Wally Wilson has been involved in music – as a writer, producer, musician, publisher and now as a label executive – for 40 years. His talents have graced the work of artists as diverse as Leon Russell, Joan Baez, Bo Diddley, the Neville Brothers, Junior Wells, Amy Grant, Trisha Yearwood, Lone Star, Lorrie Morgan, Sammy Kershaw, Rick Trevino, Rascal Flatts and Patty Loveless, among others. Now as GM of the small independent Skyville Records, Wilson is essentially starting from the ground up with baby bands Stealing Angels and Trent Tomlinson. Here’s how Wilson sees his and Skyville’s place in Country music and radio.
Considering the economic climate, especially when it comes to the music industry, what made you decide to start your own label?
It all started out organically. We were originally running Skyline Music Publishing and we had a group, Stealing Angels, which Paul Worley and I really believed in — and they got together in an organic way themselves. They were three single artists who came to CAA to be in a reality show. There they discovered that they could sing together, but to be honest, they came through the door a little too strong for the majors. The labels looked at them as something out of a reality show and didn’t take them seriously.
I saw a group of ladies who could harmonize and write songs together and put on an amazing performance. Paul and I thought this would be the perfect time to branch out on our own, so we took them on and started out using indie promotion, but we soon discovered that the best way for us to take it to the next level was to form a label entity of our own. We migrated to the path we are on now. Along the way, Paul Worley and I brought in some great support here, with Kevin Herring and Paul Williams.
This is a time of great change in music. Some folks seem to be stuck; to spend their days longing for the old days. But we aren’t ever going back … and I’m fine with that. An old pal of mine once said that in this business, you either make dust or eat dust. We want to make dust.
Did the fact that they were on a reality show make it easier or harder for you to get them on the radio? Or did you try to pitch them in a “blind taste test” way?
We didn’t do a blind taste test with Stealing Angels. Honestly, we made some mistakes with their recorded product coming out of the chute, but we also did a lot right. Mainly we let them do a lot right. These girls are tremendous at walking into a station and commanding everyone’s attention. They’re beautiful ladies whom both men and women like, so when “Hurricane Angels” hits the room, all of a sudden, everyone realizes that they are in the presence of real stars.
Are you exclusively devoting your energies to breaking Stealing Angels, or will you be working other projects simultaneously?
Because of them, we’re growing a business — and you can’t be a wildcatter and just drill one well. We are in the artist development business. Paul Worley and I have taken our collective knowledge of the various components of the creative side of the business — in producing, publishing, management and tour support — and employed it in developing artists from the ground up. The fourth or fifth thing we consider when it comes to return on investment is selling physical product or digital downloads. Skyville’s focus is on developing talent and growing brands.
We’re on the verge of getting some more wind in our sails, capital-wise, and we’re moving to get four or five more artists on board. We are only now beginning to release our own singles We released one a few weeks ago, and one by the girls is on the way as well. Our first attempt misfired at the first of year, but we just put out a single that’s making some waves by Trent Tomlinson. It’s an amazing Country song called, “A Man Without A Woman.” We don’t announce add dates, but sometime in the very near future, we’ll be going for adds with Stealing Angels’ “Little Blue Sky.” It’s that good ol’ uptempo, positive kind-of tune with a melody that sticks like glue to the roof of your head.
How does a small label with essentially baby bands go up for slots at radio against the majors, which can dangle big artist releases at radio?
It’s tough out there for sure, but it’s tough for everybody. The majors have their superstars, but with shrinking radio playlists, they feel compelled to put one superstar record out after another with no delays to assure they keep those slots. That leaves less room not just for our baby acts, but their baby acts, too.
Certainly, we have our problems, but I wouldn’t trade ours for theirs today. You look at the majors now and what they were 10 years ago … and it’s a whole different animal. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because it would be absolutely impossible to break an act if they weren’t on a major label. But today, Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift are superstars on indies. And, many more will follow as the business continues to evolve … and labels will evolve into new entities. That is the world that Skyville lives in.
Look, there are some tremendously talented people at the majors … some of them are my friends who do a fantastic job. But in general, it’s only human nature that when giant corporations shrink, they become more conservative — at the exact time when they should take more chances. Superstars never come from the middle of the pack. They hit ya’ from the left and from the right. They are, by definition, unique and fresh and bold. Skyville’s goal is to create an environment that supports that. I don’t know if Paul Worley said this first or I dreamed it up, but I’ll give him the credit: “We believe in being in the music business, not in the business of music.”
How has radio consolidation impacted your efforts to get airplay?
Well, it hasn’t been helpful. With all due respect to radio, but they seem to be mirroring the problems the major labels have. Even while losing overall market-share nationwide, radio is becoming more conservative with ever-tightening playlists of aging stars that is no one’s idea of a great long-term building strategy.
But unlike our major corporate labels, radio is more cyclical and I believe radio will change for the better. I remember in the late ’80s, when I was a staff songwriter for Tree Publishing — which is now Sony ATV. It was at a time when Lee Greenwood and Barbara Mandrell dominated the charts. Playlists were short. Classics got most of the airplay. I recall that Jim Ed Norman, who was running Warner Bros at the time, said, “We’ve got to get some young folks signed and get ‘em on the radio.” His timing was perfect. Within a couple of years we had Randy Travis; after that we had a plethora of talent — Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn … and on and on. Youth dominated Country radio in the ’90s … and the whole business went through the roof!
All because we all took a step back and then two steps forward … and took a bold, new approach. That’s a lesson we all need to re-learn now. Change goes in cycles — and the truism is that the consumer will always invariably respond to great, fresh music. All we have to do is find a way to get it out there … and I still believe that radio, if not the only way, is still the best way to do that.
