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Country Stampede Rocks Nashville - Again

Tomorrow night's country music awards will honor those artists who have helped the industry shed its hillbilly image and regain its popularity peak of the 1950s

By Scott PendletonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1992


VINCE GILL jokes that rock musician Mark Knopfler invited him to join the group Dire Straits in 1990 because Mr. Knopfler needed someone to "tune his guitar."

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But it was no joke back then that Mr. Gill, a studio-quality guitarist and sterling tenor, needed a career boost after years of tepid album sales. Still, he turned down the chance to jump to an established hit group. "I had invested so much of my life in country music," Gill says. "I just didn't want to give up on it."

Good thing. Artists who didn't give up on country music during its mid-'80s slump are riding high on a two-year stampede of album and ticket sales that is still building speed.

Gill's next two albums went platinum (1 million sales). Dealers placed advance orders for 500,000 copies of this month's release, "I Still Believe In You" - remarkable compared with initial shipments of 15,000 for earlier albums.

Although rock and "urban contemporary" outsell country, its share of total album sales increased to 12.5 percent last year from 6.8 percent in 1988, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

That means Nashville has regained its popularity peak of the early 1950s, when 10 million people would tune in to the Grand Ole Opry, says Ronnie Pugh at the Country Music Foundation. That era ended when Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly taught country audiences to rock and roll. Even the Opry, whose founding in 1924 made it one of the original "barn dances of the air," was dropped from national syndication in 1960.

As one radio station after another switched formats, concerned musicians and recording executives in Nashville founded the Country Music Association (CMA) in 1958 to promote their product.

It's taken 35 years, but finally "country music is doing demonstrably very well," says Ed Morris, who tracks the category for Billboard magazine. More stations than ever follow a country format. Last year's CMA awards broadcast was seen by more than 20 million people, one-third of the national audience that night.

Mr. Morris notes that Garth Brooks's "Roping the Wind" has sold twice as many copies as Michael Jackson's "Dangerous," more than the two Guns n' Roses "Use Your Illusion" albums combined, and is "way, way outselling Springsteen."

"We have literally handfuls of country artists now who are selling platinum," Morris adds, citing Mr. Brooks (20 million copies of three albums and a new Christmas album that's moving quickly), Gill, Reba McEntire, Travis Tritt, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and Wynonna Judd.

When Brooks was recently dethroned after a months-long reign at the top of the Billboard 200, which ranks top-selling albums regardless of category, it was by another country artist, barely known Billy Ray Cyrus.

Mr. Cyrus "was up here in the office probably three or four months ago explaining his first little promotion," Morris says. "I had heard his name, but just on a list of who's on Mercury's roster. And then - zoom! - he just took over everything.

"They're coming up so fast now that ... it's pretty hard to spot them before they run over you," he adds.

Mr. Cyrus and other artists whose stars have risen during the 1990s - Brooks, Alan Jackson, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Travis Tritt, McBride & The Ride, Collin Raye, Pam Tillis, Joe Diffie, and Brooks & Dunn - grabbed most of the nominations for tomorrow night's 26th Annual Country Music Association Awards.