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Challengers to the Crown in Country Music

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Garth Brooks is so far ahead of every other male singer in country music sales and concert vitality that he’s going to have to stumble badly for anyone to soon take away his crown.

Still, the list of contenders has to start somewhere and one of the strengths of the country package that concludes a three-day stand tonight at the Universal Amphitheatre is that it brings together two of the main rivals: Randy Travis and Alan Jackson.

On a bill with country veteran Tammy Wynette, the two artists put on crowd-pleasing performances that demonstrated why--in both the most flattering and frustrating senses of the word--they are contenders.

Travis and Jackson are excellent singers with convincing ties to country’s honky-tonk heartache tradition--traits which give them both a shot at a No. 1 record each time out.

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Yet they remain too safely inside the long-standing vocal and thematic boundaries of country music to seriously challenge Brooks. The latter is blessed, especially on stage, with the kind of invigorating passion and unchecked independence that could eventually reshape country traditions the way such artists as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson have done.

At 32, Travis and Jackson are both the same age, but they appeared in different roles Thursday. Travis, whose debut album was in 1986, is the former champ who now faces the challenge of earning another shot at Brooks’ title. Jackson, whose second album was just released, is one of the new kids on the block.

When Travis arrived in the mid-1980s, he helped refocus attention in Nashville on classic country singing and songwriting values, which had been sabotaged for years by the somewhat hollow, pop-flavored impact of the “urban cowboy” craze.

Though Travis was stiff on stage, he compensated with his shy good looks and sincerity--and he connected with some great songs, notably “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen,” that struck country fans and radio programmers with the force of a lightning bolt.

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The irony for him is that his success attracted a whole flock of similar-minded singers--including Brooks, Jackson and Clint Black--who came up with stronger material and edged past him on the charts.

On stage at Universal, Travis showed that one way he is trying to compete against all the new rivals is to be a more rounded entertainer. His flashy show included a 1940s-style bandstand, complete with illuminated RT initials and even some nightclub-style choreography on his part.

As a singer, Travis seemed looser than on past appearances here and he demonstrated an encouraging willingness to showcase new material. Yet he still tends to sing the songs exactly the way he does on record, rather than reach inside himself for new insights or emotions in the songs. This tends to rob his show of creative tension.

Because he reflects more of that tension, Jackson delivered the more affecting set. Jackson--who has some of the sexy aura of Dwight Yoakam, minus Yoakam’s aggressiveness--doesn’t do anything flashy on stage and his material is as uneven as Travis’.

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But he exuded a disarming charm and his best songs--from the wistful sentiments of “Here in the Real World” to the playful zest of “Walking the Floor Over Me"--offer much of the same punch of Brooks’ best hits.

If he may stand a slightly better chance of eventually overtaking Brooks, the odds are pretty slim. Jackson and Travis both warm a stage. Brooks electrifies it.


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