Looking Back at a Year in Country Music News

Rebound in Album Sales Gives Cause for Optimism

Yes, it was the year of contemporary superstars, Loretta Lynn’s artistic rebirth and the Muzik Mafia’s Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich, but country music’s biggest story of 2004 centers around the upturn in album sales. According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of country albums topped 68.1 million in 2004, an increase of 8 million units from 2003.

Country music’s rebound was obvious on the Billboard charts, where a No. 1 debut on the all-genre Billboard 200 chart automatically equates to a No. 1 debut on the Top Country Albums chart. Among those making a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200: Kenny Chesney’s When the Sun Goes Down, Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying, Alan Jackson’s What I Do, Rascal Flatts’ Feels Like Today and George Strait’s 50 Number Ones. Jimmy Buffett’s country-oriented License to Chill topped the Billboard 200 in its first week of release to become his first-ever No. 1 on any chart.

Usher’s Confessions prevented Gretchen Wilson’s first album, Here for the Party, from debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 although first-week sales of 227,000 guaranteed her a No. 1 debut on the country albums chart — a major accomplishment for a newcomer who was completely unknown by the public just a few months before.

When Shania Twain and Toby Keith released greatest hits albums in November, Eminem’s Encore kept them from the top of the all-genre chart. However, Twain’s Greatest Hits CD sold 530,000 in its first week, followed by sales of 435,000 for Keith’s Greatest Hits 2, to immediately account for a big part of country music’s overall sales in 2004.

Behind the sales, however, are lots of smaller stories that made up the year in country music. Here’s a look at some of them:

January: After 12 consecutive years hosting the CMA Awards, Vince Gill announced he would not host the 2004 event. Gill said he needed a break from the high-profile post, adding that he did not view his departure as permanent. Brooks & Dunn later hosted the CBS-TV broadcast. … Reba McEntire announced plans for her first tour in three years. … Chris Cagle canceled all concert dates through June 1 because of vocal cord problems. … Comic-musician Rodney Carrington signed to tape the pilot episode for his ABC sitcom, Rodney. … Toby Keith was joined by Willie Nelson, Sammy Hagar, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and others in Houston for a live session of CMT Crossroads coinciding with Super Bowl XXXVIII.

February: BMI president and CEO Frances W. Preston and singers Vestal Goodman, Sandi Patty and the Rev. Al Green were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. … Tim McGraw confirmed his role in Brian Grazer’s film, Friday Night Lights. … Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy — who first appeared together on the Blue Collar Comedy tour — announced plans to launch Blue Collar TV, a comedy series for The WB network.

Traditional music prevailed in the country categories at the 46th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Alison Krauss claimed three awards, bringing her career total to 17 and giving her more Grammys than any other Nashville artist. Other traditionalist winners included Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Randy Travis and the all-star Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers. … Rhonda Vincent won five trophies, including entertainer of the year, at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America’s 30th anniversary awards show in Nashville. … Mark Wills parted company with Mercury Records just months after his No. 1 single, “19 Something,” was named the most-played country single of 2003 by trade publication Radio & Records.

March: Kenny Chesney’s tour documentary, Roadcase: The Movie, debuted in Regal Cinema theaters across the nation. … The Portrait of Billy Joe, director Luciana Pedraza’s documentary on singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, premiered during the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. … The Country Radio Broadcasters organization honored Alabama with its annual career achievement award.

Alan Jackson and his band, the Strayhorns, showed up on a tiny plywood stage at Castaways Marina in Jupiter, Fla., and performed a four-hour show to a crowd of 1,100. Jackson owns a house in the Jupiter area. … Brad Paisley and John Mayer taped an episode of CMT Crossroads in New York City. … Darryl Worley and Mark Wills performed an acoustic concert prior to President Bush’s speech before personnel of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

On the first night of his Guitars, Tiki Bars & a Whole Lotta Love tour, Kenny Chesney set a record at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo by selling out Reliant Stadium with a paid attendance of 70,668. … Singer-songwriter Jamie O’Neal signed with Capitol Nashville. … Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues, 1945-1970, a 5,000-square-foot exhibit, opened at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. … Rascal Flatts lead vocalist Gary LeVox’s wife, Tara, delivered their second child, Brooklyn Leigh, on March 21 in Nashville.

