10/10/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
I'VE DEALT WITH HOLLYWOOD stars and politicians," says photographer John Chiasson, "and dealing with country musicians was like night and day—everybody's so easy, so cooperative; they bend with you."
Chiasson was one of the team that produced our latest PEOPLE Extra, At Home with Country Music's Hottest Stars, which reaches subscribers and newsstand buyers this week. They discovered that despite country music's newfound muscle in the marketplace, country stars remain as refreshingly unaffected as they were back when Hank Williams didn't have a Jr. In 1994 country is mainstream music, by far the nation's most popular radio format. Record sales have doubled since 1990, to over $1.7 billion (or 17.5 percent of the market) last year. The Top 10 country touring acts, including Reba McEntire, Wynonna and Alan Jackson, grossed more than $100 million on the road in 1993.
"The old Hee Haw, straw-in-the-mouth image is long gone," says senior editor Eric Levin, who was in charge of the issue. "What intrigued us is that today's country stars have become sophisticated about business as well as music, but they haven't lost touch with their rural roots. That range is what we wanted to show."
While photo editor Sarah Rozen dispatched a passel of photographers into the heart of country country, our correspondents lassoed interviews with a Nashville Who's Who. Missouri correspondent Kate Klise, who spent more time marching through the South than Gen. Robert E. Lee, commiserated with Trisha Yearwood over bad hair days, watched Aaron Tip-pin blast a copperhead with what he calls his "varmint gun" and tried on eye-popping rhinestone-studded jackets from Marty Stuart's epic trove. Jane Sanderson, our longtime Nashville reporter, had the run of McEntire's Tara-in-Tennessee estate. Texan Bob Stewart conducted part of his interview with Sammy Kershaw from the back seat of Kershaw's rental car as the platinum-selling artist tossed answers to questions over his shoulder while zooming down Louisiana back roads at 90 mph. Says Stewart: "I placated myself with the thought that he had attended race-car driver's school in Charlotte, N.C."
All in all, the country staff had a great summer. Well, almost. "The only strange thing," says correspondent Klise, "was that a couple of weeks into this project, my world started turning into a bad country song. My laptop got zapped by lightning. My car got a flat tire. I gave myself a disastrous haircut with scissors borrowed from the front desk of the Hampton Inn in Nashville. Then I returned home to find that in my absence a groundhog had moved in underneath my house. He's still there. Any suggestions?" Sure, Kate—but do you happen to own a hound dog? We need a rhyme for the second verse.