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The Best of 1999/Country

Friday, December 31, 1999

By Jerry Sharpe

RECORDS

Mainstream country record companies and independents both turned out plenty of good music in 1999. But Ray Benson's tribute to the late Bob Wills blew away all competition for my top choice.

1. Asleep at the Wheel, "Ride With Bob"

(Dreamworks): This excellent 17-song tribute to the guy who popularized Western swing includes current Western swing champs Ray Benson's Asleep at the Wheel band anchoring mainstream stars. Among the luminaries are Dixie Chicks, Merle Haggard, Tim McGraw and Clint Black.

2. Dixie Chicks, "Fly"

(Sony): Texans Natalie Maines, Martie Seidel and Emily Erwin blend their traditional country music instruments with modern lyrics and recording techniques.

3. John Prine "In Spite of Ourselves"

(OhBoy): Prine, 53, a '70s folk favorite, turns out excellent versions of classic country gems by enlisting great duet partners. Among them are Iris DeMent, Connie Smith, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless.

4. Dolly Parton, "The Grass Is Blue"

(Sugar Hill): Bluegrass at its best with Parton's hand-picked musicians and a batch of good songs including Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" and the old Johnny Bond classic "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight."

5. Mandy Barnett, "I've Got A Right To Cry"

(Sire): This 24-year-old Tennessean, who rose to fame portraying the late Patsy Cline, has a powerful voice that blends jazz and yesteryear's smoky barroom sounds with traditional country music.

6. George Strait, "Always Never the Same"

(MCA): More of the great traditional country music and Western swing that has kept this 46-year-old Texan on top since he debuted in 1981 with "Unwound."

7. Brooks & Dunn, "Tight Rope"

(Arista): Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn turn out lots of traditional country with a hard edge. The blend has kept them constantly on today's hit charts.

8. Montgomery and Gentry, "Tattoos and Scars"

(Columbia): Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry revive rowdy honky-tonkers and drawling ballads like those pioneered by Hank Williams Jr. But they are their own men -- no attempt to imitate Williams.

9. Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley, "I Feel Like Singing Today"

(Rebel): A songwriter persuades bluegrass legend Stanley to join him for 15 top-flight traditional country songs.

10. Crystal Gayle, "Crystal Gayle Sings the Heart and Soul of Hoagy Carmichael"

(Platinum): Gayle's soft, sensitive voice caresses the top hits of the legendary Carmichael. Among the hits are "Stardust" and "Two Sleepy People," a duet with Willie Nelson.


CONCERTS

Good sound, good music, good stage presence and audiences that don't try to sing along with the stars. That's my formula for a good concert.

l. Willie Nelson (July 22) and Kenny Rogers (Aug. 7, both at Heinz Hall): A tie for best country concert of 1999. The concerts had all of the above qualities.

2. Jamboree in the Hills (near Wheeling, W.Va., July 15-18): The Jamboree continued its winning streak with more than 20 acts, good sound and lots of fun.

3. George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival (June 6 at Three Rivers Stadium): A wonderful lineup of stars. And the sound was OK. But even with entertainment by Strait, The Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw, among others, sitting in the sun at 90-plus degrees was not a pleasure.

4. Billy Ray Cyrus (Pepsi-Cola Roadhouse, Aug. 27): A good sound balance and a great performance in a pleasant Branson-like dinner theater.

5. Brooks & Dunn/Trace Adkins/Montgomery Gentry (Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre, Oct. 1): B&D were great as usual, and Adkins did a good job. But Montgomery Gentry's portion was ruined by loud amps drowning their lyrics. It was a big disappointment from this new duo who were perfect at Star Lake as part of the Faith Hill show on July 25.



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