Our anxiety level was a lot higher this time last year, what with the millennium upon us and all. While we’re no longer worried about the end of the world as we know it, as 2000 draws to a close we do find ourselves in a reflective mood.
Country music survived the millennium, but just barely, to hear some folks talk. As Tennessee Ernie once sang, we’re “another year older and deeper in debt,” but as another famous country music figure was fond of saying, we’re just so proud to be here. Our friends on Music Row are scratching their heads about ways to make sure they’re around to celebrate many new years to come. We’re pulling for ’em, and wish ’em the best.
Herewith, our roundup of the stories we feel were the most important or newsworthy of 2000. Here’s to you, our fellow country music lovers, and here’s to the year that was:
1. Capitol Expenditure: Garth Says He’ll Go
Hours before he hosted his massive Oct. 26 party in Nashville to celebrate the sale of 100 million albums, Garth Brooks called a press conference to announce he was retiring from the music business. But not quite yet. He said he would do one more album for Capitol Records and possibly some TV. Then he would turn his attention to parenting and possibly writing screenplays from home. At the party, former Capitol/Nashville chiefs Jim Foglesong and Pat Quigley trooped to the stage to pay tribute to Brooks and his achievements — as did newest Capitol/Nashville president Mike Dungan. Absent from the celebration were former label heads Jimmy Bowen and Scott Hendricks, both of whom Brooks sent packing over disagreements about how his records should be handled. Quigley, the marketing whiz Brooks supported to replace Hendricks, failed to deliver a success for Brooks’ ambitious identity-switching project, In the Life of Chris Gaines. Dungan, the former senior vice president and general manager at Arista Records, displaced Quigley in July with Brooks’ blessing.
2. Chicks Rule
Fly, the Dixie Chicks’ second album for Sony-owned Monument, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country and pop album charts in September 1999, but its full effect was felt this year. In January, Fly earned a Grammy nomination in the prestigious category of Album of the Year (along with releases by the Backstreet Boys, Diana Krall, winner Santana and TLC). It won Grammys for Best Country Album and for Best Country Vocal Performance/Duo or Group for “Ready to Run,” a track from the album. Fly also was named Album of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. The album fit well into a grand plan to make 2000 a breakout year for the Chicks. After touring in previous years as a support act with George Strait’s Country Festival, Tim McGraw and Lilith Fair, the trio undertook their first headlining tour. The Fly Tour had a $3 million advertising budget and an itinerary taking the group to nearly 90 cities. The Chicks grossed $47 million and played before more than one million people. Their Washington, D.C., dates were taped for On the Fly, an hour-long NBC special that aired Nov. 20 and delivered a 4.9 rating, the best of any network music special in 2000. The Country Music Association gave the group its highest honor, voting them Entertainer of the Year at the CMA Awards on Oct. 4, 2000, and Billboard named the group Country Act of the Year.
3. Have a Lot of Faith
In the year 2000, Faith Hill was Cinderella and she finally made it to the ball. Breathe, released in late 1999, sold five million copies, enough to tie the Dixie Chicks’ Fly as the RIAA’s best-selling country album of the year. “Breathe” was the No. 1 single of the year on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the Soul 2 Soul Tour, featuring Hill and husband Tim McGraw, was the top-grossing country tour of the year, raking in $46.9 million. Hill also became a pop princess, filling in for Whitney Houston at the Oscars, singing a song featured prominently in the Grinch movie and landing her own primetime TV special. Alltel and Pepsi placed her prominently in TV ads. As if that weren’t enough, she scored a modeling deal with Cover Girl and graced the pages of countless women’s magazines as a shining example of having it all. Hey Faith, while you take a break in 2001, can we borrow your slippers?
