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Big Country

Country music has become the hottest sound around thanks to Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and more

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This is a tale of two Nashvilles, and both of them can be found in the studio of WSIX, one of the city’s two leading country stations. The old Nashville can be found on the studio’s back shelves — rows and rows of tapes by Merle Haggard, George Jones, and other country legends who don’t get much airplay anymore.

The new Nashville lies in the stack of releases in front of stocky, amiable disc jockey Hoss Burns. ”Who’s hot?” Burns says, swiveling around and scanning the pile of most-requested songs. ”Wynonna’s hot as hell. Hal Ketchum. Sammy Kershaw. Garth Brooks, of course. Tanya Tucker. Alan Jackson. Patty Loveless. And they’re all young. Five years ago, not a damn one of ’em was out, except for Tanya. It’s amazing.” Thanks to such new acts, the station is within gunning distance of WSM, its Grand Ole Opry-based archrival, and it’s receiving more advertising than ever from corporations like Anheuser-Busch, which finds country the perfect way to reach beer-guzzling 21-to-35-year-olds.

WSIX isn’t the only place interested in friends in low places. At times it seems that America is a country gone country. The revival that started in the mid-’80s — with the rise of New Traditionalism, the sparse, rootsy music of George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, and later, Randy Travis — has slowly, steadily worked its way into the mainstream. Once widely disparaged by pop and rock fans as gauche, cornball Americana, country is enjoying an unprecedented windfall much bigger and deeper than the short-lived Urban Cowboy fad. (A mere mention of that era causes the most cordial Nashville music professionals to scowl as if they’ve just discovered cow dung on their boots.)

More country albums than ever — 35 during the week of March 7 — dot the Billboard Top 200 album chart. One of them, Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, a blend of singer-songwriter ballads and honky-tonk lite, has become an outright phenomenon. Released last fall, the album has sold 6 million copies, has kept Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from holding on to the No. 1 slot, and in conjunction with Brooks’ razzle-dazzle concerts and recent best-sellers from Clint Black and Travis Tritt, has made pop fans realize that country is no longer equated with overalls and bales of hay. In all, country is now estimated to be a $3 billion-a-year business, with record sales alone estimated to top $700 million annually.

Not surprisingly, the country bandwagon is getting mighty crowded. Major record labels like Elektra and Giant are opening Nashville offices, as have Entertainment Tonight and the star-heavy Hollywood talent agency CAA. Winterland Productions, one of the leading rock merchandise companies, says it will ship $25 million in country merchandise this year. Country is such a hot financial commodity that the latest young hunky-tonk act, Tracy Lawrence, had lined up five sponsorship deals — from Wrangler jeans to Chevrolet pickups — by the time his first single, ”Sticks and Stones,” hit No. 1 on the country chart in January. The genre even has its own Las Vegas in Branson, Mo., where aging acts like Roy Clark and Mel Tillis give concerts in their own theaters, contributing to the town’s $750 million in annual revenues.

Even television seems to have developed a bit of a drawl. Once country TV was limited to Hee Haw and the occasional Johnny Cash or Barbara Mandrell variety show. Now there’s The Nashville Network (TNN), a cable channel that sends out country videos, game shows (including Top Card, with categories like ”Johnny Cash”), and cooking and talk shows to 54.7 million homes a day. (Coincidentally, one of this year’s surprise best-sellers is Memories: The Autobiography of Ralph Emery, a memoir by the TNN host that has sold 300,000 copies.) And the phenomenally high ratings for specials like NBC’s This Is Garth Brooks and the Country Music Association’s awards show on CBS last October have proved that a mass audience is just as eager to watch the music on TV as it is to buy the records. Hence Hot Country Nights, a Sunday-night NBC series showcasing blood both old (Haggard, Kenny Rogers) and new (Aaron Tippin, Pirates of the Mississippi) on a sleek soundstage with as much dry-ice fog as the last Sisters of Mercy tour.

