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COVER STORY : Born-Again Country: After years of trying to sound like pop, Nashville is putting faith in its honky-tonk roots. And it's paying off. : Country's New Crop : A new wave of young tradition-minded singers is helping country music escape from its mid-'80s tailspin

December 30, 1990|ROBERT HILBURN

NASHVILLE — It's been 10 years since the movie "Urban Cowboy" gave country music its greatest commercial boom and, ultimately, its biggest nightmare.

Initially, the film did for country what "Saturday Night Fever" did for disco. Millions of Americans were soon sporting cowboy hats, riding those silly mechanical bulls and buying country albums.

Then the bottom fell out.

Tired of the Western craze, people threw their hats into the closet, pulled the plugs on the mechanical bulls and, crucially, decided they'd had enough of those country records.

The result: The number of platinum (1 million sales) or gold (500,000 sales) country albums listed on Billboard magazine's year-end sales chart dropped from 18 in 1980 to 12 in 1983--to just seven in 1984.

"Nashville was shell-shocked," said Jimmy Bowen, head of Capitol Records in Nashville. "People predicted doom. Everyone went around asking, 'What do we do now? What do we do now?' "

Today, the good times are back in country music.

Thanks to an unprecedented number of new young stars, led by Garth Brooks and Clint Black, country is enjoying a commercial run that may even dwarf the "Urban Cowboy" days. It is also producing the best records since Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were leading the Outlaw movement more than a decade ago.

These artists have yet to show an original vision that stretches the boundaries of country the way Nelson or Merle Haggard did in the '60s and '70s. But they represent a welcome return to classic country values after the deluge of characterless, pop-accented recordings of the "Urban Cowboy" period.

Without compromising hard-core country emotion or arrangements, they are selling phenomenally well--not only to the traditional, over-35 country audience, but also to a younger, pop-oriented crowd. The number of platinum and gold country albums listed on Billboard's year-end charts last week: an astonishing 33.

"There's a fire in the belly of Nashville again now, more than I've seen in almost 20 years," said David Conrad, who oversees the local office of the Almo-Irving music publishing company.

"This isn't just 'Urban Cowboy II.' This is the real stuff. There's more raw country excitement than at any time since Willie and Waylon started the whole Outlaw thing in the '70s. We've got some honest-to-God good country singers and songwriters again."

You get an idea of how fast things are changing in country music when you realize that today's two biggest sellers--Brooks and Black--released their first albums only last year.

They are just the most prominent in a rush of artists who have risen to commercial and/or critical acclaim in recent months. Among the others: the Kentucky Headhunters, Alan Jackson, Mark Chesnutt, Travis Tritt, Joe Diffie, Patty Loveless, Doug Stone, Shelby Lynne and Mark Collie.

This new energy isn't just being felt in the country field, which is expected to generate an estimated $500 million in sales this year. The lastest albums by Black and Brooks are also in the Top 20 in the pop field.

Nashville's bounty of new talent was dramatized in September when so many newcomers performed on the normally veteran-dominated Country Music Awards television show. Host Randy Travis--who is just 31 and has been a star in country music for only five years--seemed like an elder statesman.

The domination of the show by new artists was an eye-opener, even for the country Establishment here.

"That show brought it home to me because you had one outstanding performance after another from essentially newcomers with a substantial level of artistic quality and integrity," said Bill Ivey, executive director of the Country Music Foundation.

If Nashville was impressed, so was the viewing audience.

The program, which registered a higher rating for CBS that night than ABC's "Monday Night Football," was widely credited with stimulating record sales of the featured artists, especially Black and Brooks.

Brooks' "No Fences" album, for instance, sold an estimated 300,000 copies the week after the TV show. Total sales since its release in September: an estimated 2.5 million.

"To outsiders, it must seem like someone just backed a truck up to Music City Row and dumped all these great singers off," said Almo-Irving's Conrad.

"But to me, all this started five or so years ago, when the record companies finally woke up and decided they had to find some good new people or country music was just going to fade away. The artists were getting up in years and the audience was getting there, too."

For most of Nashville, waking up wasn't easy.

The man whose success is widely credited with re-energizing country music was turned down by every record company in town--in some cases twice--before being signed by Warner Bros. Records in 1985. The knock against Randy Travis: He was too country.

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