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Pop goes country

Dolly Parton may be trying to move away from pop music and back to her country roots, but she and other country artists are finding greater acceptance on the pop charts. In fact, country is the latest form of American roots music to find new respect as music fans embrace more traditional sounds in an apparent backlash against years of overly synthesized sounds.

Just last week, new country crooner Garth Brooks boasted a pair of albums firmly ensconced in the upper reaches of the sales charts, mingling awkwardly with the rap sound track to New Jack City and the latest from dance-pop chanteuse Paula Abdul.

Other country newcomers to the pop waters include singers Clint Black and Alan Jackson _ both known as "hats" because of their trademark attire _ as well as longtime favorite Hank Williams Jr.

"I don't know about the "hats,'

" Parton said in a recent interview, "but country music will be around forever. People can always tell when music has heart, when it comes from the heart."

Country radio is also enjoying substantial audience gains, according to a recent Arbitron and Billboard magazine survey of national radio preferences.

In Los Angeles, sister country stations KZLA-FM (93.9) and KLAC-AM (570) are enjoying an increase in listeners, which station music director Lisa Puzo attributes to the wide variety of country music now available and fallout from the Persian Gulf war.

"First of all, the war seemed to steer people toward more American-oriented music," Puzo said. "Also, the music today is just exceptional. The recordings are very well produced, not just for the established acts, but the younger ones as well. On top of that, there are some great Nashville songwriters exhibiting true talent. The songs are incredible."

Puzo added that radio is more song oriented now than it ever has been, so "it's not really a surprise that country music is getting stronger."

Although crossover acts such as the Kentucky Headhunters have found success blending Southern rock with country, it is the more traditional acts, such as Travis Tritt, that make traditional country fans optimistic.

And national sales patterns prove it. Jackson's Don't Rock the Jukebox (Arista), a title that just may become an anthem for today's country crowd, entered the pop charts last week with a bullet, indicating the release is bound for a higher position.