As 1988 came to a close, the country music industry felt quite happy with itself. Albums were selling in unprecedented numbers; more country artists than ever moved up to tour arenas; sponsors such as Ford and Phillip Morris helped fund concert production. The Marlboro country tours, featuring several major artists per show, introduced video screens to country concerts while also bringing light, sound and other production values up to a level comparable to top rock and pop acts.
The country hit charts contained several revelations. For one, successful artists crossed generations and influences, with veterans Merle Haggard and Vern Gosdin sharing space on radio and sales lists with the freshly modern country of Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and K.T. Oslin, the crossover aims of Eddie Rabbitt and Exile, and the return to traditionalism by The Judds, George Strait and Randy Travis.
The latter development proved the most transformative: Suddenly young acts with no intent of crossing over to pop had become country music's biggest sellers. Travis, Strait and The Judds, along with Dwight Yoakam and Reba McEntire — before she started to get pop-radio attention — were outselling everyone else coming from Music Row.
The conventional wisdom in country music held that artists needed to cross over in order to rack up millions in sales. Alabama and Hank Jr. had done so, but they drew rowdy rock fans that weren't on board with Crystal Gayle or Lee Greenwood. Nashville invested in Barbara Mandrell, Anne Murray and Kenny Rogers because they perceived a chance to draw in aging pop fans as well as appeal to the country crowd — which increased sales.
But these young neo-traditionalists proved that a new market existed. Young people were buying die-hard country music like never before — if it was presented by talented youngsters who genuinely loved honky-tonk, swing and mountain music, and who gave it an updated sound that didn't whitewash its working-class soul.
The result: Nashville record labels began investing real money in young artists who presented a cleaned-up, precise form of modern honky-tonk. The lush, string-laden ballads and midtempo adult-contemporary sounds of Restless Heart and Gary Morris no longer drew the bulk of the marketing dollars.
That shift opened the door for what is now known as the Class of 1989 — the year country music blew up. Everything in the past quarter century happened because of the success of the artists signed that year.
The hat-act triumvirate of Clint Black, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson all released their first singles. So did their polar opposites, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Travis Tritt — revealing that country music still believed in diversity back then. Vince Gill, after a fitfully disappointing few years on RCA, also signed with MCA that year and finally started to reach his potential.
To put that in perspective, the biggest new artist to debut in 1988 was Neal McCoy. The genesis of contemporary country music, as we know it today, was 1989.
Clint Black was the quickest out of the gate. The black-hatted smiling Texan, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Roy Rogers, scored four consecutive No. 1 hits, and had nine Top 10s by the end of 1991.
Jackson stumbled with his first song, the long-forgotten "Blue Blooded Woman," which didn't make the Top 40. His second single, the quietly stunning "Here in the Real World," showed his true hand. From there, he knocked out six straight Top 10 hits, closing 1991 with three consecutive No. 1 songs.
Brooks was the racehorse who bided his time while looking for the right opening — then bolted with a ferocity never witnessed in country music. Unlike Black, he didn't come out of the chute at No. 1. His hardcore rodeo opener, "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" drew some resistance for using a cuss word Americans hear every day — but country radio, then as much as ever, resides in its own sanitized universe.
Brooks kept building momentum, though, setting up the sonic-boom pairing of "The Dance" and "Friends in Low Places" — arguably the most earth-shaking back-to-back releases in country music history.
Not even Brooks' most enthusiastic supporters foresaw the juggernaut that followed. Just how much of a surprise was it that a country artist could sell in the multiple millions as quickly as Brooks did? Consider the following anecdote. When veteran record label chief Jimmy Bowen took over the local Capitol/EMI office in 1990, Brooks was a couple of hits into his first album. Bowen sent a taped message to be shown during a national gathering of EMI's distribution arm later that year, at the same time as Capitol was setting up the release of Brooks' second album, No Fences.
In that message, Bowen boasted to the worldwide sales team that Garth's first album recently had topped 600,000 in sales barely a year after its release. He then gazed portentously into the camera and lowered his voice. In the same voice a SEC coach might promise a national championship, Bowen solemnly predicted No Fences would sell a million copies. Quite likely, some listeners gasped; others guffawed.
At the time, to think a country album — and one that would receive no attention from pop radio — would compete with Michael Jackson, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles as the single biggest-selling album of all time was akin to saying a Triple-A baseball team would sell as many tickets as the Yankees. Country music was considered to be in a different league from rock and pop.
Garth Brooks changed that. But he wasn't alone. Black set new records for a debut artist in his first year. Jackson became the perennial of the bunch, a consistently outstanding record-maker who has joined Strait and Reba in proving that, even in fast-changing times, country music can nurture long, rewarding careers.
They knew not what they wrought. An all-out youth movement ensued, with legendary veterans impolitely elbowed aside by a group of drawling guys in cowboy hats and a line of smart young women with individualistic visions.
By the turn of the century, country was losing its diversity. It rarely allowed veterans any important radio or TV time. Women struggled for the few slots allowed them. The focus on genial, smiling hunks was all-consuming.
One inscription on the Class of 1989 yearbook remains commendably true for country music today: Don't ever underestimate your potential. From Shania Twain to Dixie Chicks to Kenny Chesney to Taylor Swift to Luke Bryan, country music repeatedly proves there are no fences limiting the heights a Music Row entertainer can attain in record or ticket sales.
Twenty-five years on, the genre continues to flourish, at least when measured by album and ticket sales. Because of the money now involved, country music is an entertainment machine as slick and successful as any sub-genre of popular music. And the Class of 1989 moved country music into the big leagues.
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