4. Vince and Amy
Music Row gossips will have to find some new fat to chew. Vince Gill and Amy Grant finally cemented their relationship, rumored for years but unconfirmed until Grant spilled the beans last year, calling Gill her “boyfriend” in an interview with The Tennessean. The singers got hitched March 10 in a field outside Nashville, far away from the media spotlight. Gill hasn’t stopped smiling since, and his newfound happiness was reflected on Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, an album he dedicated to “That friend of mine, my lifelong companion, Amy.” Gill and Grant undertook a Christmas tour together. They’ll have to make room in their love nest soon. Their first child together is due in May. Both Grant’s and Gill’s exes remarried this year. Gary Chapman, former host of TNN’s Prime Time Country, married animal trainer Jennifer Pittman in July. Janis Gill, half of Sweethearts of the Rodeo, married horse trainer/songwriter Roy Cummins in October.
5. Arista Nashville Becomes Part of RLG
With record executive Clive Davis on the way out at Arista Records, former Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois told his staff last December that he was leaving to accept a job with Gaylord Entertainment, owner of the Grand Ole Opry and Acuff-Rose Music. During the first half of 2000, while Davis tried to block his own ouster, staffers in Arista’s Nashville office waited to learn their fate. In July the BMG-owned imprint — including 15 Arista staffers — was folded into BMG-owned RCA Label Group under Joe Galante. As part of the restructuring, BlackHawk, Lee Roy Parnell, Clint Daniels and BR5-49 were dropped from the Arista roster. Arista Senior Vice President and General Manager Mike Dungan eventually landed at Capitol, replacing Pat Quigley as head of the company’s Nashville division. Fletcher Foster, Arista’s senior vice president of marketing, joined Dungan at Capitol. Several former Arista staffers joined DuBois at Gaylord, where he was to start a country label, but upheaval at the company scuttled those plans, and DuBois left the company in September.
6. Grand Ole Opry’s 75th Anniversary
The Grand Ole Opry held a protracted celebration on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. Festivities began officially in June, with the unveiling of a new stage set. During the summer the Opry staged theme weekends focusing on bluegrass, traditional dance and Southern gospel music. An official celebration, with red carpet entry, press conference and festive cake-cutting, took place the weekend of Oct. 13-14. And on Thanksgiving night CBS aired a two-hour special, Grand Ole Opry’s 75th: A Celebration, hosted by Dolly Parton and Vince Gill. Thirteen million viewers saw generations of artists from Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire to Loretta Lynn and Little Jimmy Dickens perform songs associated with legendary Opry stars like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Marty Robbins. Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist and Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell declared October “Grand Ole Opry Month,” and the Opry hosted celebrity announcers including Casey Kasem, Pat Sajak and Ralph Emery. Ralph Stanley and Pam Tillis became members of the cast in 2000, while Brad Paisley accepted an invitation to join Feb. 17, 2001. The Opry will continue its year-long anniversary celebration when it returns to the historic Ryman Auditorium in January and February.
The Opry’s parent company, Gaylord Entertainment, enjoyed less festive times. President/CEO Terry London, President of Creative Content Tim DuBois, Word Entertainment President Roland Lundy and Myrrh Records Vice President and General Manager Jim Chaffee left the company, and Gaylord dropped plans to launch a country label, even though the company had made an offer to former Decca artist Chris Knight.
7. The Horseplay Chronicles: Tim McGraw Still Astride Runaway
The one thing everyone agrees on is that the ruckus started backstage at the June 3 concert in Buffalo, N.Y., when singer Kenny Chesney mounted a security guard’s horse. The police report filed later said that Chesney rode off without permission and refused to dismount when deputies ordered him to. Further, the report said, Tim McGraw and manager Mark Russo attacked the deputies who were attempting to dislodge Chesney from the saddle. The upshot was that McGraw was arrested and charged with second-degree assault, obstructing governmental administration, menacing and resisting arrest, while Chesney was cited merely for disorderly conduct. McGraw later issued a statement defending his coming to Chesney’s aid and denying he had inflicted any harm on the officers. Conviction on the second-degree assault charge could have earned McGraw a seven-year prison sentence. However, on Aug. 1, that charge was reduced to third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one-year imprisonment. All the other charges against the three men are also misdemeanors. The case has yet to be resolved. Nor has the horse been deposed.
