NASHVILLE — Garth Brooks, whose underdog anthem "Friends in Low Places" was one of the biggest country hits in years, also has some friends in high places when it comes to country music.
When Calendar asked 20 country-music leaders to predict who would sell the most records over the next seven years (the length of a standard recording-industry contract), the 28-year-old Tulsa native finished on top, narrowly ahead of another country newcomer, Clint Black, 28.
The runaway success of these two young singers--both of whom burst onto the scene in 1989--underscores the current changing of the guard in country music.
In fact, the enthusiasm for new artists in a field long dominated by veterans is so strong that 10 of the artists who finished in the top 20 can reasonably be characterized as newcomers.
By contrast, some of the legendary names in country music--including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings--didn't receive enough support from the panel of recording, radio and publishing executives to even make the top 20. The almost universal reaction when their names were raised: "It's over for them as major sellers."
The highest-ranking "veteran" in the survey was George Strait, who finished a distant third to Brooks and Black. Strait, 38, has only been recording since 1981, making him a mere pup by traditional country standards.
In the survey, the industry leaders were asked to name, in order, the 10 artists who they think will sell the most records over the next seven years. To encourage candor, the panel members were assured that their votes and comments wouldn't be identified.
Brooks registered 166 points--two more than Black--in a system that awards 10 points for every first-place finish, 9 for every second-place mention and so forth. Each finished first on seven ballots.
"In many ways, we are talking 1 and 1-A in terms of potential when we talk about Brooks and Black," said one panel member. "To me, Clint is a little sexier, feistier--a little mischievous. Garth is more down to Earth, like the Rock of Gibraltar. He looks as honest as the day is long. Who's going to sell the most? It depends who'll come up with the best material."
Here are comments on individual artists:
* "The first thing you have to understand about Garth is he's a tremendous entertainer. He's got showmanship, which you don't see a lot down here. And he'll stick around until 4:30 in the morning signing autographs."
* "Brooks isn't just an incredible singer. He also has something to say . . . a point of view that people outside of country music can identify with, whereas Clint and some of the others seem to sell mainly to a traditional country audience."
* "He's influenced by Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell, but there's also a pop influence in there somewhere, and that may give him a wider audience."
* "Seems like a pretty stubborn fella, which I like. He's willing to stretch out there a little bit, which means he'll keep growing as an artist."
* "Don't underestimate the charisma and the looks. He's sexy--not in the self-conscious way of Dwight Yoakam--but in the style of Johnny Cash or early Merle Haggard."
* "He has the ability to sing in a bluesy, funky way, which gives him the potential to cross over into the pop field without losing his country touch or following."
* "One thing I like about his future is that he has sold 3 million or so albums, yet most of the pop world still doesn't know who he is. He has done no major endorsements or a movie and very little TV. He's just in the beginning of his career."
Among the concerns:
* "To me, Black is already wearing thin, and I don't know if he's a good enough writer to keep the momentum going. That can be a big problem if he decides to just do his own material rather than turn to outside writers."
* "He's been around for so long that it's easy to think he came up with Willie and Waylon, but Strait is closer in age to the newcomers. That sort of puts him between the generations, which is a great place to be because you can appeal to both age groups."
* "One reason I'm not worried about his staying power is that he shows no signs of taking his success for granted. He's got a great sense of what material works for him and he's not overexposed."
* "In 20 years from now, people may look back on her the way they do today on Patsy Cline. She's got a tremendous voice."
* "I think she'll be a stronger act than she would have been if she stayed with the Judds. She'll have a much broader range of material to work with. That mother-daughter thing kept them bogged down to the wholesome, wholesome, wholesome, and there are only so many of those songs."
Among the anxious panelists:
* "There was a lot of magic to that mother-daughter situation. I just don't know if that will continue as a solo artist. She's certainly a fabulous talent, but talent alone isn't always enough."