While 1997 in country music may best be remembered for Garth taking a bite out of the Big Apple, the year left several other interesting tastes behind — many intensely sweet and others heartbreakingly bitter.
Through several landmark events, lavish weddings, disappointing break-ups and even untimely deaths, 1997 undoubtedly leaves us with both precious memories, and most importantly, precious music.
It was Garth Brooks who took his music to the moon, or at least to New York City. Many would have thought it was the moon, though. The hype about his freebie Central Park Concert went on for months until the big day finally arrived in August. While at least several hundred thousand Garth fans turned out for the history-making event, which featured the great Billy Joel as a special guest, rumors abounded that a million-plus music lovers filled the park and surrounding areas.
Brooks’ Central Park Concert, also a live HBO special, was only the appetizer to what the 1997 Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year would serve up several months later. It was actually several months late, to be honest. The release of Brooks’ long-awaited Sevens album continued to be postponed. Once the disc finally hit stores November 25th, cash register operators began to seriously consider investing in Dr. Scholl’s extra-cushy shoes. Sales skyrocketed throughout the first in-store days, while Brooks, himself, pushed the product on both radio and television commercials. An estimated 375,000 copies of Sevens were sold the very first day. The figure soon rose to more than 850,000. The disc has now sold in excess of 2.7 million units. Over all, Brooks has hit the 62-plus million mark in sales.
Folks also rushed out for Shania Twain’s new Come On Over album — placing her at the top of the sales charts as well. Twain’s earlier project, The Woman In Me, also boosted in sales figures — placing her in the top five female sellers of any musical format in the country.
Other phenomenal album sellers in ’97 include LeAnn Rimes, Deana Carter, Wynonna, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw and George Strait. If a theme could wrap around 1997’s country album world, however, it would have to be Ladies First! Scorching hot acts such as Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, Trisha Yearwood, Deana Carter, Martina McBride, Wynonna, Mindy McCready, Sherrie’ Austin, The Kinleys, Pam Tillis and Lee Ann Womack all made big, big moves in sales, debuts, radio airplay and general country curiosity.
Numbers were also up in 1997 for duets. After years of anticipation, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood finally teamed up to record the phenomenal “In Another’s Eyes,” the first of a possible duet album in the future. Other dynamic duos of the year include Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, Clint Black & Martina McBride, Anita Cochran & Steve Wariner, Travis Tritt & Lari White, Patty Loveless & George Jones, Wynonna & John Berry, Steve Wariner & Garth Brooks, Toby Keith & Sting, and Bryan White & Shania Twain. Country pioneer Hank Thompson also returned to the music scene with full force to recruit a star-studded list of singers for his Hank Thompson & Friends duet album.
If it could have been marketed, you can bet that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s late ’96 wedding would have been a top-seller. It did, however, kick off an explosion of marriages in ’97. Other holy matrimony ventures included those by Trace Adkins and Rhonda Forlaw; Travis Tritt and Theresa Nelson; Connie Smith and Marty Stuart; Tracy Lawrence and Stacie Drew; Paul Brandt and Elizabeth Peterson; Kenny Rogers and Wanda Miller; and Alison Krauss and Pat Bergenson. Wedding engagements announced in 1997 included those from Mindy McCready & actor Dean Cain and Hal Ketchum, who also popped the question again.
Along with the precious vows also came those that were broken. Vince and Janis Gill’s break-up was perhaps most remembered and continues to stir inquiring minds who want to know. Other splits were those between Kevin and Monique Sharp, and believe it or not, newlyweds Tracy and Stacie Lawrence. The “split syndrome” also made its way into the professional category as well. We saw lead singer Marty Raybon depart from Shenandoah to form The Raybon Brothers with his brother Tim. LeAnn Rimes’ parents, Wilbur and Belinda, announced their separation after 27 years of marriage. John Dittrich turned in his club membership to the Buffalo Club. The new group later disbanded completely, as did most recently Little Texas. And for the second time around, sultry vocalist Paulette Carlson left her signature band, Highway 101.
Barbara Mandrell announced her “separation,” too. Since performing as a child, the singer announced that she was trading her spot on the concert stage for a more focused spot in front of the camera as an actress. Mandrell performed her Last Dance farewell concert in late October. The concert will air as a television special on TNN on January 27.
We also said our final farewells to several music greats this past year. Soon after mourning the loss of blugrass great Bill Monroe in September of 1996, the following year said goodbye to John Denver, Nicolette Larson, session player Roy Huskey Jr., Minnie Pearl’s longtime soul-mate and husband Henry Cannon, country music veteran Mae Axton, and 21-year-old singer Aimie Comeaux.
While we lost, we also gained with 1997’s baby booming debuts. Tim and Faith introduced Gracie Katherine, and James Bonamy introduced his new son James Daniel. There was also Hank Williams Jr.’s Samuel Weston, Toby Keith’s Stelan Keith Covel; Rick Trevino’s Ricardo Luke, Alan Jackson’s Dani Grace, Tracy Byrd’s Logan Lynn, Doug Supernaw’s Bella Sophia, Ty England’s Levi Wyatt; Danny Shirley’s (Confederate Railroad) Nicholas Devin, Eddie Kilgallon’s (Ricochet) Landon James, Lari White’s Makenzie Rayne Cannon, Brett James’ Preston David, Dean Sams’ (Lonestar) Britney Deann, Bobbie Cryner’s Samantha Brooke; and Gary Morris’ Garon Hurley.
Other celebrations included those stemmed by Grandpa & Ramona Jones and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans. Both grand ole couples celebrated their golden wedding anniversaries.
