Some thought MuzikMafia might be the trend to save country, but solo artists are doing just fine

NASHVILLE — Country music has seen its share of trends and fads, from the “Urban Cowboy” craze to the “Outlaw” movement to the Garth Brooks phenomenon. The mystery now is who or what’s going to be the next big thing in country music.

Two years ago, attendees at the 2004 Country Radio Seminar were pumped over the breakthrough of two acts — Warner’s Big & Rich (Nashville songwriters John Rich and Kenny Alphin) and Sony’s Gretchen Wilson — both of them hailing from the MuzikMafia, a collective of “Musically Artistic Friends In Alliance” organized to mix performers of different backgrounds and create all-new sounds that many thought might save country music.

MuzikMafia’s high-attitude honky-tonk did invigorate the genre. Both debut albums hit big, going No. 1 and still charting two years later (Big & Rich’s “Horse of a Different Color” went double platinum, and Wilson’s “Here for the Party” sold a phenomenal 4 million-plus units). But the follow-up CDs from both acts didn’t exactly build on that success (moving only about a million units apiece).

Not exactly the kickstart pundits saw in MuzikMafia’s collective strategy. Their combined sales tabulations won’t even come close to Brooks’ self-titled, 7-million-plus debut album, which signaled follow-ups generating sales of more than 100 million units collectively.

However, there is hope in a handful of country performers — such as Kenny Chesney — with no connection to one another other than the fact that their individual output is shipping boatloads of records and selling out concert halls, even stadiums, around the country.

Chesney was 2005’s biggest country box office draw, to the tune of $65 million in ticket sales. His album “The Road & the Radio” ranks among the five bestselling ones of ’05, along with Rascal Flatts’ “Feels Like Today,” Keith Urban’s “Be Here,” Carrie Underwood’s “Some Hearts” and Faith Hill’s “Fireflies.”

And even without the promised MuzikMafia salvation, the country record industry is happy.

Capitol’s Mike Dungan, the label that lost mega-selling Brooks, reports that business was up 75% this year, pointing with pride to the success of the label’s flagship artist Urban, who recently charted with the triple-platinum “Be Here.”

Other Capitol assets include Trace Adkins’ No. 1 platinum album “Songs About Me” and CMA Horizon award winner Dierks Bentley’s No. 1 platinum CD “Modern Day Drifter.”

To date, Chesney has racked up more than 25 million in record sales for BNA, a label that also includes in its family of acts such heavy-hitters as Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Diamond Rio, Martina McBride, Lonestar, Sara Evans and Brad Paisley.

MCA, part of the Universal Music Group, boasts Lee Ann Womack, Gary Allan, Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood, while standard-bearers Reba McEntire and George Strait continue to enjoy healthy music sales.

Nearing 80 weeks’ charting, Strait’s “50 Number Ones” album has sold more than 6 million, and he has a follow-up CD, “Somewhere Down in Texas,” certified platinum. Strait just tied the late Conway Twitty with most Billboard No. 1’s, though Twitty also had a No. 1 pop entry.

To illustrate the passion Strait arouses in country fans, a recent one-nighter in Oklahoma City at the Ford Center grossed $1 million for a concert in which Strait shared the bill with opening acts Tracy Lawrence and Miranda Lambert.

If there’s going to be a resurgence, it’s clear country talent is out there doing its part to make sure the world’s aware of the genre. Everywhere we turn there’s some sort of country representation: First it was Hank Williams Jr. on “Monday Night Football,” then we saw LeAnn Rimes singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” to kick off the Rose Bowl in January.

Country cousins are being brought into the big-city mainstream more frequently, as witness Uncle Kracker singing with Chesney (and scoring a No. 1 country record as well) on “When the Sun Goes Down” and Tony Bennett inviting the Dixie Chicks to join him on his new album.

But country music’s next burst of attention might arrive entirely independent of the music itself, thanks to heightened interest from the tabloids as country princes up and wed screen queens — notably Clint Black (Lisa Hartman), Brad Paisley (Kimberly Williams) and, less successfully, Chesney (Renee Zellweger).

Keep your eye on the Keith Urban/Nicole Kidman romance. If that union from Down Under gets to the altar, it could keep country on page one of the tabloids and country on music fans’ minds from Brisbane to Birmingham (U.K. and Alabama).

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