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Musicians Say, No Matter What, Nashville Will Be Imus Country

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

As country musician Marty Stuart set out to promote his latest album, "Compadres: An Anthology of Duets," this spring, one particular entry on his schedule stood out: Stuart and his sidemen would perform on "Imus in the Morning" for a week, thus turning the nationally syndicated and simulcasted talk show into some sort of hootenanny.

"The idea was for us to be the house band for the week," Stuart says of the unconventional booking. "We'd have different guests on every day, doing duets. Don Imus was totally open to that. It would have been wonderful."

Except Imus sparked a firestorm with his racially and sexually insensitive remark about the Rutgers University women's basketball team in April. The show's cancellation by CBS Radio and MSNBC didn't just leave a gaping hole on Stuart's promotional calendar, it also sent a shock wave through Nashville, which had come to embrace the curmudgeonly, combative radio host as an influential champion of country music -- one of those rare outsiders who enthusiastically promoted the music beyond the genre's core fan base. (Also on that short list: Craig Ferguson of the country-friendly "Late Late Show" on CBS.)

Just as Imus was well known for helping authors sell books, the Stetson-wearing shock jock helped country musicians sell music. "He definitely moved product," says Dierks Bentley, a rising Nashville star and an Imus favorite. Vince Gill says his recent four-CD set, "These Days," went platinum for exactly two reasons: "Critical acclaim . . . and Don Imus."

"Country music really lost a friend when Imus lost his show," Stuart says. "I was really, really sad."

The country cheerleader's return to the airwaves seems almost inevitable, now that Imus has agreed to a settlement with CBS Radio over his contract. Martin Garbus, an attorney for Imus, says that negotiations are ongoing for a new radio deal with an unnamed outlet. (Published reports have named Sirius Satellite Radio and New York's WABC-AM, owned by Citadel Broadcasting, as potential Imus suitors.) A contract, Garbus says, is likely to be finalized before year's end -- "certainly within the next two months."

Before he got himself fired, the irascible Imus had a sizable national audience in two mediums. At the time of its cancellation, "Imus in the Morning" was airing on 61 radio stations across the United States with an estimated audience of at least 2.25 million listeners per week, according to Talkers magazine. The MSNBC simulcast averaged about 360,000 daily viewers, according to Nielsen.

That Imus was waving the country flag in New York (his studio was in Secaucus, N.J., but his flagship station was New York's WFAN-AM) made him an even more important figure in the music industry. After all, the nation's largest media market has been without a commercial country radio station since 2002. That year, Chet Flippo, editorial director of Country Music Television, named Imus the country music disc jockey of the year.

"Imus was the only really outspoken champion of country music in that whole region," Flippo says from Nashville. "Country lost its footprint in New York. It's a real loss."

When he wasn't mixing it up with newsmakers, Imus spoke frequently about his favorite artists (mostly twangy traditionalists, not slick, modern pop stars) and often played their music on the air -- sometimes using song snippets as his bumper music, sometimes playing tracks in full, just because. The National Broadcasters Hall of Famer regularly booked his favorites, from Brad Paisley, Big & Rich, the Flatlanders and Willie Nelson to Alison Krauss, the Wreckers, Elizabeth Cook and Patty Loveless. As a rule, publicists needn't apply: "Imus in the Morning" became notorious for booking only those artists that the host happened to like. Imagine that!

"It wasn't necessarily the most recognizable names," says Kathy Best, a Nashville publicist who had numerous clients on "Imus in the Morning," including the Dixie Chicks, Miranda Lambert, Collin Raye, Travis Tritt and Martina McBride. "Imus knows country music and is a true fan. If he likes something, he'll let everyone know."

Consider the case of Vince Gill, whose box set was largely ignored by country radio upon its release last year. Imus talked about the music almost daily, and when Dwight Yoakam appeared on "Imus in the Morning," the host insisted on playing Gill's "Take This Country Back" for his guest. Later, when Bentley was in the Secaucus studio, Imus played back clips of Gill's performance from the previous day's show. And on and on it went.

"When Imus gets behind something, he really gets behind it," Bentley says. "Long before I went on the show, he was a huge supporter of mine. He was talking about my music for a year, even though nobody had asked him to."

Not surprisingly, Bentley has fond memories of his October appearance on "Imus in the Morning," which encompassed four songs ("the vibe was very organic and cool," he says) plus the usual stint in the hot seat opposite the probing, unpredictable host.

"Everyone tells you to watch out, that he ain't gonna softball you," Bentley says. "Imus doesn't have you on to promote your latest album. He just likes your music and wants to see what you're all about. So he digs a little bit. You have to talk about real issues. I enjoyed talking about something other than my latest haircut and what my dog's doing."

So when Imus returns to radio, would Bentley accept an invitation to appear on the show? "I would," he says.

Even if Imus is still considered to be radioactive? "It's not a cop-out when I say that everything I do revolves around getting the songs that I wrote heard by as many people as possible. I sing songs -- and if you're into what I do and want to support it, let's talk."

Stuart, too, would return -- whether it's for one day or a full week. "That whole situation was so unfortunate," Stuart says of the controversy. "Imus is my friend. And if he wants my music on his show, all he has to do is call me and I'd be glad to come on. Absolutely."

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