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Seven new acts who just might give hope to country music

By Beverly Keel

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  For more than a year, country purists have lamented the decline of music emerging from Nashville. New acts are getting younger and younger, they're beginning to sound more and more alike, and they're all betraying the same pop influences. Label executives, meanwhile, are faced with an overall decline in sales, and they're frantically searching for the next Garth Brooks. It's only a matter of time, one would think, before Music Row abandoned the formula in search of something different.

Sure enough, there's no dearth of talent trying to break through the forgettable, milquetoast music dominating country airwaves today. Certainly, no one is making any predictions about who will become the next Garth Brooks, but here are seven acts of substance whose music deserves to be heard. While they might not be able to save country music single-handedly, they may be country's best chance at maintaining both its credibility and its popularity.

Clay Davidson may possess the voice that every A&R scout has been scouring the nation to find. With his deep, soulful delivery, he is the missing link between country and Southern rock. Conjuring fond memories of Charlie Daniels, Waylon Jennings, and Marshall Tucker during their respective heydays, Davidson is an everyman, an anti-pretty boy. "I like to think that my songs remove the guesswork," says Davidson, whose debut album comes out on Virgin in April. "I like the simpler stuff, the kind of thing where you don't have to wonder what someone is talking about."

The Virginia native's big break in the music business occurred at a barbecue, to which he was invited only because Michael McDonald'couldn't make it. Virgin head Scott Hendricks was hosting the party, where singer-songwriters took turns performing for the attendees. The unknown Davidson took center stage and sang three songs so well that no one wanted to follow him. Hendricks was sold on the spot and offered to sign him.

Many country fans were elated when Brad Paisley's "He Didn't Have to Be" recently hit No. 1: It proved that in a format dominated by pop sounds, the traditional sound is still in demand. Paisley, who performs at the Wildhorse Saloon Mar. 10, describes his music as "laughter through tears"--think of Alan Jackson mixed with a little bit of Roger Miller.

"I don't venture outside of the traditional country sound," Paisley says. "I feel that my challenge is within the subject matter or arrangement, but it never musically should be taken toward pop." Ironically, Paisley has already found that traditionalism can be a curse even in a honky-tonk bastion like Texas, where a TV show refused to book the most successful debut act of 1999 because he was "too country."

Thirtysomething Phil Vassar, ASCAP's reigning songwriter of the year, offers a refreshing respite from the pack of youngsters who've landed record deals before their voices have changed. He's lived, loved, and developed his own philosophy about life. "A lot of my songs," he says, "have the same ongoing message: Life is fun."

Vassar, who performs at 3rd and Lindsley this Saturday, currently sits in the Top 15 of Billboard's country singles chart with the amusing "Carlene." But his debut album, due out on Arista, has its share of substantive material as well. "Right now, it's the most exciting time in country music because the possibilities are endless," Vassar says. "A lot of really good music is going to come out. It's going to have to; the stakes are too high now."

Chalee Tennison has been compared to Tammy Wynette, and the similarities aren't just musical. Much like the First Lady of Country Music, Tennison's past is littered with ex-husbands, children, and heartache. Divorced three times at age 29, Tennison is a single mother of three who is open about her past life. She says of her debut album, "It's autobiographical, but that is what real country music is. It's life and real stories that tug at the heart." The self-titled collection is devoid of cute radio ditties; instead, the songs, as well as the delivery, are overwhelmingly emotional.

Australian guitar sensation Keith Urban has more raw star power than any other new act today; he's got that intangible charisma that can't be manufactured. "I was raised on American country music, and that is still fundamentally what my music is," says Urban, who is influenced by Don Williams and Charley Pride. After leading a band that scored four No. 1 country singles in Australia, Urban moved to Nashville, where he formed another band called The Ranch and signed with Capitol. After releasing one album, the band broke up and Urban struck out on his own. "This album is a little more personal, especially lyrically," he says of his self-titled solo debut.

Urban is highly respected for his live shows, as well as his musicianship. In fact, he's in high demand by other acts wanting him to play guitar and banjo on their records. "I'm getting there," he says. "I don't feel like I'm there yet. In the last year, I went through such a bad period in my life, and now that I'm at the other end of it, I've rediscovered a really, really deep love for music that I haven't felt since I was in my early teens."

It takes just one glance at Eric Heatherly, with his sideburns, two-tone shoes, and vintage clothes, to figure out that this rockabilly cat is a far cry from the stereotypical country hat act. "Five years ago, I was promised that I would be a star by several different producers if I would do the hat, belt buckle, and starched jeans thing," Heatherly says. "I would tell these guys, 'What you see is what you get, and I can't be something I'm not.' "

His debut CD, Swimming in Champagne (Mercury), which hits streets in April, is driven by a stripped-down sound that still manages to retain a commercial appeal. "I am trying to keep the roots of country music alive," Heatherly says, "but at the same time I am trying to take it somewhere else." His current single updates the Statler Brothers' staple "Flowers on the Wall" with driving rhythms, stand-up bass, and rockabilly guitar licks. Heatherly performs at Tootsie's Feb. 21-24.

Rebecca Lynn Howard's career has already outlasted two record labels, but she only recently released her first single. Now 20, she was first signed at age 18 to Rising Tide, but when the label closed, she moved to its sister imprint, Decca Records. Then Decca closed, so she switched to parent company MCA. She kept going in the meantime by penning songs for Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, and John Michael Montgomery.

Inspired by power-balladeers like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, Howard has a big voice. But her music is decidedly country, often reminiscent of Patty Loveless. "Musically, the songs I write are so different," she says. "I don't think you can peg my music to any other artist. I'd say it's kind of rock 'n' roll-meets-bluegrass-meets-R&B-meets-country."

Howard's self-titled CD comes out in April. "I definitely see why things happened the way they did," she says. "I'm so much more ready for it now. I'm more mature and ready to handle what the business has to give."

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