8. Rimes vs. Rimes vs. Rimes
It’s been a blue-ooo-a-ooo 2000 for the Rimes family. On May 2, acting through her mother, LeAnn Rimes sued her father, Wilbur, and others on her management team, charging mismanagement and breach of financial trust. In building her case against him, the singer made much of her father’s marital infidelity and the divorce that ensued from it. Wilbur Rimes countersued his daughter on Nov. 28, claiming that he had been paramount in building, sustaining and safeguarding her career. He depicted her as a spendthrift, an incorrigible and an ingrate and alleged that she had affairs with singer Bryan White and actor Andrew Keegan while still underage. Moreover, he charged that she had taken producer credit for one of her hit songs he had produced. In a further muddying of the waters, LeAnn, who turned 18 this year, sued Curb Records on Nov. 15 to dissolve her contract.
9. Legends Make Comebacks
Country Music Hall of Fame members Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash each released albums that lived up to their high standards and put them back in the media spotlight.
Lynn celebrated her 40th anniversary as a recording artist and issued Still Country, her first solo album in 12 years. Produced by Randy Scruggs, it included poignant meditations inspired by the loss of her husband, Mooney Lynn.
Also highly personal, Haggard’s If I Could Only Fly dealt with age and settling down, and he wrote “(Think About A) Lullaby” for his wife after her miscarriage. Following an unproductive decade at Curb Records, Haggard partnered with Los Angeles-based, punk-driven Epitaph Records, prompting some who had not paid attention in a while to look his way again.
With his health in question, Cash delivered a new set of recordings made with rock and rap producer Rick Rubin. Like its two Grammy-winning predecessors (from 1994 and ’96), American III: Solitary Man is an acoustic, stripped-down affair, drawing its repertoire from older pop, gospel and rock music, and from Cash’s own deep catalog.
Country-pop superstar Kenny Rogers started a remarkable comeback of his own when She Rides Wild Horses on Dreamcatcher, his own label, spawned a No. 1 country hit, “Buy Me a Rose,” in May. His first No. 1 single since 1987, and the first No. 1 country hit by an artist over 60 since Billboard began tracking country singles 56 years ago, “Buy Me a Rose” was nominated for Single of the Year at this year’s Country Music Association Awards.
10. Murder for Hire
Seldom has a country song caused such ripples in the industry that spawned it. Larry Shell and Larry Cordle wrote “Murder on Music Row,” a song that laments country’s drift away from tradition, in June 1999. Shell took Cordle’s unidentified demo, wrapped in crime-scene tape, to Nashville disc jockey Carl P. Mayfield. “Carl P. responded in a way that’s unheard of today,” Shell says, his voice rising and dipping in revivalistic intensity. “He made a programming decision on his own without consulting anybody … He decided to let his listeners see if [the song] was right. The first day he went on it, he played it seven times from beginning to end, and it jammed his phones.” Eddie Stubbs, a DJ at WSM-AM (650) played the song, too, and George Strait heard it through his co-producer, MCA Nashville President Tony Brown. Strait invited Alan Jackson to record it with him, Lee Ann Womack sang harmonies, and it came out on a Strait greatest hits album. Without promotional support from a record company the track climbed to No. 38 on Billboard’s country singles chart in April. Strait and Jackson performed the song on the Academy of Country Music’s CBS telecast in May, and in October the Country Music Association named the Strait/Jackson collaboration Vocal Event of the Year. Strait seemed to shrug off the cultural tension described in the lyrics. “This song, I don’t know how seriously this song was written,” he said as he accepted the award, “but it was done kind of as a joke.” Cordle also cut the song with his bluegrass band, Lonesome Standard Time, and “Murder on Music Row” was named Song of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards.
As we look to 2001, there are hopeful signs on the horizon. Brad Paisley will join the Grand Ole Opry in February. The Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill are bona fide superstars now, up there with Garth and Shania. To plug ourselves just a little, CMT has big plans for the coming year. Taking cues from MTV and VH1, its new corporate cousins in the pop world, CMT has pulled out all the stops, and you can expect a new energy in its programming. George Strait is going out on tour again in 2001. George W. Bush, from Texas, moves into the White House in January. His daddy was good to country music. We hope G.W. will be, too.