COUNTRY FIGHTS AIDS: The country music industry is joining the campaign to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS, and the effort is ambitious.

Radio, TV and print ads featuring 35 country stars — big names like Garth Brooks, Wynonna, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash — are scheduled to break nationally in January. The “Country Music AIDS Awareness Campaign Nashville” is organized by numerous record company and agency personnel and led by Bill Johnson, design director at Nashville’s Sony Music.

“This is the first national effort in the country music industry for AIDS education, and is one of unprecedented frankness and directness,” Johnson said.

Indeed, for some time the silence was deafening from the country industry, which has been relatively slow to join the rest of the music industry’s efforts to address AIDS.

Credit for the initiative goes to MCA hat star Mark Chesnutt, who is responding to published reports that AIDS infection is growing fastest in the South.

“I know lots of people outside urban areas who think that AIDS is strictly a big city problem or one that doesn’t concern them,” Chesnutt said. “But it’s affecting rural areas all over the country, and these are places that country music can speak to directly.”

Chesnutt’s co-chair, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, said she hopes the campaign will make it more acceptable for people to use condoms regularly, for parents to broach the subject with their children and for people to learn about HIV from their local AIDS agencies.

SAIGON KICK FRONTMAN Matt Kramer has left the Third Stone/Atlantic Records act in what appears to be a spontaneous decision. Kramer dropped his bombshell on the band while they were in Sweden, four weeks into the recording of their third album.

His announcement was especially surprising since their last album, “The Lizard,” sold more than 400,000 copies and earned gold status for the single “Love is on the Way,” finally setting the brash yet introspective band on an upward career loop.

“We were caught completely off-guard,” manager Warren Wyatt said. “I mean, we were in the middle of recording in a foreign country, with all of our resources committed to that.”

Fortunately, guitarist and main songwriter Jason Bieler possesses a strong voice.

With bassist Chris McLernon’s equally powerful vocals providing new harmonies , the band can retain its signature sound as a trio (with drummer Phil Varone). Saigon Kick is currently in Florida, putting the finishing touches on “Fields of Rape.” The album is slated for an Oct. 5 street date. Kramer hasn’t announced future plans.

UNPLUGGED MANIA: In yet another example of MTV’s clout in the music business, the success of “Unplugged” live albums by the likes of Mariah Carey and Eric Clapton have made acoustic instrumentation the “in” mode of performance by a growing number of artists.

While Rod Stewart’s “Reason to Believe” makes its way up the charts, Def Leppard’s “Two Steps Behind” and Extreme’s “Tragic Comic” also have their unplugged sights set on Top 40 success. What’s more, two bonafide Alternative smashes, Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” and Radiohead’s “Creep,” have been re-cut acoustically. Apparently, these supposed tamer versions will entice airplay from stations that have been resistant to playing the harder rocking originals.

SOUNDTRACKS SIZZLE: Although the success of the film “Sleepless in Seattle” has certainly helped propel the soundtrack album to the top of the charts, a big box office gross isn’t essential to the sales of a soundtrack record. In fact, three current soundtracks are expected to outpace the success of their respective films. Consider:

“Last Action Hero”– The Arnold Schwarzenegger disappointment has done quite well on Rock radio, thanks to cuts from AC/DC and Queensryche, and has broken the top 10 in sales. Business should pick up even more thanks to the latest single, Def Leppard’s “Two Steps Behind.”

“Coneheads”– This soundtrack boasts a wide variety of Alternative and Rock artists, from R.E.M. and Paul Simon to k.d. lang and Erasure’s Andy Bell (performing as a duo).

The first single, “Soul to Squeeze,” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was the second most-added single last week with 49 adds. The song is already getting major airplay on alternative stations such as KROQ in L.A., 99X in Atlanta and WENZ in Cleveland.

“So I Married an Axe Murderer”– Mike Myers’ vehicle offers a largely alternative music soundtrack that features a couple of interesting twists.

The first single comes from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, a hardcore alternative guitar band from Britain doing a version of the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night.” The eclectic song list includes two versions of “There She Goes,” one by the Boo Radleys and another by the La’s, the Liverpool group that wrote and performed the song two years ago.

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