”A lot of people are discovering it’s not nearly as twangy as it was 10 or 20 years ago,” says Duncan Stewart, promotions director at WSIX. ”It’s high- tech, state-of-the-art stuff. It’s not just someone standing up there in a cowgirl dress with a four-piece band behind her.”

Country is in vogue for a Stetson full of reasons. Elaborate videos, like rock videos before them, have made the music more accessible (and made stars out of handsome upstarts like Mark Collie and Trisha Yearwood). ”Before cable, people never saw the music,” says Vince Gill. ”Now you can get an informed opinion of what’s going on.” The amount of country albums now dotting the pop charts reflects the influence of SoundScan, the electronic system for tallying record sales that was instituted by Billboard last year (and that supposedly reflects sales more accurately than the previous method of oral reports from store managers). As a result — and perhaps because more record stores in the Southeast are tallied than in, say, the Northeast — it is now common to find Tritt and Black albums nestled next to those by Guns N’ Roses and Hammer on the pop album chart.

Beyond the statistics and the visuals, though, contemporary country itself has undergone a transformation. The music still has distinctive common threads — a simplicity of approach; direct, storytelling lyrics; and a singing style that Billboard, in a 1947 piece on Hank Williams, described as a ”tear in (the) voice.” Country, says longtime country producer Kyle Lehning (the man behind Randy Travis), is ”music cut of a simple cloth. It’s not technology-driven. It’s a person in front of a microphone singing a song. There’s something familiar and safe and good about that.”

More than ever, though, the term country seems a catchall for a wide range of styles, many of them pop leftovers and many fairly sophisticated. The hard- core honky-tonk of Haggard and Jones lives on in Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Mark Chesnutt, each dressed in standard ’90s Nashville uniforms of starched shirts, pressed jeans, and cowboy hats. Acts like Travis Tritt and the Kentucky HeadHunters are rooted in the brawny swagger of Southern rock, while the earnest singer-songwriter confessionals of Beth Nielsen Chapman and recent Grammy winner Mary-Chapin Carpenter echo Joni Mitchell more than Patsy Cline. Other branches include the middle-of-the-road ballads of chisel- featured young singers like Doug Stone and Collin Raye; the idiosyncratic Texas country-folk of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely; and the beat-heavy rock, rooted in Springsteen and Mellencamp, of Tippin and Kershaw. As Lehning says, ”Country is kind of a broad term these days.”

”We’re of an age group and generation right now that grew up with the Beatles, Creedence, Janis Joplin, The Band, stuff like that,” says David Conrad, vice president of Almo/Irving Music, one of Nashville’s leading song publishers. ”Those are our influences. We don’t have Creedence or Joplin or the Marshall Tucker Band anymore. The closest we’ve got to someone who tells a story and sings a nice melody is Garth Brooks, Billy Dean, or Vince Gill.”

Has country tapped into an older, baby-boom audience raised on classic rock? ”Garth is selling 5 million or whatever of one record, and there ain’t 5 million mom-and-pop country fans out there,” says Almo/Irving’s Conrad. ”Somebody else is buying these records. Who is it?” According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade organization of record companies, the answer is simple. The largest chunk of records (29 percent) is sold to those aged 35 and up (in comparison, the 15-19 age group accounts for 18 percent). RIAA statistics also show that more records are bought in the South than in any other part of the country. And it’s worth noting that country radio is the medium’s third most popular format, ahead of Top 40 and classic rock and just behind the two leading formats, adult contemporary and news-talk.

For the 35-and-ups, the déjà vu feeling of modern country may be the key to the music’s popularity. Aging baby boomers, feeling cut off from Top 40, rap, and other teen-oriented urban styles of pop, are comforted by time-honored ’70s rock archetypes like singer-songwriters and country-rock, and they’re finding new variations on those styles on country radio and records. ”I call it traditional country, but a lot of what I play now was rock & roll 10 years ago,” says Tracy Lawrence, who notes that he was reared on the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd. ”It’s a little more driving — not as in pop crossover, but leaning toward Southern rock.” (Garth Brooks counts James Taylor and Jim Croce — even Kiss and Journey — among his heroes; his remake of Billy Joel’s ”Shameless” is less a crass commercial move than a sincere nod to his antecedents.)

