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Gimmicks Can Make Quick Hits, But They Can’t Outlast Real Talent

The year in country music

Well, the year is almost over, and Billy Ray Cyrus has country music’s biggest single with his much-played ditty, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Oops, sorry - it just seems like 1992 all over again. Tim McGraw, 1994’s triple-platinum success story, two-stepped his way onto the country scene with a gimmick, just like ol’ Cyrus did two years ago. His somewhat insulting - but, really, just plain stupid - “Indian Outlaw” assured him a place on radio play lists and a big splash for an ultimately mediocre artist.

Because of all the useless controversy “Outlaw” created (Native Americans protested the song’s stereotypical lyrics of tomtoms and wigwams), McGraw’s next single, the sweet but sappy ballad “Don’t Take the Girl,” shot straight to No. 1. His second album, “Not a Moment Too Soon,” hit the top spot on both the country and pop albums charts.

Everybody remembers “Indian Outlaw” now - fondly or not - and McGraw is a star. Exactly the way “Achy Breaky Heart” turned Billy Ray Cyrus into a household name.

Yet what goes around comes around: In 1994, after Cyrus sabotaged his career by alienating more than a few fly-by-night fans with his public cockiness, he is a struggling artist. Last year’s “It Won’t Be the Last” CD was a dramatic sales failure when you consider that his debut, “Some Gave All,” moved a whopping 8 million copies and “Last” barely hit the 1 million mark. His 1994 album, “Storm in the Heartland,” was released to relatively no fanfare and poor sales.

So what does this all mean? Country listeners don’t take kindly to gimmicks. Eventually, after the glitter fades and the artist is left to his own devices, the truth emerges. That’s when you can’t disguise mediocrity. Which is precisely the reason Tim McGraw should drown in the same gimmicky quicksand that seems to be burying Billy Ray.

Otherwise, 1994 has been the year for country women. Reba McEntire remains a strong figure with both commercial clout and artistic integrity (her AIDS-awareness anthem, “She Thinks His Name Was John,” was the year’s most sobering radio hit).

And an array of talented female vocalists finally broke through country’s good ol’ boy network. Lari White delivered a fine album, “Wishes,” that has so far clicked with the airwaves: Both “That’s My Baby” and “Now I Know” directed plenty of attention her way. Martina McBride’s 1993 opus, “The Way That I Am,” finally brought her the success she so richly deserves. The moving “Independence Day” is the best single of the year. Even the lightweight Faith Hill managed to take her frothy voice to No. 1 twice with “Wild One” and “Piece of My Heart.”

But perhaps the most gratifying success story of ‘94 is Patty Loveless’ beautiful “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.” The last single from 1993’s “Only What I Feel” CD, “Goodbye” showcased the emotional range of Loveless’ voice. Long marketed as a cowboy’s sweetheart, Loveless moved away from that confining image with a batch of classy songs that really made use of her expressive pipes. Along the way, she picked up new fans who actually went out and bought the records. Keep an eye out for her when Grammy nominations are announced in early ‘95. She’s a front-runner for a Best Female Country Vocal Performance nod.

It’s particularly pertinent to mention the success women have enjoyed in country music this year because statistics show that women buy the bulk of the country CDs and cassettes. This is why you see so many good-looking male singers - all virtual sound-alikes - splattered all over Country Music Television and The Nashville Network. Industry executives figure if you’ve got the right package, the women will spend the money on CDs and concerts. Everybody gets rich quick.

But the current focus on female artists means that the female consumer is identifying with the songs Reba and Martina and Lari and Patty and Pam Tillis are singing. That sense of camaraderie ultimately translates to record sales.

Finally, let’s gab about the Tractors for a bit. Undoubtedly the new group of 1994, these Tulsa boys - who mix Delta blues, ‘50s country, Western swing and roots rock - have been the talk of Nashville since their debut album revved into the Top 10. The group’s first video, for “Baby Likes to Rock It,” is all over the tube, prompting radio to follow suit.

What’s ironic about the Tractors’ success - and the Kentucky Headhunters’ run in 1990 - is that in a genre overrun by pretty boys in cowboy hats and tight Wranglers, there seems to be room for real musicians not so concerned with looking like they just stepped out of a makeup session.