COUNTRY MUSIC: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE GREATS Promising singers of new generation will perform at festival next weekend

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No, there'll never be another

Red-headed stranger

A man in black and Folsom Prison Blues

The Okie from Muskogee or Hello Darlin'

Lord, I wonder who's gonna fill their shoes

Who's gonna fill their shoes

Who's gonna stand that tall

Who's gonna play the Opry and Wabash Cannonball

Who's gonna give their heart and soul

To get to me and you

Lord, I wonder who's gonna fill their shoes

"Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes"

1985 WB Music Corp.

When George Jones crooned his lament about the future of country music in the mid-1980s, there was ample reason to worry. Nashville was suffering from a bad case of the post-Urban Cowboy blues, dwarfed in record sales and excitement by pop and rock and still dominated, with few exceptions, by a generation of singers who had come to prominence 10 and 20 years before and were gradually losing popularity with their old fans while failing to gain new ones.

Just six years later, the lamentations have turned to celebrations. Call the shoemaker's helpers. All of a sudden, there is a steady stream of young country singers who seem capable of carrying on in the tradition of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and, of course, Mr. Jones himself.

Scan the upper reaches of the country music record charts and you'll find them studded with the names of artists, male and female, who were unheard of a few short years ago: Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Billy Dean, Joe Diffie, Alan Jackson, Ricky Van Shelton, Pam Tillis, Travis Tritt, Doug Stone, Mark Chestnutt, Trisha Yearwood.

"Nowadays, it seems like there's a new act out every week," says Mr. Jackson.

Mr. Jackson -- who, along with Mr. Diffie and Ms. Tillis, will be among the major attractions at the third annual Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival in Western Maryland, Friday through next Sunday -- is emblematic of country music's grand new guard. With his pedal steel-driven and fiddle-flavored sensibilities, his sound is rooted in country's heyday of the late 1940s and 1950s, appealing to the most hidebound traditionalist; with his drop-dead good looks and grasp of nuances of life in the '90s, he comes across as more than hip enough for the video age. His ability to straddle both worlds comfortably is perhaps best summed up in the sentiments to the title track to his latest album, "Don't Rock the Jukebox," played over a strong country swing beat:

Don't rock the jukebox

I wanna hear some Jones

My heart ain't ready

For the Rolling Stones

I don't feel like rockin'

Since my baby's gone

So don't rock the jukebox

Play me a country song

Mr. Jackson's approach is paying off at the cash register. His debut album, "Here in the Real World," sold more than a million units, until recently an astonishing figure for a first country LP; "Don't Rock the Jukebox" stands at No. 2 on Billboard's country charts.

Indeed, the influence that the influx of new singers has had on country music can be seen in the number of top-selling country records. In 1984, there were seven gold (500,000 units sold) or platinum (one million units sold) country LPs; last year, there were 33.

But you don't have to look at industry sales figures to get a sense of country's changing of the guard. All you have to do is turn on the radio.

"We've gotten away from a song by Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard being an automatic add [to the playlist]," says Greg Cole, music director of country station WPOC-FM, which has posted some of the strongest ratings in its 16-year history in the last year. "There's more of an emphasis now on the song. It doesn't matter who the artist is."

WPOC's local rival country station, WCAO-AM, tends to have an older demographic because of its position on the AM band. Nonetheless, says program director Johnny Dark, "We are probably more contemporary now than we have ever been, pretty much at the demand of our audience."

Looking back, this new era in country music can probably be traced to the summer of 1985. That's when Randy Travis, a young Haggard sound-alike, released his first single "On the Other Hand," launching a career that would eventually come to surpass the commercial and critical success accorded such tradition-minded singers of the early 1980s as Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs and George Strait.

Alan Jackson arrived in Nashville from his home in tiny Newnan, Ga., right around the time Mr. Travis' song was hitting. "People my age and younger liked real country music, but there weren't )) many new acts doing it," he recalls. "It's easier to relate to someone your own age. I wanted to carry on that tradition."

But record executives were still stuck largely in the past.

"Even after Randy hit, they thought he was just a fluke," says Mr. Jackson. "For a long time, it was just so hard to break through. Now, the record labels are willing to stretch out more and take a chance. I think it took them a long time to realize how many good country singers were out there."

Once they did, they discovered a generation of artists whose instincts may have steered them in the direction of country music but whose upbringing in many cases was light years away from the personal and economic isolation experienced by singers like Mr. Haggard, Mr. Jones and Loretta Lynn. Mr. Jackson, for example, lists his first performance as a fourth-grade lip-sync to "Lil' Red Riding Hood" by the '60s novelty pop group Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs.

Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, says he is impressed by the articulateness and sophistication the new generation displays in interviews and appearances.

"For the first time in country music history, you have a stable of artists who can go head to head with those of any popular art form, not only pop music but film or television," says Mr. Ivey. "This takes country music out of something that can be viewed as an ethnic or regional experience."

The presence of an artist has become increasingly important with the growth of cable television's The Nashville Network and, later, Country Music Television. Today, labels typically release videos of songs two to four weeks before the single is released to radio stations.

The result is artists with sex appeal, something Loretta Lynn or Waylon and Willie and the boys were never accused of having. "I appreciate the compliments," says Mr. Jackson, adding, "If people like what they see, it certainly can't hurt."

But there is more to these artists than pretty faces. Mr. Brooks -- who will be appearing at the Ocean City Convention Center Aug. 7 -- call (800) OCOCEAN for information -- has penned six of his eight No. 1 songs. Mr. Jackson, for his part, had a hand in writing all but one of the songs on his latest LP.

With songs like "Working Class Hero" and "Just Playin' Possum," Mr. Jackson shows a feel for country music's traditional affection for the lot of America's blue-collar workers as well as some of its most revered figures. "If I had to pick my favorite singer, it would be George Jones," he says. "My favorite songwriters would be Hank Williams and Merle Haggard."

Williams, of course, drank himself to death at an early age, but Mr. Jones and Mr. Haggard have enjoyed careers almost as notable for their longevity as their songs. Whether Mr. Jackson and his young cohorts will last anywhere near as long in this new world of country music is certainly something he has thought about. "The hardest part," he allows, "is going to be hanging on for a few years."

Bluegrass festival schedule

The following is the schedule for the third annual Rocky Gap Country and Bluegrass Festival, scheduled to be presented in Rocky Gap State Park, outside Cumberland, Friday through next Sunday.

Tickets are $17 Friday and next Sunday and $22 Saturday. For more information, call (301) 724-2511.

Friday

Donnie Gibson and the Country Grass Band, 4:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

Jordanaires and Sandy Kelly, 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

/# Willie Nelson, 8 p.m.-9:15 p.m.

Saturday

Northern Lights, noon-1 p.m.

Beausoleil, 1:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m.

Country Currents, 3 p.m.-4 p.m.

Joe Diffie, 4:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

Alan Jackson, 6 p.m.-7 p.m.

4( Jerry Lee Lewis, 7:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.

Sunday, Aug. 4

Shady Grove Band, 11 a.m.-noon

Lost & Found Bluegrass Band, 12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m.

Alan Munde & Country Gazette, 2 p.m.-3 p.m.

Pam Tillis, 3:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m.

Tammy Wynette, 5 p.m.-6 p.m.

Waylon Jennings, 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

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