Carnival Music isn’t a publishing company, or a record label, though it does the work of both. It’s a music company, front to back, founded by industry veterans Frank Liddell and Travis Hill in 1997, not with the intent of using music to prop up a business, but to build a business that could find and nurture compelling, lasting music, and set the stage for compelling, lasting careers.
Liddell’s own career brought him to Nashville in the early ’90s, first to work at publishing company Bluewater Music, then to guide the work of Gary Allan, Lee Ann Womack and others as part of the A&R department at Decca Records. The rigidity of the more traditional Nashville music model left Liddell feeling cold and cornered, so he and Hill set out to create Carnival Music with a thoroughly different approach.
“I’ve always wanted to be sort of an island,” Liddell says. “I love the Atlantic Records story — it was a music-driven label, and the people that worked there were musically driven. They were, perhaps, competitive, but it seemed to me that they all championed each other. I’ve always wanted Carnival to be that: You’re protected if you’re here. If we like your music, we’re gonna help you get to where you want to go, and we’re gonna protect your music first and foremost.”
That long-haul sensibility felt right to Liddell as a music lover. But it’s also continued to feel like smart business sense, since Carnival’s successes have, by and large, come as a result of letting a love of songs lead the way, then standing by the writers who created those songs.
Among the songs the Carnival team proudly helped push to No. 1: David Nail’s “Let It Rain,” Scooter Carusoe’s Kenny Chesney-cut “Anything But Mine” and Troy Jones’ “People Are Crazy.” (The latter, performed by Billy Currington, also earned a song of the year Grammy nomination.) Bruce Robison, David Nail, Heather Little, Jedd Hughes, Natalie Hemby, Sam and Annie Tate, Scooter Carusoe and Troy Jones all earned their first No. 1 after joining the Carnival roster — which speaks both to the talent of those writers and the dedication of the Carnival staff.
“I just firmly feel that if we believe in somebody enough to sign them, then we should see it through,” Liddell says. “I’ve known so many people who have come to this town and it’s been 10 years before it’s worked for them as a songwriter.”
That much is true for several Carnival writers. The Dixie Chicks hit with “Travelin’ Soldier” in 2003, when the song — penned by the first writer signed to Carnival’s roster, heralded Texas songsmith Robison — was already 13 years old. “Angry All the Time,” a Robison-penned No. 1 for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in 2001, had been around for 11. Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds” had 15 years behind it when Miranda Lambert (whose Kerosene, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Revolution and Four the Record were all produced by Liddell) made it a hit in 2013.
It wasn’t necessarily that Liddell saw guaranteed hits in a deep writing well when he linked up with those writers. He just saw undeniable writing talent, and wanted to be a part of getting great songs heard.
“Those songs meant so much to me as a human being,” Liddell says of Robison’s work, “that owning them was like owning a Rembrandt.”
That vision has carried through to and informed the growth of Carnival’s current roster, which includes country voices David Nail, Brent Cobb and Hailey Whitters, roots-rooted talents Stoney LaRue, Rob Baird, and Mando Saenz and the style-blending Logan Brill and Derik Hultquist. Each Carnival writer puts forth his or her own stylistic stamp; all possess that undeniable talent.
“Examining our roster of artists, one finds a diversity and a consistency that seems natural,” says Carnival’s Courtney Gregg. “They all know who they are and what they want
to say, and our place is to cultivate the path that allows that voice to be heard for each of them.”
That cultivation means helping Carnival artists develop, bolstering them as they find their footing, and setting a foundation that a strong, long legacy can be built upon.
“We take a lot of pride that our writers come to us relatively unknown and are given the simultaneous freedom and challenge to develop their own unique voice here,” says Carnival’s Matthew Miller. “It’s easy to label it as an ‘anti-commercial’ mindset but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Songs like ‘Anything But Mine’ and ‘People Are Crazy’ are both commercially successful and will stand the test of time. “
Liddell was drawn to Nashville because of career artists like Steve Earle, and the belief that real artistry could and should be commercially viable. And working to bring that belief to bear remains rewarding, personally and professionally, for the entire Carnival staff.
“We’ve always done best finding great music and sticking by talent,” Liddell says. “I think if we can continue down that road, finding people that are unique to us and doing everything we can to make it happen for them, then we’re all gonna succeed, together.”