Think of it this way: If the Eagles had released their first album in 1992, not 1972, ”Take It Easy” would qualify as a country song. In fact, the band’s old label, Asylum, home of Southern California rock in the ’70s, has been reactivated by its parent company, Elektra, as a new Nashville country label. ”Hopefully, we can come up with some new artists cut of that same cloth, in that particular genre,” says Lehning, who has just been named Asylum’s executive vice president and general manager. ”It’s a real tradition to try to uphold.” That tradition: Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, and other Asylum stalwarts.

The ascendance of country in the last decade points to larger issues than just the rebirth of ’70s pop under a new name. Like any art form, pop music both reflects its audience and changes to accommodate the times; country, despite its innate conservatism, is no exception. The hard beats and downcast, lamenting lyrics of ’50s honky-tonk — from the likes of Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman, and Lefty Frizzell — derived from a stranger-in-a-strange-land despair felt by many rural residents after they moved to the big cities during the postwar boom.

In the last few decades, the next generation has been fleeing those urban centers. Country in the ’90s reflects that rising suburban culture and the desire for a simpler lifestyle and a music to accompany it, far removed from the sound of the cities (i.e., rap and dance). In a sign of the times, the revised edition of Hee Haw features a mall set. And with their Gap-style clothing and tasteful demeanors, many new country acts do look as if they just stepped out of a mall.

Beneath the calmer, glossier presentations, though, the heart of country music still throbs. Most recently, it’s heard in songs of class pride (Randy Travis’ ”Better Class of Losers”), the difficulty of trying to make ends meet (Clint Black’s ”One More Payment”), the heartache of seeing life pass you by (Reba McEntire’s ”Is There Life Out There”), and the high-and-lonesome destitution of love gone wrong, like Joe Diffie’s “Is It Cold in Here” (”…or is it just you?”) or Mark Chesnutt’s ”Too Cold at Home.” Some of these tunes are pure formula, some don’t even feature pedal steel guitars or fiddles, but it doesn’t matter — as plaintive, old-fashioned cries from the soul, they are unmistakably country.

”We had quite a few years when the business tried to convert to middle-of-the-road pop,” notes country patriarch George Jones. ”But now we’ve got it back good and country, and that’s the way it should be. Joe Diffie, for one, does the same style of songs I used to do years ago. I keep lookin’ for ’em to record, but Joe Diffie or somebody gets to ’em first.”

What price will country pay for its newfound success, and will it lose some of its ornery, rough-hewn soul as it becomes more mainstream and respectable? Those questions haunt the music. At the north end of Nashville’s Music Row — a group of tree-lined streets with modest houses that contain nearly all of the city’s record companies, song publishers, and radio stations-lies the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The brick and tile building is a hymnal to the music’s history (it contains a large collection of antique instruments) and, just as important, to its resplendent hokiness. Encased in glass are the stage outfits of Tammy Wynette (a beaded gown), Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner (matching lime green leisure suits), and Marty Robbins (a pink rhinestone suit), plus one of Boxcar Willie’s tramp hats.

These days, such artists seem outmoded as both Nashville and the country industry aim to become upscale. A few proud yahoos like Tritt, the HeadHunters, and the ever-boorish Hank Williams Jr. keep the rowdy tradition alive and drooling. But consider the fate of one of country’s long traditions, the drinking song. ”Straight Tequila Night,” about a feisty woman who lets loose every so often, kicked around Nashville for several years before it became a major comeback hit for onetime New Traditionalist king John Anderson; no one wanted to get near a song title that might condone the imbibing of liquor. The one current hit mining that theme — Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart’s ”The Whiskey Ain’t Workin”’ — finds the narrator giving up the sauce because it isn’t enough anymore to help him forget his lovesick blues. ”Songwriters used to be alcoholics in cars with bullhorns on the front hood,” says WSIX DJ Burns, himself a fledgling songwriter. ”Now they’re college graduates in suits saying, ‘Well, our statistics show…”’

And what about the music’s centuries-old roots in the gothic, the morbid, and the slightly twisted? Are the prison and cheatin’ songs gone for good? Who will rattle the Nashville establishment the way 15-year-old Tanya Tucker did when she sang ”Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)” in the early ’70s? It’s hard to imagine Suzy Bogguss or Collin Raye bent over a barstool moaning the blues, much less wearing purple rhinestone outfits and swigging Jack Daniel’s on a wild tear down Highway 40.