April: Toby Keith won three trophies to lead the field of winners at the CMT 2004 Flame Worthy Video Music Awards in Nashville. Dolly Parton hosted the event that included the presentation of CMT’s Johnny Cash Visionary Award to Reba McEntire. … Parton received the Living Legend award from the Library of Congress in Washington. … Shania Twain’s Up! won a Juno Award — the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy — for country recording of the year during ceremonies in Edmonton, Alberta. … Wynonna was presented the CMA’s Connie B. Gay Award in recognition of her dedication to promoting the CMA Music Festival and the CMA Awards.

May: Toby Keith picked up four trophies, including the entertainer of the year honor, at the ACM Awards in Las Vegas. … George Strait, Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett performed their first concert together on May 29 at Texas Stadium near Dallas. … Mark Chesnutt signed to the new independent Vivaton label. … DreamWorks Nashville, label home to Toby Keith, merged with Mercury and MCA Nashville as part of downsizing within the Universal Music Group. … Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose premiered at No. 24 on the all-inclusive Billboard 200 and at No. 2 on the music trade publication’s country albums chart as her highest-debuting album ever. … Glen Campbell pleaded guilty to charges of extreme driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident stemming from a November 2003 arrest near his Phoenix home. He later served a 10-day jail sentence.

Charley Pride underwent brain surgery in Dallas to remove a subdural hematoma, a clot created when blood vessels tear and blood accumulates in the space between the brain and its protective covering within the skull. He made a speedy recovery and returned to the road. … Willie Nelson canceled 10 concerts, including an appearance at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., to recover from surgery to relieve pain in his hands and fingers caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. He, too, was back on his tour bus in short order. … Rascal Flatts bassist-vocalist Jay DeMarcus married model Allison Alderman in Nashville on May 15.

June: Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors began their Out Loud tour with the Warren Brothers and Big & Rich in Virginia Beach, Va. … With a morning performance by Jo Dee Messina, the first-ever CMA Music Festival kicked off in downtown Nashville. The multi-day festival was previously known as Fan Fair. … The Del McCoury Band, the Sam Bush Band and Gillian Welch were among the roots-oriented acts performing at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. … Terri Clark was inducted as a Grand Ole Opry member.

Anita Cochran released the single, “(I Wanna Hear) A Cheatin’ Song,” a track featuring Conway Twitty “singing” a song written 10 years after he died. Sampling individual words from Twitty’s past recordings, the words were combined and his voice tuned on a computer to create his vocal line. … Vince Gill, Dan Tyminski, Marty Stuart and country newcomer Jedd Hughes performed at the Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas. … Toby Keith and Ted Nugent continued their USO-sponsored Persian Gulf tour with a stop at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. … Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” was ranked as the top tune in the TV special, CMT 100 Greatest Love Songs.

Warner Bros. Nashville president Jim Ed Norman resigned after operating the company’s country music division for 21 years. … George Strait headlined a concert at Fort Campbell, Ky., as part of the Army post’s Week of the Eagles celebration. The show for the 101st Airborne Division’s soldiers and their families also featured Vince Gill, Lane Brody, Richard Marx, Collin Raye and Dobie Gray. … The Stepford Wives, Faith Hill’s film debut, opened nationally in theaters.

July: Marty Stuart was sentenced to two days in jail in Sumner County, Tenn., after pleading guilty to DUI. Stuart was arrested June 23 on the street in front of a McDonald’s restaurant in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville, Tenn. … The Judds performed their only concert together of 2004 during a Fourth of July show at the Freedom Over Texas 2004 celebration in downtown Houston. … A CMT Crossroads episode starring Wynonna and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson debuted. … Kenny Rogers’ wife, Wanda, gave birth to identical twin sons (July 6) in Atlanta. The couple named them Justin Charles and Jordan Edward. … A portion of I-85 near Alan Jackson’s hometown of Newnan, Ga., was renamed in the singer’s honor.

To mark the 30th anniversary of Gram Parsons’ death, daughter Polly Parsons staged two concerts in California featuring performances by Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Norah Jones, Jim Lauderdale, Raul Malo, Lucinda Williams and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. … Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and husband Adrian Pasdar welcomed their second child, Beckett Finn, on July 14.

