Gretchen Wilson Tops Class of '04

Big & Rich, Julie Roberts, Josh Gracin Also Shine -- But Not Like '89

Will the Class of '04, with Gretchen Wilson as its valedictorian and head cheerleader, achieve the popularity and sales status of the benchmark Class of '89, a talent pool that yielded Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Garth Brooks? Probably not. But we can hope.

Apart from Wilson, this year's big names and bright promises -- judged by their album sales -- are Big & Rich, Julie Roberts and Josh Gracin.

As groundbreaking as they were, it is worth remembering that Black, Jackson, Tritt and Brooks didn't explode all at once. Early in 1989, Black was the only headline news among them. Besides his distinctive voice and great looks, he wrote virtually all his own songs and was the beneficiary of RCA's unparalleled promotion and publicity teams. The critics loved him. He pretty much owned 1989, with every single he released vaulting to No. 1.

Brooks scored his first No. 1 near the end of the year but didn't snag his first gold album until mid-1990. Tritt didn't top the charts with a single until 1990, and Jackson had to wait until 1991 to reach the summit. Thus, there may also be some slow-starters in the '04 corral who will eventually set records.

Wilson and Big & Rich have certainly netted a lot of publicity, but a great deal of it seems more focused on their personalities than their music. That's not an encouraging sign.

Still, the sales totals are impressive. According to Nielsen SoundScan, which monitors actual retail record sales, Wilson's Here for the Party had moved 2,658,000 copies past the scanner as of Sunday (Dec. 19). Big & Rich's Horse of a Different Color sold 1,632,000 copies during the same period, while Big & Rich's Super Galactic Fan Pak, which contains a CD of five songs and a DVD, sold 80,000 units. Roberts and Gracin's self-titled CDs stand at 336,000 and 259,000 copies, respectively. (Comparable figures for the Class of '89 are not available since the SoundScan service wasn't in place until May 25, 1991.)

While Loretta Lynn belongs to the Class of '60, her surprising comeback with Van Lear Rose is like watching the triumphant return of an old grad. That album has sold 265,000 pieces.

In the meantime, we're keeping our eyes on such newcomers as Sugarland, Katrina Elam, Miranda Lambert, Blaine Larsen, Shelly Fairchild, Amy Dalley, Blue County, Catherine Britt and Trent Willmon. All it takes is one dynamite single to zoom to the head of the class.

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