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. . . Meanwhile, Back In Music City

August 17, 1986|BARBARA PEPE

Others in Nashville's up-and-coming class range from Rosanne Cash (whose "Rhythm and Romance" earlier this year became the first album by a female singer to hit No. 1 on the country chart in years) to the country-rock band Southern Pacific to the soul-influenced T. Graham Brown, a south Georgian who describes his voice as "George Jones meets Otis Redding."

While these artists, as well as Marty Stuart, Restless Heart, Sawyer Brown, Lewis Storey, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Wild Choir and others comprise the rising Nashville elite, established acts are taking a hard look at their output and making significant changes.

Willie Nelson continues to push back his perimeters on the "Promised Land" album. Bowen says Waylon Jennings' "Will The Wolf Survive?" is his best album in years.

Not to be ignored are performers like Alabama, the Judds, Ricky Scaggs, George Strait and Hank Williams Jr. They may not have the longevity of a George Jones, Barbara Mandrell or Loretta Lynn, but they've been instrumental in leading country music in new directions, and in terms of record sales, they're the current ruling class.

The emergence of new artists and the changes made by the old have helped spark an upswing, albeit slight, in country's fortunes. Radio ratings have reacted most quickly to this new interest. Two recent studies found country to be the second most popular of all radio formats.

Jay Phillips, music director for WSM-AM and FM in Nashville, corroborates the data with his own experience. "In just the past six to eight months, I can see the change. Country numbers weren't performing. Record companies started taking chances, putting out fresh, new product, radio got in line, and it's been good for all of us."

A similar surge has yet to be felt at the retail level, but Frances Preston, president of BMI and a 29-year industry observer, notes that "Overall, country music is being performed more than ever. You see it branching out onto Broadway shows like 'Big River,' onto television, into soap operas and sports. Also, more and more country stars are being tapped to do national commercials, not just local ones."

While artists like Janie Frickie and T. Graham Brown branch out with Madison Avenue tie-ins for Seven-Up and McDonald's ads, their labels are also exploring wider horizons. MCA has started a new-age label, and has a pop A&R director in Nashville, notes Bowen.

The outlook, however, isn't entirely rosy. Breaking new artists on radio is easier than ever, but the process is still too slow.

"We still have a problem getting great songs," Galante says. "We're getting better, but there's hasn't been a gold single in this format that I can remember in about, oh, four years. Also, the town is still wrestling with 'What are we going to do with traditional versus contemporary?' I'd like to see us get past all that crap and just settle down to making good music."

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