Similarly, many in country music worry that the music’s mainstream success may be getting out of hand. ”It’s like a gold rush,” says Tony Brown, executive vice president of MCA. ”All the major labels are going, ‘That Garth Brooks fella sure sells a lot of records-let’s go grab some of that country music!’ But is the industry big enough to support all these new labels?” Others worry there may be an overload of new talent (200 country acts are now signed to record companies). ”It does feel a little more like the pop market used to, in terms of length of a career,” says Asylum’s Lehning. ”You see people come and go quicker. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

Like all pop fads, the country boom will likely fade. After an initial burst in the Nielsens, for example, the ratings of Hot Country Nights are dropping fast. (It doesn’t help that the show has lowered its standards to embrace the likes of Marie Osmond.) ”Everything goes in cycles,” says WSIX DJ Burns. ”In five years we could be saying, ‘Hey, whatever happened to country music?”’ Possibly. Yet long after the TV specials and trendy fans are gone and the sales shift to other pop styles, country will remain what it always has been: a bumpy ride through America’s lost highways, and a beacon of light for those looking for the way back home.

Garth Brooks
The history of country is crowded with singers — from Patsy Cline in the ’50s to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton in the ’80s — who have exported country to new audiences by bringing in pop sounds. But in the last two years, Garth Brooks has pulled off a far more difficult feat: He has planted his feet squarely in the middle of country tradition and waited for the audience to come to him. Not that he has stood still; for evidence that ’90s country can raise its fists into the air, seizing the power and drama of rock concerts, Garth Brooks is Exhibit A. ”I can’t just go out and stand there and sing,” he says. The result — a high-energy concert style — offers ”a rush like I never dreamed music would be.” You can hear his range and power on 1989’s Garth Brooks (3 million in sales), 1990’s No Fences (6 million), and last year’s Ropin’ the Wind, which became the fastest-selling country album ever (6 million so far) and is lodged at No. 1 on the pop charts. Wind is a new animal altogether, a ”mass-appeal country record,” as Liberty Records chief Jimmy Bowen puts it. ”I saw Brooks two years ago,” Bowen recalls. ”He was opening for the Statler Brothers in a small Tennessee town. He got a standing ovation from the back of the room to the front. For the first time ever, the young people in America have young country artists to identify with. And Garth is the epitome of that.”
James Hunter

Clint Black
On Clint Black’s 1989 debut, Killin’ Time, the New Jersey-born, Texas-bred singer brought his writing craftsmanship and soulful voice to song after song of heartache, separation, and departure. Two million record buyers liked what they heard and came back for more when Black released 1990’s Put Yourself in My Shoes. But Black says listeners shouldn’t take his achingly personal songs (including the No. 1 hit ”A Better Man”) as real-life confessions.

”Some people say you can’t write until you’ve lied and been lied to, cheated and been cheated on,” he says. ”I don’t believe that.” Instead, Black uses his imagination, and in the last three years, it’s brought him country sales rivaled only by Garth Brooks’.

