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Looking Back at Country Music in 2004
A retrospective by Cheryl Harvey Hill

This is probably the easiest assignment I've had all year. When our producer asked me to take a look back at country music in 2004 and write about what stood out this past year for me, this feature almost wrote itself. I hardly had to think about it at all. In fact, all I had to do is look to the stack of CDs sitting next to my CD player. Of all of the CDs that I received this past year, there are less than ten that are in my home player and in my car. Here is what stood out for me in 2004:

Alan Jackson - When I think about Alan Jackson, I think "total package." He has stayed true to himself and his genre and continually gives us great traditional country music to get excited about. Few others deliver so much talent, so effortlessly, in such an incredibly handsome package. He is my choice for "male entertainer of the year" (sorry, Kenny.)

LeAnn Rimes - The first time I saw her in concert in 1997, I was utterly mesmerized by her remarkable talent; in 2004 when I had the opportunity to actually sit down across the table from her after a concert, I was equally mesmerized by the beautiful young woman she has become. Her talent quotient is off the charts and she is truly a class act. It has been extremely gratifying to witness the metamorphosis of the little girl with the big voice as she has grown into her voice in a most delightful way. She is my choice for "female entertainer of the year."

Joe Nichols - I met Joe Nichols in 1996. He was young, handsome, charming and mega, mega talented. Not even out of his teens when he got his first record deal, he made some management choices that resulted in a career detour. He has reappeared with his amazing charm in tact, his voice elegantly refined and, as implausible as it might seem, he is more handsome than ever. Like Alan Jackson, he is also a total package but with enough cosmopolitan sophistication and youthful sex appeal to attract a spectrum of fans from other genres. He is one of the most charismatic people in the entertainment industry and has one of the greatest baritone voices of all time. If you have ever met him, you also know that he has an amazing off-the-wall sense of humor. He is my choice for the "best new male artist of the year" (again).

Gretchen Wilson - The female Joe Nichols -- with talent and attitude on par with the legendary, also known for her pipes and spunk, Patsy Cline. When I watch Wilson's video of "When I Think About Cheating," where she sings on the Opry stage ... well, she sure looks right at home there. 'Nuff said. Definitely my choice for "best new female artist of the year."

Delightful Deja vu: Restless Heart - Just in time for Christmas they released their reunion album, Still Restless. They are a magnificent group and certain to regain their rightful place at the top of the charts -- country and contemporary. Paul Gregg and Dave Innis sat down with CSO during the CMA Fest, representing the entire group (missing members Larry Stewart, Greg Jennings, John Dittrich) and they were utterly captivating; so is their new album. 

Willie Nelson - He is one of a kind and his newest album, It Always Will Be, says it all. Need I say more? I don't think so. My hero will always be Willie. 

New artists to watch: Chris Young, Kelly Lang and Cowboy Crush (an all female band) - There is no doubt in my mind that each of these artists will leave an indelible mark on country music. Young and Lang are among the multi-faceted, dynamic new singer/songwriters who are as easy on the eyes as they are on the ears but there is so much more talent there than just what you see. 

The five beauties of Cowboy Crush (Debbie Johnson, Darla Perlozzi, Renae Truex, Becky Priest and Trenna Barnes) could teach Big and Rich a few things when it comes to rocking the house with flamboyance and attitude and it isn't only their vibrant talent that sets them apart from their peers. They are the politically correct version of the Dixie Chicks plus two; equally beautiful musician/performers. 

All of these new artists bring depth, dimension and great dynamics to a genre that is certain to benefit from their tremendous talent.

My nomination for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame (based on lifetime achievement): Loudilla, Loretta and Kay, affectionately known around the world as the Johnson sisters. These three, beautiful, unimposing, witty, gracious ladies really proliferated the whole fan thing with the International Fan Club Organization (IFCO). *They are the Yin to Nashville's Yang. The Johnson sisters are such an integral part of the country music industry and the concept that has grown to be called CMA Music Fest/Fan Fair can be traced back to these three utterly disarming, totally charming, wildly-whacked-out, funny, unassuming, promotional genius's. As co-presidents of IFCO, the only fan club monitoring organization in the world, they have been the dedicated voice of the fans, and the artists, for thirty-eight years. They are the glue that binds the many facets of this industry together. If you are looking for the true heart of country music -- look no further than the incredible Johnson sisters.

Behind the scenes - There are so many extraordinary and talented people who work behind the scenes in Nashville and I've had the privilege of getting to know many of them over the years, but when it comes to truly outstanding and dedicated, these folks are the first to come to mind: Sharon Eaves (Fan Clubhouse), Wood Newton, Amy Vanmeter, Becky Harris, Billy Holland of Cupit Records, John Lytle (who I first met when he was the road manager for Gary Allan) and Lisa Berg.

The artists I miss hearing on radio - Tracy Lawrence, Wade Hayes, Rick Trevino, Lorrie Morgan and all of the wonderful, traditional artists who put the class in classic country.

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to acknowledge, and publicly thank, Jim Weaver for the incredible opportunity he affords me by letting me work with him. He is an utterly fascinating and talented person in his own right. In addition to being a veteran broadcaster and Operations Manager over a group of radio stations in Texarkana (congratulations, Jim, ABC is going to really miss you), he also produces this website and a couple of others. But what I most admire about him is his honesty, integrity, his passion for everything he does and his devotion to the same; including his family. I am honored, and delighted, to work for him. In my forty years as a journalist, photographer and PR person, I have never had more fun working (and luckily one of his staff has the task of putting the features up on the Internet or you would not be reading this). 

Until next year.
Keepin' it country,
Cheryl Harvey Hill

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