Four rising country stars -- Hal Ketchum, Joe Diffie, Carlene Carter, and Mark Collie are set to make their mark

Hal Ketchum
”When I was still crawling around on the floor,” says Ketchum, ”and my father would get ready for work, he had a ritual: He’d tap his spoon three times on his coffee cup, and then he’d turn on the stereo.” What Ketchum’s father played was as likely to be Duke Ellington as George Jones, filling his son with disparate musical affections: Ketchum played in an R&B band in high school in upstate New York and later hit the Austin, Tex., singer-songwriter scene in the 1980s while working as a carpenter.

Arriving in Nashville in 1990, Ketchum began to shape his influences into Past the Point of Rescue, a graceful, eclectic collection that includes the rocking radio staple ”Small Town Saturday Night” and the introspective ballad ”I Know Where Love Lives.” His next album is due in late summer. ”I used to write prose and set it to music,” says the 38-year-old. ”Lately, they’ve been coming simultaneously.” In case they don’t, he keeps a notepad by the bed. ”I’ve lost a bunch of lyrics,” he admits, ”by falling asleep.”
Mark Harris

Joe Diffie
After Diffie lost his job at an Oklahoma foundry several years ago, he drove a beat-up ’76 Oldsmobile to Nashville and forged a career as country’s most anonymous star: the demo artist. Songwriters would use his impassioned baritone to sell their material to country’s biggest names — among them Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alabama, Ricky Van Shelton, and Keith Whitley. ”There were times when, in my heart of hearts, I felt I did a better job on the demo than some folks did on the record,” Diffie says.

By the time he got his own record deal in 1990, he had developed a faultless ear for hits: A Thousand Winding Roads yielded four No. 1 country singles. The 33-year-old singer reacted to hitting it big by getting small; he recently dropped 35 pounds. ”Four waist sizes,” says Diffie, who aptly titled his follow-up album Regular Joe. ”You know,” he adds, laughing, ”I’m trying to be one of those country hunks.”

Carlene Carter
Rock critics championed her early albums, but country fans stayed away — perhaps because Carter, a mother at 15 and a renowned partier, always sounded as if she were having more fun than a country girl should. But in 1990, Carter, now 36, decided to bring her spirit and edge to a pure country record. ”I didn’t fit into country or rock,” she says. ”I was sick of straddling.” The gambit worked: The title cut from I Fell in Love was one of 1990’s biggest country hits. Carter’s roots go deep into country’s soil (her grandmother is Mother Maybelle Carter and her parents are June Carter Cash and Nashville eminence Carl Smith); now, she’s back home. ”I had the same intention then as I have now,” she says of her rock days. ”It’s just that then, I wasn’t as good.” Or maybe country just wasn’t ready to rock.
Paul Kingsbury

Mark Collie
Waynesboro, Tenn., Collie’s hometown, lies halfway between Nashville and Graceland, as does his music. ”When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the mystique of Memphis,” he recalls. ”Those old rock & roll records felt so good.” But Nashville is where Collie, 36, found his home; on his 1990 debut, Hardin County Line, Collie used his expressive style to draw humor and woe from every song. On his follow-up, Born and Raised in Black and White, his range extends from the hilarious ”She’s Never Comin’ Back” (in which Collie complains that his girlfriend is as ”gone gone gone” as Elvis) to the well-named ”Lucky Dog.” When he sings, it’s ”sometimes about heartache or loneliness. And sometimes about running cars up and down a back road. And sometimes,” he adds, ”about spiritual deliverance.”
James Hunter