The Country music industry breathed a sigh of relief in 2004. Albums sales increased over last year's numbers, and several Country artists were among the top concert draws in the U.S. Along with the continued success of veteran stars, a few newcomers also played a major role in Country's success during the past year. VOA's Mary Morningstar looks back on the artists and events that shaped Country music in 2004.

Gretchen Wilson made her debut in 2004 with Here For The Party. The Number One album produced two chart-topping singles and was certified triple platinum with shipments of three-million copies. It also earned Gretchen the Country Music Association's 2004 Horizon Award. During her tearful acceptance speech at the CMA show, Wilson summed up her quick rise to fame.

"I came here last year and sat way back there in the very back and dreamed of standing up here someday," she said. "I just had no idea it was going to happen this fast for me."

Gretchen Wilson ended the year by touring with Country duo Big and Rich, another successful new act. Wilson, and Big and Rich are members of Nashville's Muzik Mafia, an informal club made up of musicians who get together for impromptu performances.

Other 2004 newcomers included former members of the U.S. military. Singer-songwriter Keni Thomas, who spent several years as an Army Ranger, made his Country debut late in the year, and former Marine and American Idol contestant Josh Gracin earned his break into Country music with the Top 5 single "I Want To Live." Josh visited the Voice of America, and talked about his overnight success.

"It's just been great, and I'm not taking anything for granted," he said. "I know a lot of people would go to Nashville, and they'd struggle for 10 or 15 years, and never make it. It's just changed my life immensely with the things that I've been blessed with. You know, a record label, an album out, things like that. It's just phenomenal how everything's been going really fast."

Many Country singers wrote and recorded songs to show their support for American military troops stationed in the Middle East. Among them was Toby Keith, who had the Number One Country album of the year with Shock 'N Y'all. One of its chart-topping singles, "American Soldier," was the sixth most-popular Country song of 2004.

For the second year in a row, Toby Keith was named Entertainer of the Year at the 2004 Academy of Country Music Awards. Although he went home empty-handed at the Country Music Association Awards, he was ranked the Number One Country Artist of 2004, according to Billboard magazine. Billboard's year-end lists are based on album sales and radio airplay. Although females dominated Country music's fan base in recent years, Toby Keith says those numbers are changing.

"There is a big 'guy audience' for Country music," he said. "It wasn't just Eminem and people like that. You know, the pop and the rap was so heavy - dominated by the male listener. I showed them that there was a blue collar guy out there that liked American Country music."

Music fans showed how much they like American Country music by attending concerts in record numbers. Kenny Chesney's tour drew over 1.2 million fans, more than any other performer in all genres. Other top 10 touring acts including Toby Keith and Shania Twain, whose 1997 album Come On Over reached sales of 20 million copies in 2004. The collection stands as the biggest-selling Country album ever.

One artist who didn't sell millions of albums or break box office records was legendary singer Loretta Lynn, who arguably garnered the most critical acclaim in 2004 for her album, Van Lear Rose.  Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose CD brought her five Grammy nominations to lead the Country nominees this year.

Other Country music news during 2004 included the passing of Grand Ole Opry stars Roy Drusky, Skeeter Davis, and Ray Charles, whose best-selling Country-soul hits included "I Can't Stop Loving You."

Jimmy Buffett continued his success in Country music during 2004. After sharing the 2003 CMA Award with Alan Jackson for "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," Jimmy invited several Country stars to record duets for his latest album, License To Chill.

The International Country Music Fan Fair changed its name to the CMA Music Festival in 2004. And, for the first time, the event was broadcast as a network television special.

One of the busiest Country performers during the past year was Tim McGraw. In addition to his success in music, he also made his motion picture debut in Friday Night Lights.  But, Country fans shouldn't worry that he's found a new career in acting.

"You know, I love music," McGraw said. "That's my first love and it's gonna be my day job forever. But, being this successful, knock on wood, for a while in this business, has given me the chance to do things like this."

Tim's album Live Like You Were Dying ranked at Number 4 on Billboard's year-end chart and its title track was the Number One Country single of 2004.