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1996: The year that wasn't

Country Standard Time Editorial, December 1996

Country music zoomed like it never had before in recent years. Just look at the growth of country radio stations, country music clubs and sales of country albums. Nearly two years after its release, Shania Twain's "The Woman In Me" hit the 10 million mark - the most of any female performer ever.

But 1996 was not kind to country music. To wit, a decrease in sales of country albums, a slight decrease in the number of country radio stations, the further closing of country music clubs and more recently western clothing stores.

The slack in sales came during the same period record labels gave the heave ho to some of their name artists. Among those left high and dry were Lari White, Mark Collie, Lisa Brokop, Ricky Van Shelton, Chely Wright and John Anderson (though the latter two quickly resigned with new labels).

Most labels focused on the immediate, not potential. In other words, no breakthrough on the charts meant you were shown the door. And radio has not exactly been in an adventurous mood at all in playing something beyond the tried-and-true.

Some argue too many hats spoiled the spurt. Not even the resurfacing of Garth Brooks on tour reversed the downturn.

Most stars of yesteryear (Waylon Jennings, for example) have been forced to seek refuge in smaller labels, such as Justice.

Along with lower sales, fewer people hit clubs. Many clubs faced the problem of line dancers vs. non-line dancers, an oil-and-water combination.

Yes, there were a few bright spots in 1996. The antidote to Hot New Country has been the burgeoning alternative/insurgent country movement along with twangmeisters such as Dale Watson who are harking back to country's roots.

Some labels started being more risky, specifically Arista's signing of retro-sounding BR5-49. Record label execs now talk about signing traditional acts, not music of the line dance type.

Women, such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Mindy McCready, moved to the fore with songs addressing women.

Despite pessimistic signs, country holds a far larger niche than during the Urban Cowboy craze. The staying power of country seems more obvious now.

1996 may be considered the year that wasn't particularly kind to country, but hopefully it will only prove to be a temporary dip, not a permanent drop.