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Country Acts Hitting The Road To Win Back Fans

Jim Patterson Associated Press

Strong country music double bills and package shows are hitting the road in 1997 in an attempt to win back casual fans who strayed from the fold last year.

Even the biggest stars have taken notice of a downturn in the touring industry in 1996. Some have reacted by taking on corporate sponsors. Others are sharing touring costs, and even their prestigious headliner status.

The trend should result in better values for fans. For example, it will take just one ticket to see the new shows of two of country’s biggest acts, Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn.

“You could probably say that business across the board was down a little bit (in 1996), for some people more,” million-selling singer Vince Gill said. “For us, it wasn’t too bad.”

Still, Gill has accepted a tour sponsorship from Kraft for the first time this year and tapped fellow tenor Bryan White as a very strong opening act. (That tour will stop in Spokane on May 1 at the Arena; tickets have not gone on sale yet.)

“Obviously from a financial standpoint, help with a tour is really, really good. And it’s not something that I’m ashamed to have my name attached to.

“I’m not going to show up on a bunch of packages of cheese, you know? We’re just business partners for the tour.”

Sales of country music CDs dropped by about 10 percent in 1996, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Brooks, whose own CD sales dipped with last year’s “Fresh Horses” (4 million, compared to 13 million for “No Fences” and 9 million for “The Hits”), is still king of the road. He will visit 30 cities in 1997 without corporate sponsorship, said his spokeswoman, Karen Byrd.

Brooks broke records left and right in 1996, selling 2 million tickets in less than a year. He is working on a new CD he hopes to release during the year.

Likely the year’s biggest tour pairs two multimillion-selling acts, McEntire with Brooks & Dunn. Their 85-city tour began in Memphis Feb. 28, sponsored by oil company Mobile 1. They are using an in-the-round stage, and McEntire will perform a few numbers with Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn to keep the entertainment flowing without an intermission.

“There hasn’t been a time in the last decade in country music that two superstars have gone on tour together,” said Bob Titley, who co-manages Brooks & Dunn. “This is a very unusual opportunity.”

And it can be a knotty problem for less-established acts. “Country has stolen a lot of ideas from rock ‘n’ roll as far as putting on a show,” McVey said. “People who are newer acts don’t have the budget for that.”

For country fans who like the music rather than any particular artist, the best values are probably the package tours sponsored by Wal-Mart, Fruit of the Loom, PrimeStar, and Crown Royal. The Wal-Mart tour is the best deal of all - over 200 free shows in Wal-Mart parking lots.

The shows feature a revolving cast of newcomers and middle-tier artists eager to reach fans in the many small towns this tour hits that others don’t. Playing selected shows this year are James Bonamy, George Ducas, Ty Herndon, MC Potts, Eddie Raven and Jo-El Sonnier and many others.

The Fruit of the Loom Country Comfort tour began Feb. 20 in Cincinnati and features Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt, Charlie Daniels and Jo Dee Messina on 60 dates through October.

A sort of traveling state fair travels with the tour, dubbed The Experience. It features interactive computer exhibits, country music memorabilia and line dancing away from the main stage.

Fans will be able to “go in and actually interactively accept a CMA Award from Vince Gill or something along those lines,” Tritt said during a news conference to promote the tour. “Go in and see a little bit of history of the Grand Ole Opry or see a little bit of the history of country music in general.”

“A lot of people are referring to this as a Lollapalooza of country music, and I think that this is an accurate description.”

The Crown Royal tour features David Lee Murphy, Tracy Byrd and Garry Allan. Terri Clark, Clay Walker and Bonamy will play under the PrimeStar banner.

Waiting in the wings is a potential bombshell. Shania Twain plans to tour to support her third album with a spectacular show to rival McEntire. Twain, who has sold over 8 million of her CD “The Woman in Me,” has never toured.

“Nothing is written in stone yet,” said Kevin Lane of Mercury Records. “Shania says she wants to start touring when the second single of her new album is released. That puts her starting in the fall, possibly October if everything goes well.”

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