If Black’s songs do become autobiographical, listeners may be hearing a lot of upbeat tunes. In the last year, Black turned 30, planned a tour that may take him to 130 cities this year, and married actress Lisa Hartman, who came to fame playing a country singer on Knots Landing. (”Don’t worry,” he assures fans who wonder if a happy marriage will impede his wounded balladeering. ”I’ll be feeling plenty lonely on the road.”) His third record is due in September; the nearly two-year wait between albums is longer than most country stars prefer, but Black cowrites everything he records. ”I feel a certain amount of prestige goes along with being an artist who writes his own stuff,” he says. ”And,” he adds shyly, ”I think I have all the songs I need within me.”
Mark Harris

Patty Loveless
When she came to Nashville in 1971, she was Patty Ramey, a 14-year-old Kentucky girl with a big voice and a bigger job — replacing Loretta Lynn as the ”girl singer” with the Grand Ole Opry’s Wilburn Brothers. When she left a few years later for a quieter life in North Carolina, she was Patty Lovelace, the teenage bride of the band’s drummer. But by the time she reentered the Nashville scene in 1986, she had rechristened herself Loveless (”I’d always loved the name,” Loveless says, ”and that’s the way (my ex-husband’s) family pronounced it”) and developed one of country’s supplest, most versatile voices. Loveless’ five albums since then have been critical favorites and commercial successes; on her Up Against My Heart, the hits range from the bluesy growl of ”Jealous Bone” (”That’s the kind of song I can just get away with”) to the pining, Patsy Cline-inflected drama of her next single, ”Can’t Stop Myself From Loving You.” ”I’d always been searching for a song with Patsy’s spirit in it,” says Loveless. ”When I sing it, I feel she’s with me.” Although she’s now happily married to Emory Gordy Jr., Loveless still has a knack for stocking her albums with the kind of heartache-and-lament songs that give her voice full cry. ”I’ve been there,” she says. ”I’ve been around so many people and heard so many heartbreaking stories that all I try to do is take those lyrics and give them edge.”
— Mark Harris

Alan Jackson
By now, the term ”hat act” as a description of a neotraditional country singer has become a little frayed around the brim, but with Alan Jackson, the hat is no act. He has been wearing the same white Stetson since he and his wife, Denise, came from Newnan, Ga., to Nashville in 1985. ”I think that the image we have — the hat and the whole look — is kind of like any character on television that you get to be a fan of,” he says. But Jackson has used more than just sartorial strategy to win a devoted audience; in 1990, his million-selling debut album, Here in the Real World, yielded four finely crafted No. 1 singles, including ”Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” And in his follow-up album last year, Jackson certified his status as Top Hat (long-haired division) with ”Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” a foot-stomping anthem for anyone who’d rather listen to George Jones than the Rolling Stones.

Jackson’s tuneful flexibility — he can shuttle with ease between the revved-up ”Jukebox” and a rueful ballad like his current hit, ”Dallas” — appeals to fans of Jones’ generation (the not-so-new traditionalists) and a younger group of country consumers raised on television and videos. Sometimes they’re a lot younger; Jackson’s littlest fans discover him on TV during the day while their parents watch country-video channels. ”There are a lot of kids who’ll dress up and come to our shows with a hat on and a little guitar. Some of them are great,” Jackson says, with a tip of the hat.
James Hunter

Lorrie Morgan
Just a couple of years ago, Lorrie Morgan was best known to country fans as the daughter of the late Opry crooner George Morgan and the widow of a rising country star Keith Whitley, who died of alcohol poisoning in May, 1989. Left to care for daughter Morgan, 11, and son Jesse, 4, and to carry on with her own budding singing career, Morgan rebounded remarkably. Her first two RCA albums — Leave the Light On (1989) and Something in Red (1991) — have been unusually strong sellers, with the former now nearing 1 million copies in sales.

She was destined to sing country. Christened Loretta Lynn Morgan in 1959 (sheer coincidence — few in Nashville had yet hear of that other Loretta), Morgan sang at the Opry for the first time at age 13 (doing ”Paper Roses”) and won a standing ovation. ”From that point on,” she recalls, ”I said, ‘This is for me.”’

