Charlie Major – Minor change of plans
By the time Charlie Major released his third album in 1997, he had come to expect respect. After selling over 300,000 albums, charting 10 hit singles and collecting three Junos (Canada’s Grammy equivalent), he was Canada’s king of new country. What more could a big record label hope for?
Major quickly found out, through a sequence of events that ultimately led to his departure from the Canadian division of multinational BMG and his signing to the small-but-respected Dead Reckoning label for his new album, 444.
When Major’s third, ironically-titled record Everything’s Alright was released, BMG Canada had undergone a cabinet shuffle. Everything was not all right. “[The label] all of a sudden came in and wanted me to be something they thought I should be,” Major says. “Why the hell do you want to come in and fuck with it? But they said: ‘We think we can do better if you do what we say.'”
Major says the label’s commitment was glacial, which made the relatively modest showing of Everything’s Alright inexorable. “They are the ones who submarined the third album,” he charges. He asked for and received a release from BMG. “They were happy to be rid of me.”
BMG Canada vice-president of A&R Keith Porteous zealously disputes Major’s account, saying that for his proposed fourth album, the label had simply asked the singer to record in Canada (not Nashville, as was Major’s practice), on a budget more in line with his reduced record sales. “[Major] wanted a limousine record deal with a town car career,” says Porteous, adding that the people at BMG who helped Major build up his career have been bruised by his criticism. “I think it shows a lack of respect and a lack of accountability on his part.”
After an 18-month hiatus, Major turned to Dead Reckoning for 444 (the title refers to Major’s fourth album, released when he is 44 years old). It’s another showcase for Major’s plain-spoken, mature brand of rootsy rock, short on the flash so esteemed by modern Nashville but long on unassuming arrangements nesting honest, grown-up themes. It’s an increasingly common twist on the typical career arc: Rather than graduating through indie-land to the high-stakes promise of a big label, Major has gone the other way.
“With Dead Reckoning, people are offering suggestions, and at least you know it is not coming from an ignorant point of view, or a marketing point of view. It is just coming from a musical point of view,” he says.
Major grew up as a fan of the country rock of Poco and Emmylou Harris. “I was never a traditionalist. I never knew who Lefty Frizzell was,” he says. After playing Ottawa-area bars, he received an unlikely break: A friend tried to slip a tape of his songs backstage to Willie Nelson at an Ottawa show. The cassette ended up in the hands of a bus driver, who instead got it to the show’s opener, Ricky Van Shelton. Soon, Van Shelton was on the phone, pledging to cover Major’s “Backroads”, which went on to be one of the most played songs of 1990.
Sanguine with that success, Major chased a deal of his own. His 1993 BMG debut, The Other Side, became a triumph in Canada, powered by the single “I’m Gonna Drive You Out Of My Mind”. He built on that conquest with 1995’s Lucky Man, but a couple of attempts at launching a career in the States fizzled. By Everything’s Alright, he was ready to bail. “With a major label, you get the big bang out of the box for marketing, and then it dwindles very quickly,” he says. “With Dead Reckoning, it is more of a slow burn, and I kind of like that.”