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COUNTRY MUSIC SETTLES INTO MAINSTREAM

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Mainstream was the guiding theme in country music this year, as record sales seemed to level off and settle into a broad fan base after several seasons of unbridled growth.

Although there were no huge mega-arena events or new Garth-like presences, country as a format stayed comfortably paired with alternative radio as youth-market favorites and overwhelmingly as adult-market fare. However, country albums didn't leap to the top of the pop album charts as regularly this year as during '93.Dozens of young vocalists, mostly male, continued to flood the CD bins and radio airwaves but found the going harder for radio airplay simply because of their sheer numbers. With 22 (at last count) Nashville record labels furiously doing business, the signing part was easy, though.

Alarmists might note the slight decline of traditionalism for a diluted form of country-pop that makes for catchy, short-term hits but adds little to the genre's standing catalog of classics. Naturally, no one in the business is calling the softer stuff "fluff"; most young artists choose to say something along the lines of: "I'm taking the traditional sounds I grew up with and marrying them with my other rock influences to get my own brand of '90s country."

New stars were born during 1994, though, with truly exciting new sounds. David Ball gave everyone a "Thinkin' Problem" and introduced many fans to true dance hall music. The Tractors roared out of Oklahoma and helped define the progressive Tulsa Sound.

Compilations, collaborations and tributes, plus soundtracks too, were the big news recordwise.

Country songs and videos often - and effectively - dealt with social ills, from Doug Supernaw's bittersweet broken-family tune "I Don't Call Him Daddy" to the harrowing Collin Raye look at alcoholism, in "Little Rock," and Martina McBride's dramatic take on domestic violence, "Independence Day."

The flip side of that was Tim McGraw's surprise success with the blatantly redneck "Indian Outlaw."

Locally, it's been a fluid club and venue scene. Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth won top club honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, the Dallas-based favorite Cowboys opened a second location in Arlington and drew Tarrant County dancers by the score. The Longhorn Saloon in the Stockyards altered its format slightly and gave Austin and Texas music types another venue in which to pick.

Roy Ashley moved his live KNON/89.3 FM radio show, the "Super Roper Revue," into (and then out of) the Fort Worth Stockyards, Fan Jam moved into the Stockyards, and the KSCS/96.3 FM Country Fair continued its springtime run at Texas Stadium. However, there were no country shows at Reunion Arena, or the Cotton Bowl. Or The Ballpark.

Back in Nashville, country stars in general exhibited their durability, viability, marketability and creativity during '94. Charley Pride, Merle Haggard, the Statler Brothers and Reba McEntire all marked anniversaries, and biographies of everyone from Travis Tritt to Patsy Cline to The Judds to Reba, Dolly and Hank Snow were published.

Johnny Cash signed with a new label and immediately got hot with the gritty "American Recordings." Willie Nelson ended up on Liberty/

EMI with the retro "Healing Hands of Time," following the retro "Moonlight Becomes You" on Houston-based Justice Records.

Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus had prime-time performance specials on network television, and Reba and Travis Tritt turned in acting assignments on same. Several stars could be glimpsed in movie cameos in projects ranging from "Maverick" (Clint Black, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless) to "The Little Rascals" (Reba McEntire).

A Lubbock-born, Texas-bred stage project, "Chippy," took people like Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and Butch Hancock to the Great White Way.

Oh, and juiciest gossip of the year? Wynonna's unplanned pregnancy and birth of a son zapped the enigmatic Lyle Lovett-Julia Roberts union in the trash-talk category.