With a voice that combines the cry of Tammy Wynette with the homespun embroidery of Dolly Parton, Morgan seemed ready to assume Wynette’s mantle as the Heroine of Heartbreak with her impressive first album, only to shrug it off for the more pop-oriented Something in Red, on which she tackled everything from Journey’s ”Faithfully” to George Jones’ ”A Picture of Me Without You.” But her heart is still in country: When she remarried in October, her groom was Brad Thompson, Clint Black’s bus driver.
Paul Kingsbury

Katy Mattea
After winning a 1990 Grammy, taking two straight Country Music Association awards for Female Vocalist of the Year (1989-90), and notching two consecutive gold albums, Kathy Mattea felt herself at a crossroads. ”It’s like, okay, what do you do now?” says the 32-year-old West Virginia native. ”Do you try to make these albums that sound like the other ones so you can keep winning these awards, or do you go for expressing your more artistic side?” Mattea decided to follow her heart into more personal, seemingly less commercial territory, staking a claim for folk- and Celtic-influenced sounds in contemporary country. The resulting album, Time Passes By, earned her a 1991 Grammy nomination as country’s Best Female Vocalist and is fast approaching the golden half-million mark for sales itself. When Mattea signed with Mercury in 1983, her rich, radiant alto won her a reputation as a more down-home cousin to Anne Murray. But she soon developed a style that made such comparisons irrelevant. Mattea took chances with work by smart singer-songwriters like Nanci Griffith (”Love at the Five & Dime”) and Don Henry, who cowrote ”Where’ve You Been” with Mattea’s husband, Jon Vezner; over the years, she has developed an acoustic, bluegrass-shaded sound that wears well. ”I keep trying to search for that next inspiration,” says Mattea. If the past is any indication, there are plenty of listeners who are ready to follow Mattea wherever that leads her.
Paul Kingsbury

George Strait
George Strait doesn’t like to give interviews, doesn’t like to talk to the press. Nope. No reason to. The strong, silent type. Makes records. Gives concerts. One of the founding fathers of the current country boom. Twenty-four No. 1 country hits since that first one, ”Unwound,” back in ’81. Version of the old Hank Williams hit ”Lovesick Blues” just the latest to go top 10. Yep, yep. Also helped usher Western swing and hard-core country sounds back into country when the thought was, hell, unthinkable. Today, that style’s the norm. Yep, yep. Still no reason to brag — not even about those annual grosses in the area of $10 million. A few dark moments, for sure. Death of his daughter in a car accident in 1986. Critics carping that he’s been in a rut, using the same producer, musicians, and songwriters on darn near every album (including the next, Holding My Own, coming at you in April). Maybe. Just jealous, that’s all. Efficient management leaves plenty of time to give concerts and relax back on the ranch in San Antonio, Tex., with the missus, Norma (the high school sweetheart), 39, and son, George Jr. (”Bubba”), 11. At 39, still a heartthrob — the country version of his hero Frank Sinatra. And that role in a new, in-development Warner Bros. cowboy picture, Unwound, set to start shooting in May, won’t hurt either. So who needs to talk about it? In country music now as a decade ago, George Strait just is. Yep.
David Browne

Travis Tritt
Travis Tritt doesn’t wear a cowboy hat. He has other accoutrements: two-toned Ray-Bans, Burt Reynolds’ old tour bus, a pooch named Otis (after the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show) — and, oh yeah, over 2 million records sold in the last two years. The albums, Country Club and It’s All About to Change, have yielded six No. 1 country singles (including ”Help Me Hold On,” ”I’m Gonna Be Somebody,” ”Anymore,” and ”The Whiskey Ain’t Workin”’) and made Tritt the only male country artist besides Garth Brooks to currently have an album on Billboard‘s Top 40 pop chart. Tritt, 29, who writes most of his own tunes, calls country music ”the soundtrack for the everyday, ordinary working person.” He should know. Before devoting himself to music full-time in 1984, he sold heating and cooling systems in Marietta, Ga., and subsisted on Vienna sausage sandwiches. These days, his taste runs to sushi. With influences that range from George Jones to George Thorogood, Tritt’s sound is a combination of straight-ahead country, romantic ballads, and hard-driving Southern rock. His biggest hit to date, ”Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),” is a crank- up-the-volume-and-yell-along single he penned after his second divorce in 1989. Says Tritt: ”Sometimes I joke that I’m gonna go out and get married and divorced again so I can come up with the next album.” Call it creative tension.
Kate Meyers

Reba McEntire
At Reba McEntire’s first session for Mercury Records in 1976, her clear contralto was so big it nearly blew out the studio transistors. ”It was a real pretty ballad, and when I got to the powerful part, I stayed right on the microphone and the needles just disappeared,” McEntire recalls. ”They asked me to back up.”

