Turn on country-music radio and you'll find that suddenly unlike during most of the blanded-out '90s there's no balking at banjos, no trepidation about twang. Just a few years ago, mainstream country was dominated by smooth, pop-leaning superstars like Garth Brooks and Faith Hill, leaving George Strait and Alan Jackson as lonely old-school anomalies. But now, neotraditionalist anthems like Sara Evans' ''Suds in the Bucket,'' Gretchen Wilson's ''When I Think About Cheatin''' and ''Homewrecker,'' and Lee Ann Womack's ''I May Hate Myself in the Morning'' are the pride of the format. ''Eight years ago, when Faith and Shania exploded big, the transformation was to turn 'em into divas,'' says R.J. Curtis, program director of KZLA in Los Angeles, the nation's biggest country station. ''Now it's not about that, as Gretchen has proven. She's a hard-ass! The pendulum is definitely swinging back in the general direction of traditional-sounding country.''
Some young rebels are even taking country places it's never before dared to go. That's where the Big & Rich revolution comes in. These progressive classicists have their roots firmly in pre-1975 country but lace it with hard rock and even hip-hop. The first signing to their own label is the ''hick-hop'' Texas rapper Cowboy Troy, who also appears on their album. ''What Big & Rich and I have done is just open doors for some different flavors,'' says Wilson, whose debut album, Here for the Party, is the best-selling country album released last year.
Country fans are thrilled with this creative resurgence. In 2004, the genre's album sales improved by 12 percent, versus a meager 1.6 percent for the music industry as a whole. The CMA Awards last November drew 18.5 million viewers, versus 18.8 million for the all-genre Grammys this February a statistical tie. And as of last spring, country led the nation in radio ratings, with a 13.7 market share, far ahead of second-place urban's 8.9.
So if you've been out of love with country for a spell, it's time to fall back: Entertainment Weekly's picks for downloadable tracks will put the genre in your good graces.