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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

After Lean Years, Nashville's Strumming a New Tune

October 29, 2000|DEBORAH BARNES | Deborah Barnes is a freelance writer based in Nashville

NASHVILLE — Country music has not had much to sing about lately.

After an unprecedented boom in the '90s, Nashville has watched record sales steadily decline, media outlets disappear, labels close, radio stations dwindle and listeners flee. Country record sales virtually doubled in the early '90s, going from a 9.6% share of the overall music market in 1990 to 18.7% in 1993, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. Since that peak, though, country sales have sagged, dropping to a 10.8% market share in 1999.

Even the Nashville Network (TNN), the granddaddy of country cable outlets, began dropping country music programs over the past couple of years in favor of "outdoor and sports" programming (a term that apparently means professional wrestling and "Dukes of Hazzard" reruns).

And last month TNN dealt Nashville, home to the network since its launch in 1981, a symbolically staggering blow. Like a too-big-for-its-britches teen desperate to get off the farm, TNN shook the dust of its namesake off its boots, lit out for (Lord have mercy) New York City and, as the final kiss-off, changed its name to the National Network.

Yet in the face of such adversity, country music executives are surprisingly upbeat.

They point to the promising signs: labels introducing more distinctive talents and fewer sound-alike "hat acts." Radio making a few cautious overtures toward edgier artists. A slight ebb in the tide of country Britney Spears cousins trying to cash in on the teen market. More risk-taking songs such as the Dixie Chicks' darkly comic "Goodbye Earl" and John Michael Montgomery's overtly religious "The Little Girl."

They point to the success stories: media darlings the Dixie Chicks--honest-to-gosh musicians, country as grits yet turbocharged for today's market. And this year's coronation of traditionalist Lee Ann Womack as a bona fide A-list star with a career record, "I Hope You Dance."

"I think we're at a better place now than we have been for some time," says Barry Coburn, president and CEO of Atlantic Records Nashville.

"We went through a period two or three years ago where all the acts looked and sounded the same. There were about 10 guys with hats. That was what put us in the toilet.

"But now there are some unique new artists who are getting great reaction."

To find out which of these newcomers has the best shot at following in the footsteps of Womack and the Chicks, Pop Eye talked to insiders on Nashville's Music Row and compiled this guide to acts to watch:

* Brad Paisley, 27. Music Row has fairly run out of superlatives for the soft-spoken Paisley, the unanimous choice for Most Likely to Succeed. His traditional vocal style and understated stage presence have been compared to George Strait; his witty way with a lyric to Roger Miller. And he picks a mean Telecaster.

Paisley's debut album on RCA, "Who Needs Pictures," and its runaway hit single, "He Didn't Have to Be," earned him six Country Music Assn. Award nominations this year--a number equaled only by Faith Hill--and won him the CMA's Horizon Award.

"We call Brad the anointed one," says Tony Brown, president of rival label MCA Nashville. "He's like Strait and Alan Jackson, very charismatic. He can walk into a room, speak softly and be heard. When he sings, he doesn't need a lot of flash--it's just great songs. This guy's going to be huge."

"Artists who have a strong sense of self are the ones who seem to prevail," says Jay Orr, senior music editor for country.com., a leading country music Web site. "And every step along the way, Brad seems to know exactly how he wants his career to unfold.

"It's almost easy to take him for granted, even at this early stage, because everybody loves him. But I'll hear him and it reminds me that, yeah, he is good and deserves the success."

* Keith Urban, 33. Another Telecaster master, Urban picked up the guitar at age 6 and has been playing clubs since he was 14. The Australian singer-songwriter charted hits Down Under before moving to Nashville, where in the mid-'90s he scored minor success with his high-powered band the Ranch, and scored big with critics for his impressive guitar skills.

Though he released his self-titled solo debut for Capitol in 1999, Urban is now generating his biggest commercial buzz yet with the single "Your Everything."

"Keith's incredibly talented in the same ways Brad is, but with a different style," says Atlantic's Coburn. "He's a great musician, has his own attitude, doesn't appear to be manufactured. He's played a lot, earned his chops, and that goes a long way with me."

* Sara Evans, 29. Evans made her mark with critics in 1997 with her distinctive pure-country voice on "Three Chords and the Truth," a stellar traditional album on RCA produced by Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam's longtime creative partner.

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