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Chicks, Cash make country music headlines

The year in country music was marked bya sad passing and controversy
/ Source: Billboard

It’s usually considered a good thing when country music and artists make headlines.

But two stories that kept country in the news this year --the death of icon Johnny Cash and the incredible media scrutiny that accompanied a radio and fan backlash against the Dixie Chicks -- were events the industry could have done without.

After his Sept. 12 death, mourners from every facet of the entertainment business attended Cash’s funeral. A subsequent tribute concert featuring Hank Williams Jr., Sheryl Crow, Marty Stuart, Kid Rock and numerous others became one of Country Music Television’s highest-rated specials.

Cash died just a few months after the May 15 passing of his wife, June Carter Cash. She rose to prominence as a member of the legendary Carter Family and met Cash when the two began touring together in 1961.

The divisive Dixie Chicks controversy started in March on the eve of the war in Iraq, when singer Natalie Maines told a London concert audience she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” home to all three of the group’s members.

When U.S. media outlets picked up the comment, Maines issued an apology. But that didn’t stop stations from dropping the group’s records and at least one station from hosting an event in which listeners’ Chicks CDs were crushed with a steam roller.

Cumulus Broadcasting issued a ban on Chicks music across its 42 country stations. Cox Broadcasting canceled Jones Radio Networks’ syndicated “Lia” evening show, which aired on six of its stations, because the show’s producers initially were unwilling to stop airing Dixie Chicks music. Jones later began offering a Chicks-free version of the show.

Coming on the heels of the top-selling album “Home” and just weeks after the Chicks had nearly sold out their Top of the World tour dates, the controversy threatened to permanently derail the group’s sky-high career. While the tour went off without a hitch and sparked virtually no protests, it remains to be seen what the long-term impact of the incident will be on the group’s record sales.

For the chart week ending Dec. 7, 40 of Billboard’s 128 monitored country stations did not play any Chicks songs.

In contrast to that brouhaha, country artists who released patriotic songs during the war in Iraq tended to fare well. The biggest beneficiary of country’s openness to these songs was Darryl Worley’s pro-war anthem “Have You Forgotten?” The tune topped the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart for multiple weeks and sparked sales of his album of the same name to 214,000 units in its first week.

Fresher material
It was a year that saw more lyrical variety return to the country airwaves. The politically correct, sanitized country of the ’90s gave way to music with more substance that explored a wide range of life experiences and a “neo-traditionalist” sound.

Songs with a spiritual flavor also found a home on country radio. Among them were Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train,” Sherrie Austin’s “Streets of Heaven,” Buddy Jewell’s “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” and the most successful, Randy Travis’ hit “Three Wooden Crosses.”

The Country Music Assn. and the Christian Country Music Assn. named “Crosses” -- penned by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams -- the song of the year. It gave Travis his first No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Singles & Tracks chart since 1994.

There also was a return to meatier lyrics, with artists who had actually lived such stories doing the singing. DreamWorks’ Jimmy Wayne, Mercury’s Billy Currington and RCA’s Jeff Bates delivered singles that drew from their often painful, true-life experiences that included an alcoholic father (Currington’s “Walk a Little Straighter”), dysfunctional families (Wayne’s “I Love You This Much”) and adoption (Bates’ “Rainbow Man”).

In 2002, country music album sales totaled 76.9 million albums, an increase of 12.3 percent over the 68.4 million sold in 2001. But as 2003 draws to a close, country album sales from January to the week ended Dec. 7 were 58.6 million units, down 10 percent from 65.1 million in the same period in 2002.