #1 for Billy Currington. This year, Luke has a song in our Top 15, and has been opening for Kenny Chesney's Poets & Pirates stadium shows. All that is the prelude to Luke's debut as co-host of Country Countdown USA.

When he came in the studio, he told Lon, "It's great to finally be here! I used to listen to you in Georgia before I moved here, so to now have a chance to co-host is a dream come true."

Luke came armed with a bunch of stories from the Chesney tour, including one from the first night in Columbia. "What a ride, I'll never forget the first stadium show was in Columbia SC, and it was the closest show to Georgia, so all my family drove up for that show. After I was done, I put on some casual clothes, an old ball cap, a crazy beer shirt, some cargo pants, and some grey tube socks pulled up to my knees. So I'm watching the show, and one of Kenny's stage guys grabs me by the shoulders and says, "You're fixing' to go out there!" And I almost passed out because of what I'm wearing. I told my manager to go to my bus and get me some real clothes, but before she could get back, I hear Kenny call me on stage in my street clothes. So I went out and it's a wonder security didn't come tackle me because they thought I was a fan."

Lon was in Columbia for that first show, and he noticed Kenny do something to Luke as he walked on stage. Luke said, "Kenny has an interesting way of making you comfortable. I came running out, and he does a little, how do you say it? A 'man-tap,' it's totally the whole guy thing. So he kinda pops me in my mid-section, and I double over, and when I walked off the stage, his crew goes, 'Kenny got ya! He gets everybody!' So it was another thing that took my mind off of being in front of 70,000 people."

Keith Urban is also on the Chesney stadium shows, and that has given Luke a chance to see two great shows in one: 'To watch his show in a monumental thing, I get out front, stand on the front-of-house platform, it's the best seat in the house, and watch him. I can say I stood next to Nicole Kidman as Keith sang her Happy Birthday in Chicago's Soldier Field in front of 60,000 people. It's so weird to me, I can't believe it, country radio has let the ultimate country fan into the club. I'm running around being a fan and having a great time with it."

Another career highlight for Luke was his first major award nomination....for the Academy of Country Music's Top New Male award. As a result, Luke brough his whole family to Las Vegas for the show. "It was a fun week, I like to play dice, so I probably threw the dice too much that week. That whole experience and walking the red carpet was a fun experience." He also had a pretty fun experience as he walked through the hotel with his wife: "What was interesting is a lot of people tell my wife Caroline that she looks like Carrie Underwood. So Caroline as walking through the casino, and people were loosing their minds, coming up to her, wanting to take pictures, wanting me to take the picture, having no idea who I was, thinking she was Carrie Underwood."

There are lots more stories like these on Country Countdown USA with Lon Helton. Go to for pictures, audio, and video from Lon's interview.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Darryl Worley Is a Happy Guy

Darryl Worley has many reasons to be happy. He has written a string of hit songs, including the patriotic anthem, "Have You Forgotten." He married his second wife a year ago, and they had their first child in March. And all of that happiness has come together in a new record. He told the Nashville media this week,"This could be the most different sounding record I've ever made, because I'm happy."

Some of us first heard about this in June when Darryl appeared at CMA Fest. He told the media that he had just signed a new recording deal with his longtime producer, James Stroud. In July, Stroud announced the formation of his own record label, Stroudavarious Records, with Worley as his first act. They released a new single from Darryl called "Tequila On Ice."

Stroud spoke at a Nashville luncheon, and recalled the first time he heard Darryl play: His publisher asked me if I'd ever heard of Savannah. I said in Georgia? He said, no, Tennessee. I hadn't. At the time, I owned a small private plane, so we flew down there. There wasn't an airport, but a landing strip. We land and I was looking to rent a car. I asked the lady at the landing strip where I could rent a car. She laughed and said they didn't have anything like that there. I told here I was there to see Darryl Worley. She knew all about him, and that he was playing at the VFW Hall. She tossed me the keys to her car, and said "Have a nice day." So we drove to the VFW Hall in Savannah Tennessee, saw Darryl, I knew I liked him the minute I saw him, and we signed the deal right there that night.

Darryl still lives in Savannah, although he lives in a nicer home. He started a local fundraiser, called the Tennessee River Run, to benefit an area hospital. He's raised millions of dollars and they named a wing of the hospital for him. Darryl's benefit takes place next week. Listen for his new single, "Tequila On Ice," from his new CD, which is expected to be released in February.

Jimmy Wayne co-hosts this weekend

Jimmy Wayne showed up at our Country Countdown USA with his guitar case and a smile, ready to make his first appearance on the show in four years. Back in 2004, Jimmy had already achieved a debut Top 5 hit with "Stay Gone." One year later, his record label, Dreamworks, closed, and its artists were scattered around town. Toby Keith began his own Show Dog label. Dreamworks executive Scott Borchetta formed Big Machine, home to Taylor Swift and Trisha Yearwood. Last October, Borchetta launched his second label, Vallory, and signed Jimmy.

The real challenge was to find a that would be strong enough to revive Jimmy's place in radio station playlists. Jimmy himself found the song: "Do You Believe Me Now." Jimmy told CCUSA host Lon Helton the incredible story of how he came to record the song: I was writing with Joe West and Dave Pahanish and we didn't come up with anything. So I was about to leave, when Joe said, "Do you have a second to listen to a song we wrote?" And I said "Sure." I listened to it, and I didn't over-react. I've learned my lesson, because if you over-react, the song could get pitched out from under you. That happened to me with "Don't Blink." That's what happens when you over-react. So I didn't say nothing! I was subdued, and said "Joe, mind if I have a copy of this?" He said "Sure." These guys were new to Nashville. So I told Joe not to play it for anybody, including his publisher. A month & a half later, I brought it to the record label. That was the minute my life changed. So then I called Joe, and told him it was going to be my first single. Finally they played it for their publisher. Lon, I'm going to tell you something I haven't told anyone. His publisher, after we recorded and mastered the song, went to another big star, and pitched it. What the publisher didn't know was a friend of mine was in the office of the artist he was pitching, and she texted me, "They're pitching your song here." So I called them right away and said "Let the guy who's pitching you that song to stop, that's my song. I've already recorded it." And there was a moment of silence. No one said anything. So you gotta be careful.