Artists to Watch in 2008 (Part 2 of 5): The Comeback Kids

Jim Malec | January 8th, 2008

In yesterday’s installment of my five-part 2008 preview, I discussed six artists who are on the brink of fading into obscurity. Today, I’m bringing you the flip side–five artists who are poised to re-establish their careers in the new year.

Clint Black (Equity): Black’s late 2007 single “The Strong One” has been clawing its way slowly up the charts and into the Top 40, and Equity will continue pushing the song as the label tries to lay the foundation for an album release in the first half of the new year. Black was one of the genre’s most compelling artists during the early and mid 90s, but his music took a cheery and disturbingly sentimental turn late in that decade–a stylistic decision that left the music directly following his D’lectrified album sounding bland and non-descript. “The Strong One” isn’t exactly a departure from that sentimentality, but it does prove that Black can still effectively deliver a melody–and it does so without being so narrowly focused that it forces him to shoot for the soccer-mom demo. If Black no longer has the inspiration to write and perform honky tonk and drinkin’ songs, he needs to find a balance between the sappy and the obscure–his most recent album, Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, its title a complete misnomer, was an off-the-wall collection that didn’t make a lot of sense artistically or commercially.

Dolly Parton (Dolly): 99% of the world’s population adores Dolly Parton. Unfortunately, I think the other 1% is firmly within country radio’s key target demographics. Parton’s latest, “Better Get To Livin’,” should have been a hit–if for no other reason than to pay tribute to a true American icon. And make no mistake, Dolly is iconic. There will never be another artist like her, and country music should be thankful for every single day it gets to call her its own. That aside, the song also should have been a hit because it’s a killer freakin’ song–Dolly sounds as good (maybe better) than she ever has. If her voice shows any sign of age, it comes off as character rather than weakness or fatigue. And as good as “Better Get To Livin’” is, word has it that the follow up, “Jesus & Gravity,” is even better. So even though it’s been seventeen years since Dolly’s last mainstream project, and even though half of the people listening to your local country station at this moment probably can’t name a single Dolly Parton song, I think she’s going to have a hit in 2008. I always drive home the point that being good isn’t good enough–but being great is good enough, and great songs by great artists are difficult to ignore.

Mark Chesnutt (Lofton Creek): I may be snarky, but when I’m wrong, I fess up. When I reviewed Chesnutt’s cover of the Charlie Rich classic “Rollin’ With The Flow,” I said I didn’t think it was the right song to help resurrect his career. Well, it took weeks and weeks, but as of the writing of this article the song is sitting at #29 on the MediaBase charts, with format leaders including KILT-Houston and KFKT-Kansas City. That bodes well for the song, and I think we’re going to see it climb into the Top 10. The real test will be whether or not the ultimate success of this single is enough to convince programmers to come on board for an original–keeping in mind that prior to “Rollin’…” Chesnutt hasn’t had a hit record since 2002′s “She Was,” which peaked at #11.

Clay Walker (Curb-Curb/Asylum): Clay Walker has one of those rare voices that just resonates across the airwaves, and I think he has to be considered in the discussion of the genre’s most underrated artists. I almost hate to call 2008 a comeback year for the Texan, considering that he’s never gone more than two years without a top-ten hit–but those hits have been sporadic, and Walker has had some trouble building momentum. Not the case here, coming after surprise Top 5 “Fall”–a song which I will admit to not being a fan of. The follow-up, however, is a smash waiting to happen. “She Likes It In The Morning” is a subtle, simple love song reminiscent of George Strait’s glory years–it’s a gorgeous song, and it will be the third radio hit from the Fall album. Yes, that’s right, the third hit. I was caught off guard by that fact, too. I love this situation because Walker has been able to establish relevance without a big promo push; and (this is pure speculation) that perfectly paves the way for a late ’08 or early ’09 album.

Phil Vassar (Universal South): Although Vassar hasn’t really been absent from the scene, he might as well have been. For a solid year-and-a-half he’s given us a string of forgettable songs–the titles of which all end in the word “life”. (What, you didn’t notice that? “Last Day of my Life”, “The Woman in my Life”, “This is my Life”.) But Vassar is a smart man, and his willingness to go out and find (and cut) a song he didn’t write–the Wiseman/Steele -penned “Love is a Beautiful Thing” (which first appeared in Paul Brandt’s That’s The Truth album) demonstrates both that he is aware of his recent rut and that he’s willing to take the steps that are necessary to correct the situation. Because of that, I expect his upcoming album Prayer of a Common Man to be one of his best.


In tomorrow’s third installment of this series, titled Buzzworthy, I’ll be featuring a group of newcomers who have the industry in a state of chatter.

2 Pings

  1. [...] Series: Part 1: On Notice. For these artists, it’s do-or-die. Part 2: The Comeback Kids. A handful of artists poised to return to prominence in ‘08. Part 3: Buzzworthy. The artists the industry is buzzing about. Part 4: New Faces. Fifteen new [...]
  2. [...] Comeback Kids: [...]
  1. hairandtoenails
    January 8, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I love Chesnutt, and want him to make a comeback, but I think he needs a good producer. Mark made great, interesting music with Mark Wright producing. But his latest stuff is so dull. His 2006 release “Heard it in a Love Song” was rote covers country classics. Mark added absolutely nothing new to those songs. And his 2004 release, “Saving the Honky Tonk” got good reviews because mark stuck to his traditionalist guns, but the songs, traditional as they were, were boring and the production positively uninspired. His 2002 CD was just a mess; “She Was” may have been a hit but the only decent song on the CD was “You’d Be Wrong.”

