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Sunday, 14 October, 2007 5:30 PM

Music Without Boundaries: Country Artists Find Worldwide Success


LeAnn Rimes, Ronan Keating and Trisha Walker-Cunningham at the Gstaad Festival in 2004.

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

The appeal of Country Music extends far beyond U.S. borders, so savvy artists realize the value of developing a fan base abroad. Penetrating foreign territories takes time and commitment, but for acts that have guitar (or keyboards, drums, etc.) and will travel, the payoff can be substantial.

Curb Records' the Bellamy Brothers, who received the 2002 CMA International Artist Achievement Award, are among the most successful Country acts touring overseas, with two European tours slated for this year.

"International touring is a big part of our career," said David Bellamy. "The first time we went to Europe we got a call from Warner Bros., and they said, 'You guys have a hit in Holland!' By the time we started going over there in 1976 'Let Your Love Flow' was rocking. It peaked at No. 1 in Germany for eight weeks. Since then we've done 50 tours."

For the past 12 years, the Bellamys have been represented overseas by Judy Seale, President of Nashville-based Judy Seale International. Seale began working in the international market during her early days with the Jim Halsey Company.

"Jim was a pioneer in getting Country Music overseas," Seale said. "He introduced me to it and gave me a promotion to VP of International. The very first tour was with Brenda Lee. We went to Japan for three weeks. It was a great learning experience and I started making contacts."

One of Seale's most fruitful relationships started with a fax sent to CMA from a Country Music enthusiast in Japan. A friend at CMA encouraged her to meet with promoter Charlie Nagatani, and Japan's Country Gold music festival was born.

"He got a grant from the government and we had a Country Music festival in Japan," Seale recalled. "It was back in '89 and we had 10,000 people show up. Now we have between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year. Charlie sends out 5,000 hand-written cards twice a year to the people who had been before. He tells them who is going to be there, and then he'll send them tickets and say, 'Can you sell these tickets?' It's the personal relationship that gets people out there."

Last year, Seale worked with 27 different festivals, including events in Austria, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and Wales. But Norway, she insisted, is a particularly good market for Country Music.

"There's a festival every weekend, and they turn them into camping events," said Seale, who has had her own company since 2001, and has won CMA's Jo Walker-Meador International Award and the CMA International Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year Award.

Craponne, France, and Gstaad, Switzerland are home to two of Country Music's biggest festivals. Both are handled by Trisha Walker-Cunningham, head of Nashville-based Trisha Walker International.

"We are in our 19th year in Gstaad and already have the most stellar lineup," enthused Walker-Cunningham, citing Riders in the Sky, Julie Roberts, Randy Travis and Rhonda Vincent. "I co-founded the festival with promoter Marcel Bach, who has won the International Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year Award twice from CMA."

Walker-Cunningham was born in Singapore and raised in Cypress before moving to England at age 11. Nearly three decades ago, she came to Nashville with $500 and a suitcase full of clothes. That vacation turned to full-time residency. She became the first recipient of CMA's Jo Walker-Meador International Award in addition to receiving honors from two Tennessee governors and two Nashville mayors and having Jan. 5, 1989 designated "Trisha Walker Day" in Nashville.

"So much has changed in the last 10 years," she said. "Icons like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Don Williams can tour over there as long as they want because European fans are very loyal."

Newer acts can build their fan bases in foreign as well as American markets simultaneously, in part through radio and TV exposure from festivals such as Craponne's Festival Country Rendevous and Gstaad but also through recording duets with popular artists in their home countries.

For example, the Bellamys guested on two tracks from Here I Am, the latest album by Danish Country singer Wenche (pronounced Winke) Hartmann, including their Parton duet "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body (Would You Hold It Against Me)" and "You're the World," which David Bellamy co-wrote with his son Jesse.

Trisha Yearwood embarked on a similar project, after Walker-Cunningham brought her together with Australian Country star Lee Kernaghan, the 2003 CMA Global Country Artist Award winner. Proceeds from their collaboration were donated to farmers battling drought, though Yearwood also benefited from her greater exposure in the Australian market.

"And two years ago," Walker-Cunningham added, "LeAnn Rimes recorded a song with Ronan Keating and it went No. 1 in the UK and the Top 5 in most European countries. LeAnn has a name, but that No. 1 with Ronan broke her to the point where she now has an album on the British charts."

Seale cited the Bellamys as a shining example of how to have a successful global career and still perform around 200 dates in the United States. "I could book them every night of the week," Seale said. "They went to Europe in 1976 when they had their first hit and they went back every year."

Bellamy added that going into foreign territories and building relationships is important. "'Let Your Love Flow' gave us the foundation we needed, and because of that, Switzerland really doesn't look at us like an American act. We've played there so much, we're practically local." Seale said BR5-49, Kenny Rogers, Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam are among the acts that continue to draw crowds around the world. For those artists who do play internationally, there's more money to be made in CD and merchandise sales.

"They usually do well," Seale said. "Ninety percent of the festivals don't charge a commission for bringing the product in because you already have to pay to ship it and pay duty when you bring it in. So everything you make is yours."

Seale said new areas are continually opening up, including China, where a group of sponsors, with support from CMA, maintain a booth at the China Home Entertainment Center, a sprawling permanent exhibition in the port city of Guangzhou, formerly Canton.

"We are promoting Country Music and the state of Tennessee," said Seale, who also volunteers her time to take artists on trips to support the U.S military. She did 10 military tours last year, citing Charlie Daniels, Aaron Tippin and Chely Wright as some of the most supportive artists.

Seale encourages Country newcomers to travel overseas. "If they would just take two weeks out of their lives and go over there and build a marketplace, then in the long run, those people will be fans for life."



Blue County rocks Japan's Country Music Festival, Country Gold, in 2004. is Detroit's exclusive media outlet for this syndicated weekly column!



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