NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 (search), 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 (search), 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 (search) -- two more established artists who've recently reached superstar status.
Wilson has become a phenomenon, topping the country charts for several weeks and hanging near the top of Billboard's overall album sales chart. Her debut album "Here For the Party" (search) is approaching double platinum after only eight weeks on the charts.
"That was a big surprise, and it represents a couple of million units that nobody thought was going to be there," said John Grady, president of Sony Music Nashville, Wilson's record label.
"One of the things I like about country music as a genre is that it is so small that a couple of records can make a big difference," Grady added. "Kenny Chesney had that huge run earlier in the year, and of course now Gretchen has done really well."
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 (search) made a disparaging remark about President Bush (search) 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.
Also blamed for the poor sales were an ailing economy, a dearth of releases by blockbuster artists -- especially compared to the flashy releases of 2002 -- growing competition from DVDs and video games and illegal downloading from the Internet.
When the final numbers were tallied for 2003, country sales were off nearly 10 percent.
One reason for country's improvement, says Joe Galante, chairman of RCA Label Group/Nashville, is the state of pop music.
"There really isn't any popular music out there for adults," Galante said. "If you look at the top 10 records, nine of them in terms of singles are hip-hop. No disrespect to the format, but what do you do if you are a 40-year-old woman, or a 35-year-old woman, and don't want to talk about (OutKast's) 'Hey Ya!"'
New releases by several top-tier acts are expected to continue the upswing. Tim McGraw (search), Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson (search), George Strait, Shania Twain, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney (search) are among the artists either putting out new material or greatest hits packages in time for Christmas.
"We haven't even seen our big guns yet," Lewis said. "I think the best is yet to come."
The genre also should get a boost from "CMA Music Festival: Country Music's Biggest Party," set to air 9-11 p.m. EDT Wednesday on CBS. The first-time show is a collection of highlights from last month's four-day Country Music Association Music Festival in Nashville. It captures performances by new artists such as Wilson and Bentley as well as established stars like Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride and Willie Nelson.
If the two other network specials that feature country music -- the annual award shows by the CMA and the Academy of Country Music -- are any example, artists will see a spike in sales. After the CMA awards aired last November, the Billboard top 75 country albums chart had a nearly 170 percent weekly increase, according to the CMA.
"No doubt it will help," Galante said. "It's a two-hour commercial for a lot of acts and for the city of Nashville at the same time."