    Unless Mark finds a good producer, he won’t mount a lasting comeback. He might score a hit here or there on the strength of a good song (“Rollin With The Flow,”) but the audience will be excited about the song, not the singer. Mark needs to make music that gets fans excited about him again.

    Maybe I’m being harsh in part because I used to be such a big Chesnutt fan; but I’ve been burned on his last CDs. I bought them on the strenghth of his early and mid 1990s work but they just weren’t worth the money I spent. Its going to take work for him to convince me to become a customer again.

  2. Brady Vercher
    January 8, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Everything you said you Clint Black (sentimental, sappy, soccer-mom crowd) seems to apply to Clay Walker just as much, if not more. I think Walker is much worse about the sentimental sappiness than Clint Black has been. I’m not really feeling “She Likes It In The Morning,” and I’m not so sure it’s gonna be a third “hit” for him, either.

    As for Clint Black, I’m hoping for some stronger material from him as well. I’ll be rooting for the first three artists for sure, but I can’t get too excited about Walker or Vassar.

  3. Peter Kohan
    January 8, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    But there’s sooooo many sentimental, sappy, soccer mom targeted Country songs these days you can’t just single out those artists as the only ones performing it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se if there’s an audience for the music, but the problem you point out exists with many artists, including successful ones.

  4. Charlie Mack (First outta the Limo)
    January 9, 2008 at 4:01 am

    So this is obviously a daily diagnosis of what America is fixing to get hit with at country radio & on cmt. I guess I should have commented on my little country band in the resurging bad muther —-er blog post coming on Friday I guess.

    … I am glad to see Nashville letting the hat acts back in the arena figuring they can kick some fake dirt on the bubblegum pop glam that music row has become.

    Too bad today’s world of music ain’t gonna bite for it. Country Music listeners want more pop rock in their country roll. Even 100% country dirt on your boot dudes like Trent Willmon are retorting to bad springsteen riffs nowadays. Nashville honestly believes Mark Chestnuts & Clint Blacks are gonna stick… I hope they used Cross Canadian Ragweed as their session musicians or they are screwed.

  5. Funk
    January 10, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Good luck to Vassar. In late January, he’s playing at a great venue near me that is fairly small, maybe 400, and his price is only $20. I just checked and plenty of seats are still available. This is an area with a lot of country fans. All the big shows sell out 10,000 seats quickly. It doesn’t suggest good things.

  6. Jim Malec
    January 10, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    I would add, Funk, that Vassar’s live show is worth every penny.

  7. Kelly
    January 10, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    Gosh Jim, thats hard to believe as Vassar’s CD’s arent worth the plastic they are put in. I mean, come on, he is no Perfect Stranger!

  8. Jim Malec
    January 10, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I know, I know–but when you factor in all of the songs he’s written for other (which he performs at his shows), and the fact that he’s a natural in the small venue, it’s a good combination. Now, if you move Vassar into a larger venue like a stadium, it doesn’t work as well.

  9. Funk
    January 10, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I’ve seen Vassar do a show in Las Vegas. I’m not sure it was country but it sure was fun from start to finish. He’s a great performer which I think means he can do his own music and anything else he wants. He also spent over an hour meeting fans after the show. Given all that, it’s telling he can’t fill a venue. Something is missing and it might be his flirtation with right wing politics a while back when he spent a summer as Sean Hannity’s musical side kick. I really don’t know at all, it’s just a thought.

  10. Brady Vercher
    January 10, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    We get guys like Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Clay Walker, and Gary Allan at similarly sized venues in San Antonio, so I don’t know how telling Vassar performing somewhere like that really is.

  11. Shelia
    January 15, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Responding to a comment from Charlie:

    “fake dirt on the bubblegum pop glam that music row has become.

    Too bad today’s world of music ain’t gonna bite for it. Country Music listeners want more pop rock in their country roll. Even 100% country dirt on your boot dudes like Trent Willmon are retorting to bad springsteen riffs nowadays. Nashville honestly believes Mark Chestnuts & Clint Blacks are gonna stick”

    ** This is what I don’t get. I’m in the “biz” so to speak, but I’m also a country-music listener.. always have been. THIS Country-music listener doesn’t want more pop rock in my country.. and I don’t recall anyone lately asking me what I wanted to listen to. I actually got a little excited this morning reading that Mark and Clint and a few others I used to love and the fact they are trying to reappear on the scene. I don’t know.. I run across a lot of folks (all ages) that are REALLY missing real country music. Where’s Lee Ann Womack these days? I haven’t heard the latest by Gretchen, but anxious to hear if it is country or not. They can call it Country if they want to out there.. obviously all of us, like myself, are letting them get away with it… it doesn’t mean that’s what it is!!!!

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