August: The final nominees for the 2004 CMA Awards were announced during a live telecast on CMT and CBS-TV’s The Early Show. … Maybelle Carter’s 1928 Gibson L-5 arch top acoustic guitar was returned to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, thanks to Murfreesboro, Tenn., philanthropist Bob McLean. One of Carter’s heirs had placed the instrument on consignment at a Nashville guitar shop. During a ceremony at the Hall of Fame, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart were among those personally thanking McLean for writing a $575,000 check for the purchase.

September: Hank Williams Jr., Gretchen Wilson, Montgomery Gentry and Big & Rich taped the CMT Outlaws concert in Nashville. The concert special also featured Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings and members of Metallica and Lynyrd Skynyrd. … Earl Scruggs performed four sold-out shows at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as part of his work as the Hall of Fame’s artist in residency. … Lyric Street recording artist Josh Gracin completed his military service with the U.S. Marines. … Randy Travis’ terrazzo and brass “star” was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Willie Nelson and former President Jimmy Carter appeared at a concert at Plains High School in Plains, Ga., for the special, CMT Homecoming: President Carter in Plains. … Carolyn Dawn Johnson took home four awards to lead the list of winners at the 2004 Canadian Country Music Awards in Edmonton, Alberta. … A three-day auction of Johnny Cash’s personal memorabilia raised $3.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York City. … Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill were joined by Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney and others for the Franklin, Tenn., premiere of Friday Night Lights, a film starring McGraw and Billy Bob Thornton. … Deana Carter and boyfriend Chris Hicky gave birth to a son, Gray Hayes Hicky, on Sept. 15.

A number of high-profile musicians gathered in Nashville for two concerts paying tribute to George Jones. Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney, Aaron Neville and Harry Connick Jr. were among those featured during the shows taped for the PBS special, George Jones: 50 Years of Hits. … Farm Aid 2004 near Seattle featured performances by Dave Matthews, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Trick Pony, Marc Broussard, Blue Merle and Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. … Ray Price underwent heart surgery in Houston to remove a blockage in his main artery. At the moment, he has concerts scheduled through November 2005. … Steve Earle was presented the Americana Free Speech Award during the Americana Music Conference in Nashville.

October: CMA executives and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the 2005 CMA Awards show will be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. … Bluegrass pioneer Curly Seckler and the late broadcaster and historian Bill Vernon were inducted into the International Bluegrass Association’s Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. … The Dixie Chicks joined Bruce Springsteen, the Dave Matthews Band, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and others for the final show of the Vote for Change tour aimed at defeating President George W. Bush in his re-election bid. … Sara Evans gave birth to her third child, daughter Audrey Elizabeth, in Nashville on Oct. 6.

Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center was officially dedicated in Clintwood, Va. … Diamond Rio were presented the Minnie Pearl Humanitarian Award. … Angela L. Herzberg, 36, wife of country singer Gary Allan, died at their Hendersonville, Tenn., home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Oct. 25. … Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” became the first country single to be certified gold by counting digital downloads.

November: Kenny Chesney became a first-time winner at the CMA Awards, taking home the prestigious entertainer of the year prize and an album of the year trophy for When the Sun Goes Down. … Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and former record label executive and producer Jim Foglesong were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. … Loretta Lynn was presented BMI’s Icon Award, and Emmylou Harris received ASCAP’s Founders Award during the performing rights organizations’ country music awards banquets in Nashville. …. Freddie Hart, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver and Dennis Morgan were inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Tim McGraw became a minority owner of the newly reconstituted Nashville Kats arena football franchise. … Singer-songwriter and former rodeo champion Chris LeDoux announced he has been diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a slow-growing malignancy of the bile duct. … Mindy McCready was fined $4,000 and sentenced to three years of supervised probation and 200 hours of community service after pleading guilty to a drug charge resulting from her Aug. 5 arrest for presenting a fraudulent prescription for the painkiller OxyContin to a Nashville-area pharmacy.

December: SFX Entertainment founder Robert F.X. Sillerman and Lisa Marie Presley announced that he has purchased majority ownership in the assets of Elvis Presley’s estate, including Elvis Presley Enterprises. … Chely Wright dismissed her fan club president and stopped all activities of a 17-member volunteer street team who allegedly posed as veterans or family of military personnel in requesting country radio stations to play her single, “Bumper of My SUV.” … Lynn Anderson, 57, best known for her 1970 hit “Rose Garden,” was charged with drunk driving near Denton, Texas. … Trace Adkins’ wife, Rhonda, delivered their third child, daughter Trinity Lee, in Nashville on Dec. 3.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.