''Country Conquers Rock,'' proclaimed the cover of the moolah-minded Forbes in March 1992. At the time, that statement didn't seem as absurd as it may now. The year before, the SoundScan system of electronically tallying record sales had kicked in, accurately reflecting for the first time what type of records people actually bought (as opposed to the old system, which was based on record-company hype and imprecise figures). Suddenly, albums by Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire leapt to the top of the pop charts. The shocking truth that a lot of people liked country music was a surprise mostly to the media, which ; quickly snapped to attention: Publications (this one included) devoted cover stories to country's invasion of pop's turf, NBC launched a prime-time concert series, and yuppies who had previously disdained anyone who sang with a nasal twang were taking stabs at line dancing.
Three years later, the invasion appears to have stalled at the beachhead. The music remains a steady presence on the pop charts, and no doubt, Brooks' just-released The Hits will sell enough to keep him in dry-ice fog and busted-guitar stage props for years. Incidentally, the album is being made available for a ''limited time only,'' a demented move to ensure that its sales won't cut into those of his earlier, mega-platinum records. But Brooks may be mighty lonesome up there. In the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard, the highest- ranking country album is Tim McGraw's Not a Moment Too Soon, at a less- than-overwhelming No. 34. True, 40 country albums dot the top 200 pop album chart, compared with 35 in March 1992. But only four are in the top 50; the rest are mostly confined to the lower echelons. So what happened-was the country craze of 1991-92 a boom or a bust?
At first the trend had more to do with a baby boom, actually. Back in '91, the breakthrough alternative albums, Nirvana's Nevermind and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, smashed preconceptions about the size of the under-30 ''alternative'' audience while alienating those raised on classic rock. In contrast, the new country was the right hat at the right time. In Brooks, Linda Ronstadt manqué Trisha Yearwood, and bands like Little Texas, boomers heard updated treatments of singer-songwriter pop and L.A. country rock.
True to form for someone raised on Kiss and Journey as much as on Merle Haggard, Brooks took the reins of the country conquest simply by touching on all of those styles. The 18 songs crammed onto The Hits offer an easy-on-the-brain mix of James Tayloresque ballads, Western swing, and Southern rock. Brooks can be glib and smug, and sappy ballads like ''The Dance'' haven't aged well. But Brooks possesses a Clinton-like gotta-please-everybody quality that translates into a musical versatility (and stage savvy) unchallenged by any other country star. (Lyrically, too: He pleads for tolerance on ''We Shall Be Free,'' only to pander to welfare-hating beer guzzlers on the later ''American Honky-Tonk Bar Association.'') The rock dynamics of ''That Summer'' (1992) or ''The Thunder Rolls'' (1990) contrast nicely with last year's ''Callin' Baton Rouge,'' on which Brooks morphed into Glen Campbell. (Incidentally, opt for The Hits over The Garth Brooks Collection, a set of mostly marginal album tracks sold at McDonald's.)
Now shoot ahead to 1994. The same older rock crowd that adopted Garth and Clint to escape Kurt and Flea has a slew of new, boomer-friendly music to crankm Counting Crows, Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam, and relative old-timers Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge. None of these performers were as popular three years ago; some hadn't even released an album. The rising adult-alternative radio format that spotlights those new acts has also helped usher in bands like Hootie & the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band youngsters who rock in an old-fangled, let's-jam way. Not surprisingly, one of the year's breakout country records is the debut of the Tractors, an over-40 Oklahoma band led by former Leon Russell and Bonnie Raitt sidemen who play heartland rock and mention the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in their songs.
Country isn't normally as barnstorming and ornery as the Tractors. It's rooted in consistency and conservativism, so it's possible that newcomers to the genre merely got bored. It hasn't helped that a number of country's leading new lights from its revival era Yearwood, Vince Gill, Mark Chesnutt, and Mary-Chapin Carpenter have recently released albums that have been drab or formulaic. The diehards snatched them up, but few, if any, of those records took those acts to the next level. (Brooks himself seems semi-stalled; his most recent studio album, last year's In Pieces, has sold 5 million, but that's less than half of his two biggest-selling albums.) A number of first- rate country albums were released this year, most of them lean and comparatively unconventional Iris DeMent's woodsy, high-and-lonesome My Life, the Mavericks' sons-of-Orbison What a Crying Shame, and David Ball's tough, hardwood-floor Thinkin' Problem. But these records offer small, simple pleasures that don't stand a chance of reaching a pop audience or even a Brooks-size country one, for that matter.
There's no denying that country at its core continues to address the basic life crises and joys of its largely middle-class and working-class audience, and tell a great story-song along the way. The cheating song, a subgenre that is one of the music's staples, slinks on brightly in Gill's ''Which Bridge to Cross (Which Bridge to Burn),'' from his otherwise lackluster album, When Love Finds You. Common-people populism rears its proud head on the Tractors' ''The Little Man,'' which takes on the IRS, bankers, and politicians. Chesnutt's ''She Dreams'' speaks to women who gave up careers, or never had one to begin with, in order to have children. And on ''She Thinks His Name Was John,'' McEntire (who, in the sage words of a friend, has ''become her hair'') sings about a woman who contracts AIDS from a one-night stand, even if the disease isn't actually mentioned.
Songs like these show that country is still relevant, even progressive at times. It just may no longer speak to a larger pop audience. For those people, the homilies of country music will never be a fulfilling replacement for the electric rush of rock & roll. But it's only a matter of time before there is a harsher alternative to the now-complacent alternative rock. And when that happens, country will still be there, waiting patiently to tell a few direct, cut-to-the-bone stories to anyone willing to listen. The Hits: B+