When the delivery room wasn’t busy, the television and film studios were — with several country celebrities in front of the camera for both small and big screen roles. Following the footsteps of such country greats as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Lorrie Morgan, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Reba McEntire was Barbara Mandrell, who continued her stint as Alexis Mitchum on Sunset Beach. Dwight Yoakam took on a critically acclaimed role in the Oscar-winning Slingblade and made a cameo appearance on television’s Ellen. Randy Travis, another music-maker who’s no stranger to the TV and film cameras, filmed The Shooter, Universal Picture’s Black Dog, and another Touched By An Angel Christmas episode. He also loaned his voice to the recent holiday cartoon, Annabella’s Wish. Tim McGraw got an acting shot on The Jeff Foxworthy Show, while Mrs. McGraw – Faith Hill – was a guest on Touched By An Angel as well. LeAnn Rimes made her television acting debut in her novel-based Holiday In Your Heart; and Billy Dean earned his wings with girlfriend Crystal Bernard on Wings. Terri Clark, Eddie Rabbitt and Billy Ray Cyrus all landed a part on Diagnosis Murder. Also in the studio for either already-aired or upcoming roles were Clint Black, who’ll be starring with his wife Lisa Hartman-Black in the upcoming Cadillac Jack; and Marty Stuart, Kris Kristofferson, The Lynns and Travis Tritt, all whom will be in Steven Segal’s upcoming film. Country icon June Carter Cash, who has made guest appearances on several Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman episodes, among other roles, will be in Robert Duvall’s January release of The Apostle. Steve Wariner also got into the big picture, when he wrote and produced the music for CBS Television’s Reunion In Hazzard, based on The Dukes Of Hazzard TV series.
Of course, we can’t forget Trace Adkins’ truck commercials, David Kersh’s Southwest Airlines spots, newcomers the Thompson Brothers’ “Always Coca-Cola” jingles and Junior Brown, who fell into the Gap.
Other country stars were under the spotlight in the publishing world — either being the subject of autobiographies or gracing the covers of various magazines. Recording artist/high school cheerleader Lila McCann showed up on the cover of American Cheerleader, while Tanya Tucker and Lorrie Morgan told their life stories via best-selling autobiographies. Rimes, as mentioned earlier, had fans lined up waiting for her autographed book. Both Naomi Judd and Mel Tillis shared some knowledge through new cookbooks. Opry star Skeeter Davis released a children’s Christmas book. Other country greats between the covers include new autobiographies on Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, David Allan Coe, Eddy Arnold and Rose Maddox.
The honors kept coming for some artists, including LeAnn Rimes, who was perhaps 1997’s biggest awards show winner. The wonder youth picked up trophies from the Country Music Association, Academy Of Country Music, TNN/Music City News Country Awards, Grammys, Billboard Awards and is already nominated in several categories for upcoming award ceremonies in 1998. Other big award winners include George Strait, who took home the ACM Male Vocalist honor; Garth Brooks was a no-show, but won the CMA Entertainer of the Year trophy; Brooks & Dunn accepted the top honor at the ACM’s; and Trisha Yearwood, who received perhaps the most memorable applause in history when she was announced as the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year.
A familiar winning face was undoubtedly a highlight this year when Kathy Mattea stepped into the winner’s circle to accept the CMA Video trophy for “455 Rocket.” We can’t leave out Deana Carter’s joyous leap across the stage and into Ricky Skaggs’ arms when she picked up the Single of the Year award for the ever sweet “Strawberry Wine.”
Situations that were not so sweet during 1997 were the results of several tragic bits of news, including Johnny Cash’s diagnosis of a Parkinson’s-related disease and Carl Perkins’ recent stroke. We also learned that both Eddie Rabbitt and Boxcar Willie were successfully battling cancer. Janis Gill broke both her wrist and ankle in a horse-riding accident, and Waylon Jennings was forced to cancel several shows due to his health. And Terri Clark was forced to take a rest from the stage after being zonked in the face with a softball during this past year’s Celebrity Softball Challenge.
Other singers perhaps found new meaning in the Simon & Garfunkel classic, “The Sound Of Silence.” Sammy Kershaw, Mindy McCready, Charley Pride and John Berry all underwent severe vocal surgery. Other unfortunate ’97 news included a few tour bus burglaries and minor traffic accidents.
As always, annual highlights included another phenomenal sell-out crowd at Fan Fair, Country Fest and Farm Aid, the show that almost didn’t go on. Fortunately, the Windy City put out the welcome mat. Other concert highlights boasted dynamic tours that teamed headlining greats such as Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn. 1997’s top-grossing country acts in North America, according to Performance Magazine are: Reba McEntire with Brooks & Dunn, which grossed $33,466,804; Garth Brooks ($26,309156); Vince Gill ($17,298,740); Alan Jackson ($16,478820); Hank Williams Jr. ($5,083,992); Kenny Rogers ($3,168,116); Tim McGraw ($3,037,386); John Michael Montgomery ($2,909,777); George Strait ($2,740,641); and Clay Walker ($2,558,601). These results are based on a reporting period from Performance’s January 10th through December 26th issues. The figures are also based on only those shows that were reported.
As for 1997’s charity bandwagon, there’s probably not one country artist who didn’t jump on with both feet at one time or another. Artists such as Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Sammy Kershaw, Ty Herndon, Joe Diffie and Crystal Gayle all did their part and more. Ironically, Tim McGraw’s New Year’s Eve Blast concert does just that as we say “Goodbye!” to 1997 and “Hello!” to 1998. McGraw, along with Johnny Paycheck, Martina McBride, Jeff Foxworthy and special guest, Faith Hill, will be performing to raise money for the new Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as to bring in a brand new year.
And last, but most definitely not least, country.com launched onto the World Wide Web June 9, 1997 — only one week before topping the 1 million hits mark. A very platinum year, indeed!