New artists perk up country music sales

— Last summer, country music's hottest act, the Dixie Chicks, was in a meltdown. Country CD sales were sliding, and record executives were praying for a spate of holiday releases to perk up the industry.

This year the mood is sunnier on Music Row, with country sales up 11.2 percent, a strong lineup of late-year releases on deck and CBS set to air a two-hour country music special Wednesday.

"There's a sense of optimism," said Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. "The pickup in sales is not attributable to a couple of big superstars. The sales are spread out among a lot of different artists. The really good news is that new artists are contributing in a big way."

Six new artists were in the top 25 of Billboard magazine's July 10 album chart: Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, Josh Gracin, Julie Roberts, Dierks Bentley and Josh Turner.

Relative newcomers Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts were there, too, as were Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith -- two more established artists who've recently reached superstar status.

Country sales reached 31.3 million units through the first six months of this year, compared with 28.1 million units for the same period in 2003, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Overall albums sales also were up, from 286 million units to 306 million -- a 6.9 percent increase.

It's a sharp turnaround from last summer when the Dixie Chicks were seeing a backlash from fans after singer Natalie Maines made a disparaging remark about President Bush at a London concert shortly before the Iraq war.

After sales of the band's discs plummeted and some radio stations banned their singles, Maines apologized for the phrasing of her remark. But she continued to say she had the right to criticize Bush and his policies, and the group has yet to regain favor with country listeners.

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