If anything, McEntire has only moved forward. Eight years ago, she was singing hard-country nuggets like ”How Blue” and selling only 100,000 per album. Then she decided to take charge, selecting and coproducing songs with a more urban, less fiddle-and-steel style. Today, with four CMA Female Vocalist awards (1984-87) and platinum album sales, the Oklahoma native with one of country’s most powerful voices has become one of Nashville’s power players. McEntire’s Starstruck Entertainment employs some 90 people in music publishing, publicity, booking, and management for her career and others. The foundation of that business is the CEO herself. Says MCA Nashville chief Bruce Hinton: ”We’ve never had a woman who’s sold records like Reba McEntire.”

McEntire, 36, who is married to Starstruck exec Narvel Blackstock and has a 2-year-old son, has also found time for acting (Tremors, NBC’s The Gambler Returns), and recently turned down a network offer of a weekly variety series. The roles she’s now seeking are ”meaningful, like my songs — something that gives a message.” A country singer, perhaps? ”Oh, absolutely not,” she laughs. ”I do that every day.”
Paul Kingsbury

Vince Gill
The new-artist thing in this town is rampant — I’m old news, in a sense,” Vince Gill says with a chuckle. A sideman and solo act for the last decade, Gill finally broke through in 1991, winning a Grammy and a Country Music Association award for Country Male Vocalist of the Year and a CMA award for Song of the Year (for his duet with Patty Loveless, ”When I Call Your Name”). ”It went nuts in the last two years,” says Gill, 34. ”I don’t know why — it’s the same four chords it’s always been.”

Indeed, the hint of bluegrass tenor in Gill’s voice has direct roots in his years playing in bluegrass bands in and around his home of Oklahoma City in the ’70s. In 1978 he joined Pure Prairie League, singing lead on the group’s 1980 hit, ”Let Me Love You Tonight.” Upon moving to Nashville in 1984, he began singing on records by Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, yet his own career didn’t take off until 1990, thanks to stylish contemporary country hits like ”Look at Us” and ”Liza Jane.” Gill, who lives in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn., with his wife, Janis Gill (of Sweethearts of the Rodeo), 37, and their daughter, Jennifer, 9, has no hard feelings: ”Maybe it’s beneficial in the long run for my career to happen gradually. I went to a basketball game last night, and all these high school kids knew who I was.” Score one for Gill.
David Brown

Randy Travis
No matter how gargantuan Garth Brooks gets, it’s worth remembering that it was Randy Travis who put the twang back in country and restored the heart to the heartland’s music. On his debut album, 1986’s Storms of Life, Travis’ honky-tonk paeans to hearth and home rang with uncommon truth and fervor. The singer wrapped them in a stripped-down, hard-country sound (”On the Other Hand,” ”Diggin’ Up Bones”) that didn’t shy away from fiddles, steel guitars, and Dobros. What’s more, he set it all off with a nasal baritone that took some of its impeccable phrasing from the masters — Haggard, Williams, Frizzell, and Jones. Travis, now 32, put a new voice to an old sound and made it vital again.

By his second album, 1987’s Always and Forever, which resided at the top of the country charts for 43 weeks, Travis had become the standard-bearer for contemporary country. Even the usually curmudgeonly Roy Acuff was heard to allow, ”Country music needs you.”

”I came along at the right time with something a little different,” modestly explains Travis, now married to manager Lib Hatcher. ”Had it not been me, it would have been someone else.” Maybe so. But Travis’ success opened the ; door to all those guys with hats — and they owe him more than a wave as they pass him by on the music charts.
Alanna Nash

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