NASHVILLE — With the recent success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill, country music is enjoying another commercial upswing after a minor slump in the mid-'90s.
Despite an onslaught of new talent, major breakthroughs have been few and far between, and it can be a daunting task for the uninitiated observer to sort out the legitimate comers from the empty hats. With that in mind, Pop Eye talked to some radio consultants and country music journalists to compile a guide to the acts to watch--those artists with the best shot at significant careers.
The Dixie Chicks. The Texas-based trio has by far the biggest buzz. On the strength of two Top 10 singles, "I Can Love You Better" and "There's Your Trouble," the group--singer Natalie Maines, fiddler Martie Seidel and banjo player Emily Erwin--has sold more than 1.3 million copies of its debut album, "Wide Open Spaces," which recently moved into the national Top 10.
"The Dixie Chicks are the hottest thing out there right now," said Bob Moody of McVay Media, a leading radio consulting firm.
"I hear what they do as fresh and different," said Jay Orr, music critic for the Tennessean newspaper. "I find the music appealing."
Jo Dee Messina. About Messina, who recently scored No. 1 hits with the spirited country-pop songs "Bye Bye" and "I'm Alright," marketing consultant John Hart said, "I love her--and so do radio and record buyers."
Messina has moved away from the mild-mannered persona she cultivated earlier in her career into a sassier, more aggressive singer. "There were some changes made in her music and image in the last year, and they were really smart about it," said Hart. "She responded well to the changes, and she seems really comfortable with her music now."
Lee Ann Womack. A more traditional singer than Messina, Womack has a pronounced Southern twang and a languid style that are more of a throwback to the great female country singers of the 1960s than to the in-your-face brashness of Twain and the Dixie Chicks.
Womack was named best new female vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards in April on the strength of her 1997 self-titled debut album, and many country music insiders predict that her new collection, "Some Things I Know," will bring her healthy sales and radio attention.
"With this second album, I think she has proven she has staying power," says Orr. "In a lot of cases with country artists, you can hear the songs that are radio-friendly. In Lee Ann's case, from top to bottom, you get the sense that they are all quality songs."
Martina McBride. With four albums over the last six years, the Kansas native has maintained a steady presence on the country charts. But while she's enjoyed several big hits--including highly regarded "issue songs" such as "Independence Day" and "A Broken Wing"--she doesn't yet have the same star power of such artists as Hill or Trisha Yearwood.
"On pure singing ability, she's probably the best female vocalist out there right now," Moody said. "But she's kind of had to sneak up on people; it didn't happen in one big blast. I think she has bigger days ahead of her."
The Wilkinsons. Like the Dixie Chicks, the Canadian family band is a newcomer to the country scene that scored a big hit right off the bat. Singer Steve Wilkinson and his two children, Amanda and Travis, scored a No. 1 hit with their first single, "26 Cents," in September.
"I like the Wilkinsons a lot," says Moody. "LeAnn Rimes can sing every note perfectly, but Amanda can take a song and really interpret it."
Trace Adkins. One of the few male newcomers with an individual style and commercial potential. "I think he's a star if I ever saw one," says journalist and TV producer Robert K. Oermann.
That list reflects an area of concern for Nashville players: Female artists are dominating the marketplace, while their male counterparts aren't holding up their end of the deal.
The only new male country artist to break through with significant record sales over the past few years has been Tim McGraw. Wade Hayes, another young male candidate, took off quickly three years ago with a strong debut album, but he's since foundered due to the inconsistent quality of his recordings.
"The women are taking more chances," said a music director for a major radio station in a Southern city who asked not to be named. "They're fresher, they're more original, they've got more style--everything you want. Thank God they've come along, or else the format would be in big trouble right now."