ROSANNE CASH and Emmylou Harris came out of hibernation and Michael Martin Murphey revived the music of the American cowboy. That was the good news in the 1990 country music scene.
Naomi Judd became seriously ill with a form of hepatitis that threatens to break up the most beautiful harmony act ever put on record. That was the bad news.
Cash's "Interiors" and Murphey's "Cowboy Songs" far outshone anything else that was released this year. Here are Gusto's choices for the 15 best albums:
1. Cash, Interiors (Columbia). What more can we say about this album? Producer/singer/songwriter Rosanne offers a guided tour to the emotions, hopes and fears of one woman of the '90s. The album is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
2. Murphy, Cowboy Songs (Warner Bros.). Everything this New Mexico rancher puts on record is worth a listen, but he really outdid himself with this collection of 20 beloved cowpuncher classics. You can almost hear the coyotes yelping in the background.
3. Emmylou Harris, Brand New Dance (Reprise). Emmylou's first new album in two years was overshadowed because it came out about the same time as Cash's, but "Brand New Dance" offered a fine showcase for her spectacular voice.
4. The Judds, Love Can Build a Bridge (RCA). Naomi's illness and announced retirement was such awful news that it put the whole year in a negative light. The fact that this typically lovely album may be their last makes "Bridge" a poignant treasure.
5. Texas Tornados (Reprise). The fun bunch of 1990. Commercially, it didn't set the world on fire, but Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender and their merry superband of Tex-Mex crazies had a riot in the studio. The perfect soundtrack for a great tequila party.
6. Lionel Cartwright, I Watched It On the Radio (MCA). and 7. Skip Ewing, A Healing Fire (MCA). The two fresh-faced rising stars of Nashville. They write songs with maturity far beyond their years. Ewing also scored with a very nice Christmas album, called "Following Yonder Star."
8. Desert Rose Band, Pages of Life (MCA/Curb). Former Byrd Chris Hillman and folk-rock legend Herb Pedersen assembled the best band in country-rock today -- bar none.
9. Travis Tritt (Warner Bros.) Tremendous debut album from a man who sings like a country cousin to the Allman Brothers.
10. John Andrew Parks (Capitol). Any guy who is crazy enough to write a country song called "Planet Texas" with space cowboys riding around the galaxy gets high marks for bravery, if nothing else.
11. Walter Hyatt, King Tears (MCA Master Series).
12. Notting Hillbillies, Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time (RCA).
13. Patty Loveless, On Down the Line (MCA).
14. Lori Carson, Shelter (Geffen).
15. Holly Dunn, Heart Full of Love (Warner Bros.).
The year's best country songs? We tip our beer glasses to Garth Brooks for "Friends in Low Places," but the prettiest songs were The Judds' "Love Can Build a Bridge," Murphey's "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue" and Don Williams' wistful "Donald and June."