AS NEW NASHVILLE acts continue to chip away at the thin wall dividing country and rock, major labels are growing ever more bold and creative with marketing the mold-breakers.

A telling example is the method used to push the Gibson/Miller Band, a souped-up, five-piece combo whose debut offering, “Where There’s Smoke,” has just been released by Sony Nashville’s Epic label.

Fronted by Nashville tunesmith Dave Gibson and former Bob Seger sideman Blue Miller, the group plays a turn-it-up, beefy brand of country that the label has dubbed “Turbo Twang.”

But instead of trying to soften the group’s image for more conservative radio programmers, Sony has opted for a full frontal assault, shipping the boogie tune “Big Heart” to radio as the first single.

“Usually you come with something that’s a lot more radio-friendly, but we purposefully came with the most difficult song,” says Mike Martinovich, Sony Nashville’s VP of marketing. “We wanted people to know them so they’d arrive with authority.”

Choosing a rough single wasn’t the only move Sony made, however. An array of unconventional marketing choices have set the Gibson/Miller Band apart, according to Martinovich.

Creating what they termed “the first country extended dance video,” Sony solicited a version of the “Big Heart” video to dance clubs and video pools. “It’s like the next phase of “Big Heart,” says Martinovich. “There’s life after the single.”

Epic’s New York office also serviced non-country dance clubs with a 12-inch vinyl Gibson/Miller Band single, and the album’s producer, Doug Johnson, did a five-song dance remix aimed at country dance clubs.

The band plans a series of “homecoming” shows in band members’ hometowns as its first tour effort.

COUNTRY SINGER RICKY Van Shelton was tossed from the taping of the Country Music Assn.’s 35th-anniversary special last week at the Grand Ole Opry, allegedly because he refused to sing a tune.

The incident, widely reported in Nashville, occurred when show producer Irving Waugh reportedly told Shelton during the show’s rehearsal that he would have to sing part of an Elvis Presley song as part of a tribute medley. Shelton already was scheduled to sing one song on his own.

When Shelton declined the slot in the finale, saying the tune’s chosen musical key was out of his range, Waugh reportedly told Shelton he’d sing in the finale or not appear on the show.

Shelton said he wasn’t doing the finale and went outside to his tour bus while his management talked to CMA officials. Opry security then told Shelton, a Grand Ole Opry member, that he had to leave the property.

Shelton complained in published reports that the CMA doesn’t care about artists and uses the awards show to bully acts.

Waugh could not be reached for comment.

WHEN YOU WORK for a film studio you’re not always doing what’s best for the film, but what’s best for the studio,” says film music veteran Bones Howe, formerly with Columbia Pictures and now working at music publisher Windswept Pacific Entertainment, explaining why he left the studio after 5 1/2 years.

Howe, a former independent music supervisor for films and a Grammy-winning record producer, says it was not the control-heavy studio setting, or the austere environment championed by Sony Motion Picture Group prez Jonathan Dolgen that caused him to leave.

“Between Columbia and TriStar, I was mostly a traffic cop for the 31 films that needed music,” Howe says. “I need to have more hands-on involvement and not be part of a machine that constantly needs to be fed.

“My new position gives me that up-close-and-personal touch that I need. I’ll be getting into the studio more, producing acts, helping make artists out of some of our songwriters.”

Howe believes that the days of the music supervisor are “basically over,” citing the dearth of music-driven films. “That (type of film) has basically run its course.”

Noting that “Wayne’s World” and “The Bodyguard” are among the handful of films that featured music, Howe points out that during his last six months at Columbia, he noticed a “winding-down of that genre. The days of forcing a song into a film just to give the movie another marketing hook will be the exception, not the rule,” he says.

ALICE IN CHAINS, whose Columbia album “Dirt” is nestled in the top 30 of the Billboard 200, is experiencing some changes, the latest of which has seen bass player and founding member Mike Starr depart, citing tour rigors.

Starr will remain with the band through the end of January for its South American dates, then will be replaced by former Ozzy Osbourne bassist Mike Inez.

The change follows a recent management shift that saw co-manager Kelly Curtis exit, leaving the band solely in the hands of Susan Silver.

CULT FAVORITES Shonen Knife–the all-girl Japanese trio known for its innocent, enthusiastic bubble-gum punk–will release their first domestic, all-English album Jan. 26 through Virgin Records.

“Let’s Knife” sticks to the band’s usual variety of upbeat lyrical topics on the 15-song disc, which includes “I Am a Cat,””Cycling Is Fun” and “Twist Barbie.” The group plans a U.S. tour next month, including a stop Feb. 8 at the Roxy.

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