Country radio’s new voice

Arkansas native Bobby Bones reaches millions

FILE — Arkansas native Bobby Bones is shown in this 2014 file photo.

FILE — Arkansas native Bobby Bones is shown in this 2014 file photo.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bobby Bones ain’t country.

Or, at least, the Arkansas born-and-raised host of the nationally syndicated The Bobby Bones Show is not the traditional definition of country music.

“I don’t feel as though I’m a syndicated country music guy,” says the 33-year-old Bones in his office on Nashville, Tenn.’s Music Row. “I feel as though I’m just a guy who goes on the radio with my friends and tries to be funny.

“Look at me. I don’t look like a country DJ.”

He’s right. The native of Mountain Pine doesn’t dress country. On this Friday morning in February, Bones is dressed in jeans and an Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt over a white, long-sleeve thermal. He’s wearing thick, black-framed glasses and a totally white, designer ball cap.

But for country music radio listeners across the U.S., Bones — along with co-hosts Amy and Lunchbox — is the new voice of country music. Maybe not the country music of Hank, Waylon and George. But the country music of Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, The Band Perry and dozens of other new country acts that are poppier, hookier and flashier than the genre’s past purveyors.

The Bobby Bones Show is broadcast on 63 Clear Channel Communications radio stations via Premiere Networks, the country’s largest radio syndication company. (Premiere is also owned by Clear Channel.) Bones and crew reach almost 3 million radio listeners every weekday morning from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.

What these listeners hear is something rather radical when it comes to country music radio: A five-hour show of friends sitting around microphones with their conversations jumping from one topic to the next. Country music is the focus, but so are the collective personalities of the show’s members. Heading it all is Bones, a lifelong radio fan who started at Henderson State University’s college radio station at 17 before working at KLAZ in Hot Springs, Q100 in Little Rock and then moving to Austin, Texas, where The Bobby Bones Show got its start at 96.7 KISS FM.

“I was one of those lucky guys who at 5 or 6 knew exactly what I wanted to do,” says the 2002 graduate of Henderson State. “I knew that I wanted to be on the TV; I wanted to be on radio; I wanted to do stand-up comedy. And I’ve been able to do those things. I don’t know what it’s like to not know what I wanted to do.”

Controlled nuttiness

This is Bones on a Friday. The week has been busy. The Country Radio Seminar is in town. There have been meetings, boat parties, private concerts and more. There’s still a New Faces of Country performance later in the evening, featuring artists such as Brett Eldredge and Cassadee Pope. Work doesn’t end when Bones’ microphone goes silent at 10 a.m. every weekday morning.

Bones starts his day around 3 a.m. First thing, he’s reading, listening and watching. He’s on Facebook and Twitter, watching CNN and MSNBC, and visiting TMZ and about 20 other websites. He’s looking for subjects that are interesting, funny, relatable. What can he and his crew talk about or have an opinion on? The show is pieced together in these predawn hours.

Here’s how The Bobby Bones Show works. Bones knows where the conversation is going. His co-hosts don’t. The process has always been this way. Back when Bones, Lunchbox and Amy were doing Top 40 at 96.7 KISS FM, and the show first started being syndicated.

“I love this method,” Amy says. “Our life is constant show prep. You’re going through your day constantly looking for things that can relate back to listeners. We compile everything, and it all goes to Bobby, and he is kind of the brains behind it all. He sifts through it. But he’s got that all in his head and doesn’t share it with us. So, when we come on air he’s got a schedule of everything we’re going to be doing, but we don’t know about it until the moment it is brought up. He wants it to be organic.”

And organic, the show is. With the crew gathered in their Music Row studio, this Friday’s last hour darts from Bones praising the country music of Jamie Lynn Spears to an a cappella singing of Sammy Kershaw’s “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful” to Lunchbox’s daily bit, Bonehead Story of the Day. Everyone in the studio has a laptop open in front of them. Twitter and Facebook are scanned each free second. The show is a group of friends hanging out and trading stories and jokes, but shared with a few million radio listeners.

