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

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."

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.

Alabama, The Judds, Tanya Tucker, and Tammy Wynette (with Randy Travis) are among the few long-familiar names contending for awards.

Gill and Ms. McEntire, who bagged nine nominations between them, co-host the live broadcast from the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville (CBS, Wednesday, 9-11 p.m. EDT). They will also perform, as will Cyrus and others.

"I've never seen as much talent emerging as we have now," says Irving Waugh, executive producer of the CMA broadcast. He says this year's awards are unusual because of the sparseness of nominations for more established names like George Strait. (Mr. Strait can't complain; he stars in "Pure Country, a musical film to be released in October.)

Adds Morris: "There's an immense amount of talent here. A lot of people in the Hall of Fame probably couldn't even get a record contract now."

But Gill defends his predecessors. "It's not like this last couple of years is the only time there's been talented people in country music," he says. "Everybody has their little run."

The CMA nominations only indicate who's popular at the moment, he adds. "It doesn't mean that Ronnie Milsap can't outsing anybody in the world, still. He can," Gill says. "And same with George Jones and Merle Haggard and Ricky Skaggs and Conway Twitty - I can give you 50 names of people that are deserving of the `male vocalist of the year' award."

Then did Nashville's new artists start the country stampede? Or were they just in the right place at the right time?

"Naturally, you'd like to believe it's because the records are great, and that's what's pulling people in," Gill says. "But at the same time, the records have always been great."

Gill and Morris dispute the theory that audiences are not so much running to Nashville as they are running away from rap and heavy metal. Rather, they credit The Nashville Network and Country Music Television for dispelling the barnyard aroma of "Hee Haw."

"People who would never listen to country on the radio ... flick around and see it on the television. They see that they are not looking at hillbillies who don't know how to dress or how to talk or how to sing," Morris says.

And it wasn't aging baby boomers that Mr. Waugh saw dancing at a Garth Brooks concert in Dallas, but "so many girls 12, 13, 14, singing along with him, on their feet for the whole two hours. I would have thought the majority would have been married couples in their 20s, 30s, 40s. And even older," he says.

New Nashville artists like Mary-Chapin Carpenter - who Morris says is "essentially a cerebral folk artist" - can take credit for broadening country's appeal by infusing new elements.

"The confines of country music now are light-years wider than they've ever been," Gill says.

This generation of country musicians was influenced "by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Taylor, as well as the country greats like Haggard, Buck Owens, George Jones, Ray Price, Patsy Cline."

Waugh notes that country music concerts have taken on some of the hyperactivity and special effects that audiences normally expect at rock concerts. At a concert in Louisville, Ky., Reba McEntire required eight costume changes and 42 people behind the scenes. "That's normal now," he says.

But Gill, for one, doesn't let "bells and whistles" take precedence over his music. "We don't wear matching outfits, we don't have smoke bombs, lasers, or any of that stuff," he says.

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