MUSIC / If you want to get ahead, get a hat: In America, country music is big business. But how can you sell it in the land of the Ford Escort? Jasper Rees reports from the CMA seminar

ONE LOOK at Garth Brooks or Dwight Yoakam and it's clear why the headliners in the country revival are known as 'hat acts'. They never, but never, take theirs off. If they did, you'd realise why they don't. Unhurt by recession on a worldwide scale, some major country musicians are undergoing a little local hair loss.

They'd have been in top-dollar company at last week's Country Music Association seminar at a ritzy London hotel. The chief prejudice that country faces is that it is too safe and middle-aged, and you could see why when, of all the representatives from the music business who had convened to talk twang, the youngest ones looked senior enough to have teenage children, and had hairlines to match.

The CMA is a trade organisation of which record companies, television and radio stations, tour venues and publishers are all due-paying members. It could only happen with country: somehow you can't see Rai or jazz fusion founding their own equivalent institution. When you hear talk of the Nashville establishment, this is who they mean: the people who determine the parameters of the genre, people like Dan Halyburton, a short, blazered, sensibly moustachioed radio executive from Dallas who is the CMA's current chairman. He takes time out from glad-handing the assembled delegates to explain why some faces don't fit in Nashville.

'Nanci Griffith, just in my view of her work, which is excellent work, was a little toward the folk side of things. I'm a big Lyle Lovett fan - I've got all his albums - but his first album was a strange mix of this fella from Texas who loved big band and quirky offbeat songs. kd lang was always kind of different. There are some guidelines about how you should look and act. Everybody appreciated her musical ability, then she took some politically odd turns and came out against beef. It's a challenge for the record industry to find these acts and have 'em kinda fit.'

Kinda scary. This besuited, benign politburo had descended on London to pool and pick up ideas about breaking country outside its own backyard. CMT Europe, country's equivalent of MTV, has already made a start, but there are still a lot of albums to sell. In the end this was a business meeting like any other. As a promotional video put it with staggering honesty: 'The hot country sound is the sound of cash registers ringing up billions of dollars.'

After half an hour of speeches, the debate was opened to the floor. Someone said that country stars would never make it over here unless they found the time to fly in and promote: Garth Brooks hasn't and Nanci Griffith has, with the result that one is more successful in Britain than the other to a degree that would baffle most Americans. There was a school of thought that we needed our own indigenous country stars for the whole thing to take off. Someone else suggested playing more country on the radio 'but don't tell them it's country'. A former opera singer opined that if Pavarotti could have a number one during an Italian World Cup, then country should hitch its wagon to the American one next year.

The discussion moved along on this level, and the only moment of genuine mouthiness came from Chris Hill of Ensign Records, who have no American parent and so have no country artists on their roster.

'We are a fashion-led country when it comes to music,' he said in the tea interval, 'and that's one of the things that a lot of the people in this room will not understand. If some spiky kid went to Radio One, frightened them by kicking the front door in and said 'Why the hell don't you play this new Trisha Yearwood single?' they would actually think, 'It must be trendy'. ' And steers might fly.

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