It's Booming, but Is It Country?

Country music's popularity has exploded, but some worry about how far the industry will go to keep its new fans

Of the three co-hosts of this week's Academy of Country Music Awards, only one was an established country music performer - George Strait.

One out of three may not be bad these days as the world of country music expands to take in just about everyone and everything.

While record sales did decline last year, the fact that country music has become a major force in American culture is indisputable. From line dancing in Los Angeles to two nights of sold out Garth Brooks concerts in Boston's 18,500-seat FleetCenter, country music has grown beyond its traditional Southern base and taken hold of the whole country.

"There has always been a sense of the South as a type of crucible for America," says Bill Ivey, executive director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville. "In the past it has been the black-white issue, but this area - which has been troubled - has also been extraordinarily creative with the growth of jazz, blues, and the beginnings of rock-and-roll.... More and more, the American listener has finally come to see country as one of the forms that stands up next to pop and rock."

Growing from the "urban cowboy" of the 1980s through contemporary country icons like Brooks and Reba McEntire - whose music straddles country and rock - record sales swelled to 76 million in 1995. But that success may have come at a price. As the country music industry grapples to hold on to its newfound fans by welcoming popular nonmusicians into the fold and heavily marketing itself, many say it is losing its identity.

Co-hosting Wednesday's awards show with Strait were Crystal Bernard and Jeff Foxworthy. Bernard plays Helen Chapel Hackett in NBC's "Wings," and comedian Foxworthy now plays off his popular redneck image in his self-titled show, also on NBC.

Bernard put out her first country music album recently, and Foxworthy cut a best-selling comedy album "You might Be a Redneck If...." as well as recording "Redneck Games" with country star Alan Jackson. Recently, everyone from actors to pro football players have recorded songs, regardless of their musical background.

Meanwhile, established country singers have branched out into wider fields, spreading their names through new and different means: The popular duo of Brooks & Dunn drives their own cars at NASCAR races. Reba McEntire has her own Web site, and others are following her lead.

But the growing concern is that, amid all this marketing, the country stars of yesteryear are being left behind as today's dynamic rockers headline megatours. Singers like Loretta Lynn and Mel Tillis, once the foundation of country music, have had trouble getting contracts, much less radio play.

Radio is "a critical aspect of the overall exposure of country music," says Tim Wipperman, executive vice president and general manger of Warner/Chappell music. He notes that as big corporations have bought and merged a large number of stations, the emerging trend has been to play "safe records" of current artists whose names have become known.

But Mr. Ivey says that even now, many of the top country singers have deep roots in traditional country music: Vince Gill in bluegrass and Alan Jackson in the honky tonk of Hank Williams Jr., for example.

In the end, returning to country music's roots may mean embracing a style that incorporates many different types of country - bluegrass, gospel, and maybe even a bit of rock and roll.

Whenever sales drop "the industry draws on the core country tradition of good, sincere vocals and songs," says Ivey. "We don't know yet what form that will take, but I would predict some kind of grass-roots performer or style will surface."

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