×

By catering to an audience more likely to drive Volvos than pickup trucks, country music found a way to post an uptick at the cash register this year.

The music industry recorded its seventh consecutive annual sales decline in 2006, but country music bucked the trend in a big way and is expected to post a 5% sales spike.

Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney and, posthumously, Johnny Cash led the ’06 class. And crossover was key: The Dixie Chicks blatantly sought out an adult contemporary crowd, while Bon Jovi landed on the country charts. And several country acts got the sorts of TV assists generally afforded only the biggest stars.

Among the big winners is a small indie label, Lyric Street, that’s part of the Disney empire and has seen it stature enhanced by the dreaded “S” word, synergy.

Nashville’s rise, however, does not represent a groundswell of support for an entire genre; it’s a matter of a handful of artists connecting with consumers. Four country albums are expected to be in or near the top 10 of the year’s overall album sales. Discs from Dixie Chicks, along with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, won’t be far behind.

But there’s a catch. Beyond Underwood, country music did not create a star who sold more than a half-million albums this year. Of the 15 new country acts charted, the closest would be Maverick duo the Wreckers, which has sold 500,000 copies of “Stand Still, Look Pretty” since its release in May.

“It could be a precursor (to) a cycle in which we return to more organic, song-based music,” said Randy Goodman, president of Lyric Street Records. “Every time we get above 10% of the marketplace — and I think we’re looking at 13% — it’s historically because of one or two artists. It’s not 1992 all over again with Garth Brooks and a crop of new artists.

“At the worst, it’s the fact that an ‘American Idol’ winner happened to be a country artist. It’s hard to know.”

Goodman is extraordinarily pleased that his indie label is home to one of the acts that made a difference: Rascal Flatts. The sales leader among all country artists was voted top vocal group by the Country Music Assn., Academy of Country Music, CMT and the American Music Awards. Its “Me and My Gang” posted the biggest sales week of any disc in ’06, and its cume is around 3.5 million — right behind that of the year’s top seller, “High School Musical.”

Lyric Street will be going to the “Gang” well for the fifth time next month, releasing the album’s leadoff track, “Stand,” as a single. Goodman believes its familiarity to everyone who has bought the album will bolster its chances on radio.

Beyond the boost country has seen in general, Goodman has been able to persuade Hollywood — where there’s no FM country station to hear acts such as Rascal Flatts — to be involved with the band.

The Flatts landed lead track “Life Is a Highway” in the animated pic “Cars” (director John Lasseter met the band a few years ago in Nashville). ESPN tapped into some more Disney synergy by using the Flatts’ “My Wish” for some promos and Trent Tomlinson’s “Hey Batter Batter” for baseball’s Home Run Contest at the annual All-Star Game. ABC’s “Men in Trees” has already featured a song by Lyric Street’s next priority artist, Sarah Buxton, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter out of Lawrence, Kan., whose debut is slated for a February release.

“I was naive before,” said Goodman, a former exec at RCA who helped draw the blueprint for breaking a country band with Alabama. “The lesson I had to learn (regarding synergy) was that you have to bring something of value to the table. We can have a dialogue now. ABC called about putting Rascal Flatts in ‘New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.’ That’s huge for us.”