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Who's Who Among Country's Top 10 Contenders

December 30, 1990|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for The Times

Clint Black:

This Houston native's break came in 1987 when ZZ Top's manager Bill Ham heard a tape of Black. He had been been singing and songwriting seriously for about 10 years while making a living as an ironworker, fishing guide and at other odd jobs. His 1989 debut album, "Killin' Time," held the No. 1 spot on the country charts for 28 weeks and spawned five No. 1 singles, a record for a debut album. His second album, "Put Yourself in My Shoes," is currently No. 2 in country as well as a Top 20 entry on the pop charts.

Garth Brooks:

Born in Tulsa, Okla., and raised in nearby Yukon. His mother, the former Colleen Carroll, recorded country music in the '50s for Capitol Records--the same label Brooks is on--but didn't break into the charts. Brooks attended Oklahoma State University on a track and field scholarship and earned a degree in advertising. Settled in Nashville in 1987 despite a discouraging visit there in 1985. His first album, "Garth Brooks," slowly rose to top of country charts in 1989 and crossed over to pop as well. The follow-up, "No Fences," has sold more than 2 million, holding the No. 1 spot on the country charts and cracking the pop Top 20.

George Strait:

The 38-year-old Texan served in the Army in Hawaii and has a degree in agricultural education from Southwest Texas State University. It was in Hawaii that he first performed in a country band, which had been organized by the base commander. In the '80s, he had 20 No. 1 country singles and 11 gold albums (three of them platinum). He also was named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Assn. in 1989 and 1990.

Wynonna Judd:

Born in Ashland, Ky., in 1964 and raised in California, she names Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Presley among her influences. Will go solo next year after unprecedented success in the Judds duo with her more flamboyant mom, Naomi, who is retiring for health reasons. The Judds have won three Grammys and several straight Country Music Assn. vocal group and Academy of Country Music duet awards.

Reba McEntire:

Discovered by country singer Red Steagall while she was performing the national anthem at the 1974 National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, McEntire became country music's top female solo artist of the '80s, with eight gold albums and one platinum. In recent years she's branched out from pure country-pop with interpretations of torch ("Sunday Kind of Love") and soul ("Respect") classics, and made her acting debut with a praised role in the horror film "Tremors."

Randy Travis:

The archetypal clean-cut country boy of '80s. In fact, Travis, whose real name is Randy Traywick, had a troubled youth and was on the verge of being sent to jail for various minor offenses before being discovered by manager Lib Hatcher and eventually brought to Nashville. Was first country artist ever to have first two albums sell more than a million each (the second, "Always and Forever," held the No. 1 spot on the country charts for 10 months). His awards include two Grammys, five Country Music Assn. awards and nine Academy of Country Music awards.

Alan Jackson:

The 32-year-old moved to Nashville from Newman, Ga., in the mid-'80s and worked in jobs including used car salesman while trying to establish himself as a singer-songwriter. Key break came when his wife, Denise, approached Glen Campbell in the Nashville airport and asked if she could send him a tape of Jackson's songs. Campbell signed him as a writer to Campbell's publishing company and that led to a own record deal. His current debut, "Here in the Real World," has sold nearly 700,000 copies.

Kathy Mattea:

The West Virginian was 19 when she moved to Nashville as a singer in a bluegrass band in 1978. For years she worked as a tour guide at the Country Music Hall of Fame and a waitress before signing with PolyGram in 1983. Her first hit came in 1986 with Nanci Griffith's gentle "Love at the Five and Dime," followed by a string of Top 10 hits and awards from both the Academy of Country Music (including female vocalist of the year and song of the year in 1989) and the Country Music Assn. (female vocalist of the year in 1989 and 1990).


The quartet from Fort Payne in its namesake state went from playing tourist bars in Myrtle Beach, S. C., to virtually dominating the country music world through the '80s, registering 40 million album sales worldwide. The pop and rock-flavored group was named the Academy of Country Music's artist of the decade. Its stats include 10 No. 1 country albums and 26 No. 1 country singles, including 21 in a row.

Kentucky Headhunters:

The quintet took the Academy of Country Music's award for best new group of 1990 and the Country Music Assn. voted their debut, "Pickin' on Nashville," the album of the year. But the group is neither new, nor particularly rooted in country music. Brothers Richard and Fred Young and their cousin Greg Martin began playing Cream and Led Zeppelin-influenced rock in the late '60s in Kentucky. Brothers Doug and Ricky Lee Phelps at the same time were writing British pop-style tunes down in the Delta. They joined forces in 1985, playing what one critic termed "hillbilly speed-metal."

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