As this year ticks to a close, it is painfully evident that the Class of ’03 probably won’t be as culturally or commercially conspicuous as the Class of ’89. That fabled group, all of whom first charted in 1989, included Travis Tritt on Warner Bros., Clint Black on RCA, Alan Jackson on Arista and, most potent of all, Garth Brooks on Capitol. Black scored three No. 1 singles that year; Brooks one. Tritt would not have his first chart-topper until 1990 and Jackson not until 1991.
But the four newcomers began selling lots of albums right off the bat. Black saw his debut album go gold (sell 500,000 copies) in September 1989 and platinum (1 million) in January 1990. For Brooks, it was gold in August 1990 and platinum two months later. Jackson and Tritt both achieved gold level in September 1990 and their platinum certifications less than a year later.
Clustered at the head of the Class of 2003 are Buddy Jewell (Columbia), Jimmy Wayne (DreamWorks), Dierks Bentley (Capitol), Billy Currington (Mercury), Josh Turner (MCA), Jeff Bates (RCA), Brian McComas (Lyric Street) and Aaron Lines (RCA). Each of these had a single that went Top 10 or better in Billboard the first time out.
If we ignore the inconvenient fact that Pat Green (Republic), Craig Morgan (Broken Bow), Brian McComas (Lyric Street) and Rodney Atkins (Curb) all charted singles before 2003, we can still count them as members of the current class since it wasn’t until this year that they made significant chart breakthroughs. Others who have shown early promise are Dusty Drake (Warner Bros.), Jennifer Hanson (Capitol) and Rushlow (Lyric Street).
With sales of around 300,000 albums each, Green and Jewell are the top dogs in that important category. Following well behind on the SoundScan sales reports, and roughly in this order, are Bentley, Wayne, Turner and Currington.
Bentley was alone in his class in earning a No. 1 single this year. His “What Was I Thinkin'” topped the Billboard chart Sept. 27. As for the others, Wayne hit No. 3 with “Stay Gone” (July 5); Jewell No. 3 with “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” (Oct. 4); Green No. 3 with “Wave on Wave” (Nov. 29); Lines No.4 with “You Can’t Hide Beautiful” (Feb. 15); Morgan No. 6 with “Almost Home” (July 5); Bates No. 8 with “The Love Song” (July 5); and Currington No. 8 with “Walk a Little Straighter” (Nov. 8). Turner’s debut single, “Long Black Train,” is still rising and currently perched at No. 23. Atkins’ “Honesty (Write Me a List),” also escalating, now stands at No. 7.
Hanson’s best effort this year came with her first single, “Beautiful Goodbye,” which peaked at No. 16 (March 15). Drake hit No. 36 with “One Last Time,” his second single (June 7), and Rushlow also stalled at No. 16 with “I Can’t Be Your Friend” (Nov. 8).
For the record, Morgan first charted in 2000, when he was on Atlantic Records, with “Something to Write Home About.” Green, dueting with Cory Morrow, made his initial chart appearance in 2001 with “Texas on My Mind.” This is also the year that McComas emerged with “Night Disappear With You.” Atkins took his first bow in 2002 with “Sing Along.”
Look for Green to gain additional traction and visibility because of his Grammy nomination for best country song (“Wave on Wave”). And Bentley and Turner can count on some spotlight warmth via their slots as opening acts for George Strait and Brooks & Dunn, respectively. (Bentley is also in the running for a best country album Grammy for Livin’, Lovin’, Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers. However, there are so many others on this project that he is likely to be lost in the crowd.)
Unlike Black, who stood head and shoulders above all his peers for a few months in 1989, this year has given none of its class such a clear advantage. So we’ll just have to see what — and who — next year brings.