How important is it to get Stealing Angels on a big or the right tour?
We have great allies with Rod Essig and Blake McDaniel over at CAA. Two years ago, Rod introduced them to our pal Bob Romeo, who soon had the girls playing all the dates they could possibly play on the weekends all over the country, and then doing radio during the weekdays, so they have been touring nonstop.
We’d love to hook them up with a major tour next spring; it depends on how the single does. It doesn’t do Stealing Angels any good to go out without a record on the charts. If “Little Blue Sky” does as well as we believe it will, they’ll be ready to take the next step. They are so mainstream Country, they could fit with anybody. They already played some great dates with Lady Antebellum; they also did well with Ronnie Dunn. They’d work well with just about anybody in the genre now, thanks to the Romeos, CAA and a lot of hard work on their part. Stealing Angels is one of the best shows on the road right now.
So it comes down to when the time is right to tour?
Timing is everything. More important than a big tour is making sure we reach every market in a significant way all over the country. This is not unlike a national political campaign. All politics — and all promotion — is local. When we hit a town, we connect with radio and press at all levels. We have a terrific promotion person, Tiffany Bearden, who is amazing at setting up this sort of publicity.
Do you still find time to write songs and produce records?
I produced records all through the’90s and had real success with Lone Star and Joan Baez and some other very gifted acts. When I moved from songwriter to producer I discovered that one of the first things to kind of go out the window was recording my own song catalogue. It’s much easier to be objective with other’s songs than it is one’s own. But I did manage to sneak a couple of #1s in there….
I haven’t had time to write in a couple of years, but my good friends within the writing community have been calling lately, so I am going to start writing again. Here at Skyline I’ve worked with some baby writers to see how they write … show ‘em a little craft I picked up along the way. In one way, writing is one thing you can always do, the way Harlan Howard did his entire life. On the other hand, it’s still somewhat of a young person’s game. I don’t anticipate writing like I did when I was in my 30s, back when I was in the middle of a lot of relationships, which of course influenced my material.
Oh, and my brother-in-law is Raul Malo, one of the most creative talents I’ve ever known. He’s putting the Mavericks back together for a string of dates next year and we are planning to write together for that project. We have written only a few songs in the past, but we both love the results, and it’s todo en la familia! Ha ha!
As a producer, do or did you ever have a “Wally Wilson” sound?
Lately, I’ve become more comfortable doing artist development, so production has taken a backseat as well. I love working with the bands and singers and getting them headed down a path and then turning it over to Paul Worley for the studio part. There’s none better and more thorough than Paul and Clarke and the gang. But hey, I think I still have a record or two left in me, production-wise.
As far as a sound of my own … my first job as producer (with Kenny Greenberg) was with Joan Baez. She was gracious enough to let us make a lot of mistakes and not fire me, because I initially thought, “Let me take this artist and mold her with a sound that I think is fabulous.” She did allow me to do that to some extent, but I realized at the end of the process that it’s her record, not my record. Even though I got away with it, the next time, I listened to what she wanted and I became her support system.
I then went from Joan Baez folk to rock bands to Celtic groups from Nova Scotia … to Lone Star and Lorrie Morgan. The only common thread in all those artists was that I learned to serve the artists and serve their muse. Personally, I like blues and old-fashioned roots music and if it fits the artist, I still incorporate that into modern music today and last, but really, first and foremost … every record gets the groove. The groove is everything. Period.
When you write or even choose songs for or by your artists for singles, do you hear a classic Country “hit” sound that can be heard throughout Country radio?
It’s funny. I hear people complain about how they hate a lot of what they hear on Country radio – and they always talk about all the great music Country radio was back in the day. But they hear those hits today on Classic Country stations that play nothing but the hits. Back then, when radio first played those hits, they also played a lot of crap along with them.
What heartens me right now with Country radio is the variety — everything from Lady Antebellum to Colt Ford and Jason Aldean to traditional Country singers such as good ol’ George Strait. There are lot of different Country styles airing on the same stations; that provides a fertile musical environment for producers, songwriters and artists.
Is your goal simply to get Stealing Angels #1 on Country, or have would you welcome them crossing over as well to pop, a la Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift?
When I was a kid — I must have been 12 or 13 — I heard Leonard Bernstein say that in the future, there will be no musical categories … it’ll all be cross-pollinated. Back then I thought how that can be, but he’s right. A lot of people talk about crossing over, but I don’t think Lady Antebellum ever set a goal of crossing over. They just did what they did — and the world liked it. I don’t know Taylor Swift, but I assume she just made the music she wanted to make — and it happened to appeal to a wider audience than just Country.
I’d love to see Stealing Angels become that successful. I want them to make records that every man, woman and child on the planet wants to hear.
How successful would you like to Skyville to be? Would you like to become as big as a major?
We don’t want to get too big, because we don’t want to ever have an artist traffic jam of any significant proportion. You can’t pay attention to too many acts at the same time, regardless of the size of your staff. We are developing the careers of creative artists; we have to be sure we have enough time to do that. It’s not just a matter of how many songs you get on the charts, but how much personal attention everybody receives. What’s more, every artist and project comes from a different place. A Faith Hill career is at a different place than a Stealing Angels career; everybody needs different things — some more, some less.
So what kind of goals do you have with Skyville?
I don’t look at goals in terms of #1s; I have various goals and expectations. I have certain expectations for the people who work with me in this company. I’m proud of the environment we have created for them. Everyone here is listened to closely. And music rules. Every dime I have ever made in this business has come when I put the music first. My goal is to create tremendous music — and if I do that, the money and the accolades will take care of themselves.