“There are two kinds of people who work for me,” Bones says. “There are my friends … and there are my interns who I just moved up, so they have always been my people. I always felt as though if I stayed away from radio people it wouldn’t sound like a radio show. That was always the goal.

“Just be yourself. That’s the whole point of the show. Be yourself and be honest and people are going to see that. Radio is transparent. You can tell when people are fake.”

Bones’ friendships with his two co-hosts stretch back years. Amy — last name Brown — met Bones at an Austin restaurant some eight years ago. She was in natural stone sales before joining the Bones Show. No prior radio experience. Bones met Lunchbox at an Austin bar. Lunchbox (real name Dan Chappell) was delivering food for Jason’s Deli at the time. He’s been working with Bones for 10 years. No prior radio experience. Eddie, who does digital content for the show, has also known Bones for 10 years. Eddie met Bones through a local Austin TV station. No prior radio experience. “I’d come in and shoot whatever video they needed,” Eddie says. “And Lunch and Amy and all of us became friends.”

Nada works for the local pop station in the same Nashville building where The Bobby Bones Show is based. She “just became one of the crew.” And then there’s Alayna, the executive producer of the show, and Ray, the show’s producer.

There’s more than a work relationship occurring here. There’s a genuine friendship. So when Clear Channel came to Bones and told him of their plans to move Bones from Top 40, Austin and his syndication company he’d built to country, Nashville and a bigger syndication, he and his friends said “yes.”

Here’s Lunchbox’s summation: “Let’s go. I’m out. See you later Top 40. Hello, country.”

While the music format of The Bobby Bones Show has changed, what hasn’t changed is the show’s natural flow and genuineness. “We’re the same show,” Amy says. “We’re the exact same show that we were on Top 40. The only thing that has changed is the music and the artists. Which is, for me, better. I love country music.”

And the group still talks on the air like the friends they are. Hardly any topics are off limits. Bones says they don’t “talk about things just to get a reaction. The sexual side.” Amy says the show covers all emotions. There are moments of humor. Moments of sadness. “Whatever is going on in your life at that moment is an opportunity to express it,” she says, “and some things are really going to relate to listeners, and that’s really kind of the cool part.”

“Go Away Bobby Bones”

There’s no question there’s been a backlash to The Bobby Bones Show and Bones. Here in Little Rock, where Bones went on KSSN 96 with longtime KSSN morning show personality Bob Robbins and co-host Jennifer Trafford moving to 105.1 The Wolf. In Nashville. In other markets. Earlier this year, billboards in Nashville popped up that read “Go Away Bobby Bones.” (Bones and Clear Channel deny they were behind the billboards.)

Bones is asked about this criticism. A deadpanned response: “People online are rude. It’s an adjustment.”

Sitting in Bones’ office following the Friday show, Rod Phillips, a senior vice president of programming at Clear Channel, addresses the backlash. “[Bones is] honest,” Phillips says. “He says his opinion of the artist. In country, it hasn’t been a format with a true personality willing to give their true, personal opinion. Social media makes the backlash feel bigger than it has been.”

Phillips is, along with some other Clear Channel executives, the reason Bones is the new face of country music radio. Phillips knew there would be a transition period. “Our point was that there are some really good DJs in country music,” he says. “But for the most part, they are DJs and not personalities. There are many more personalities in rock radio and Top 40 radio. That’s what we wanted to change in country. We wanted real personalities.”

And Bones and crew’s realness has shocked some country radio listeners.

But here’s the thing: Bones is country. He grew up poor as Bobby Estell in Mountain Pine. His real dad wasn’t around. His mom struggled with addiction problems before dying two years ago when she was 46. Bones was adopted by his grandmother. He doesn’t call his childhood “rough,” but those years weren’t easy.

