In the final years of his tenure as the host of The Late Show on CBS, David Letterman became one of the most tireless supporters of independent country and roots artists on television. Dale Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shovels & Rope, Elizabeth Cook, Jason Isbell, and many other performers that mainstream radio would never sniff found the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater a welcoming place, and the one outlet that would consider them for a network television debut.
“About 4 months ago my booking agent receives a phone call and this girl said she was Jennifer from Worldwide Pants, and Dave would like to know if Ray would do his show.” Ray Wylie Hubbard explained about his 2012 appearance on the show. “She didn’t know what Worldwide Pants was so she goes, ‘Dave who?’ And Jennifer goes, ‘Dave Letterman, January 9th.’ And the booking agent goes, ‘Well let me make sure he’s not playing a happy hour gig in Waco, those things are hard to re-schedule’
Dale Watson also made his network television debut on Letterman, and it was also at the behest of Letterman himself. “I don’t remember exactly if Dave heard Dale on Sirius XM or on ‘All Things Considered,’ but it was one of the two, and they called us up and said, ‘We want Dale Watson on the show, and we want him to play “I Lie When I Drink.”‘ recalls Beth Friend of Red House Records.
With Letterman’s retirement, the concern was this once important roots music outlet on television would dry up. But since Stephen Colbert has taken the reigns at The Late Show, quite the opposite has happened.
One of Cobert’s first country music guests was Chris Stapleton—just 10 days after Colbert went on air in September of 2015, and way before Stapleton’s big coming out party at the CMA Awards in November.
Margo Price, a true country music artist from east Nashville whose debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter from Third Man Records isn’t even due out until March 25th, was bestowed the opportunity to play Colbert on January 19th.
“It’s gotta be a hard job to fill the shoes of a legend like Letterman, but Stephen Colbert is making it look way too easy,” Margo Price tells Saving Country Music. “He is not only exposing unknown musicians to his audience but he’s also supporting racial and political underdogs. Stephen and his staff treated us very kind and are all salt of the earth people. It was truly an honor to play his show.”
Lake Street Dive played Colbert on January 26th to promote their upcoming February 19th release Side Pony produced by Dave Cobb. “He is seriously the nicest, coolest dude,” the band posted as they posed with Colbert on Instagram. They also played The Late Show in 2014 when Letterman was still hosting. Then later that week, another unknown female artist from Nashville named Aubrie Sellers made her network television debut on Colbert on the eve of the release of her album New City Blues.
Monday night (2-1), critically-acclaimed songwriter John Moreland will be making his network television debut from the Ed Sullivan Theater courtesy of Stephen Colbert—something the fans of the Oklahoma native likely never thought they would see. But that is the opportunity The Late Show has bestowed to many deserving country and roots artists.
The reason that Letterman left, but the opportunity for independent artists remains is because the same booking agent for Letterman remained on staff after Colbert took over. “We invited her out to one of John’s shows in NYC,” says the publicist for John Moreland, and after seeing him perform live, The Late Show was sold on the idea of booking Moreland.
As the opportunities to reach the masses through media continue to dwindle for independent artists, and mainstream radio continues to macro serve the mass consumer, opportunities like appearances on The Late Show can make the difference between an artist continuing to struggle in obscurity, or finding the attention to forge a sustainable career.