He calls himself a “food stamp and welfare kid,” and says he thought he was rich when he started making $17,000 a year with one of his first radio contracts. “It’s not hard being poor when you’ve always been poor,” he says. But he’s fiercely proud of his Mountain Pine and Arkansas roots.

His grandmother introduced him to country music. Johnny Cash, Randy Travis (his grandmother’s favorite), Conway Twitty and more. “In Arkansas or the South, country music is part of the fabric,” Bones says. “You like other [music], too, but you don’t escape country music.”

Perhaps, Bones admits, he and his crew came in a little too brash when making the transition from Austin to Nashville and Top 40 to country. “I probably came in a little too arrogantly,” he says, “because I was like, ‘I’m here. There’s nothing you can do about it. Take it.’ Looking back, I could have walked a little softer. I didn’t.”

Bones hasn’t been the only target of disparaging comments. His crew has caught flak as well. Lunchbox shrugs off the criticism. “Some people say we are not real country,” he says. “If you let that get you down, life is going to be miserable.” But Amy notes she had to grow a “thick layer of skin.” There were nasty things said. Hate-filled emails and tweets.

As a Bones newcomer, Nada has a more universal view of the backlash against Bones and the show. “I don’t think that Nashville was really ready for what was going to happen,” she says. “It really is kind of old country versus new country. Now, a lot of the artists are kind of straddling the line between country and pop or whatever. It’s not just cowboy boots and belt buckles. It’s fresh.”

The final word: Earlier this year, Bones, Amy and Lunchbox won the Academy of Country Music’s National On-Air Personality of the Year award, tying with Country Countdown USA host Lon Helton.

The week’s end

The Bobby Bones Show ends for the week, but work is not over. It’s only midmorning on a Friday. You don’t get this far in life — and surely not country radio — by sitting around, waiting for the next thing. Bones hasn’t stopped yet in the last year to consider how he and his friends got here. He’s still thinking of what to do next. He wants 100 affiliates for The Bobby Bones Show. He wants a late-night TV hosting gig. Even as his “workweek” ends, there are two questions on Bones’ mind: “What’s next? How do we get bigger and better?”

Bobby and Rachel: A couple’s story

In February, the rumors — fueled by country music media outlets and social media clues — were confirmed: Bobby Bones and country singer Rachel Reinert (part of the country group Gloriana along with brothers Tom and Mike Gossin) were dating.

So how did the couple get together? Here’s what the host of The Bobby Bones Show calls the “true story” of their relationship.

“First of all, we had a press conference where [The Bobby Bones Show] was announced as the new morning show, and [Gloriana] played there,” Bones says. “She has two guys in her band that are obviously good-looking, and I just assumed she was dating one of those guys. She wasn’t. Never has. I didn’t know that. We meet, kind of, ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ I thought she was so freaking beautiful that I got on the air and made a list of the hottest girls in country music, never thinking it would actually make her come [on the show]. It really wasn’t [a ploy]. I’m as awkward as it gets. So I do this list and put her at No. 1, and [the radio station] calls her — awkwardly — and makes her come to the studio and accept the award. A trophy. I wrote her a little funny song, and we tweeted a little bit and texted a little bit. I chased her, and she chased me, and I chased her. Then they went on tour, and we didn’t see each other for a couple of months. We’ve been keeping it low profile for a little bit, but then once the magazines and blogs started putting it out there, it was time.”

Reinert sits in Bones’ Nashville, Tenn., office while he tells the story of how they met. Occasionally, she laughs during the story, noting she still possesses the “No. 1 Babe in Country Music” trophy.

“She’s really great,” Bones says. “She’s awesome. She’s as normal as she can be for someone who is as talented as she is. That’s what’s odd and different about her. I know a lot of really talented people who aren’t as grounded. That’s what makes her so cool. And she’s freaking awesome. Totally cool. And hot. That’s our whole story.”

Reinert laughs at Bones’ wrap-up, and says, “Thank you.”