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Sometimes there's nothing better than a heart-tugging ballad to jump-start a singer's ebbing career - and Jeff Carson found a tidal wave with his current hit, "Real Life." The song's formula begins simply enough: Boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy meets girl - but then there's a twist that's creating a powerful impact with radio listeners across the country.

"The last song I had that did well was 'Holdin' Onto Somethin' ' - and that was way back in 1996!" declares Jeff. "Talk about someone who's appreciative now - that's me. It's been a long few years, and I'm counting my blessings every day."

Jeff's real life kicked off with the No. 1 "Not On Your Love" in 1995. He followed that with the No. 3 "The Car," then "Holdin' Onto Somethin' " reached the Top 10. And then Jeff's success started to slide quickly away - none of his later singles even cracked the Top 40. By 1998, he was gone from the radio completely.

Jeff admits there were more than a few dark days while he wondered if he was ever going to have another hit. "You still do shows for a while," he explains," but if you keep going year after year with nothing on the charts, the work starts slowing down. Then the band I had at the time took up with another artist. That was about the lowest day there was for me."

But the Tulsa, Okla., native found plenty to do in the music. "I concentrated on my songwriting in the last year and a half, and was lucky enough to get a Kenny Rogers cut, 'Until Forever's Gone,' about six months ago," notes Jeff. "To have another artist record one of your songs is a great shot in the arm."

And now his Real Life album, hitting stores in September, is another shot. And he's also on tour with two of his buds, Daryle Singletary and Rhett Akins. But if you do catch Jeff in concert, don't expect to see him as spiffed up as he is on the album cover - where he sports a fashionable suit, hat and tie combo. That, he insists, was done just for the new album.

"About a year ago, I got a new manager," recalls Jeff. "We thought a lot of the pictures for album covers didn't quite go with the music. My music's always been a little more contemporary than the starched jeans and button-down shirts and big belt buckles, but that's what all my pictures were." So it was a new look for Jeff that turned up on the album cover.

"Not that I'm going to wear a suit and tie all the time when I play," he adds with a chuckle. "You can feel that tie moving up and down on your neck when you sing - so I don't think I'm gonna be doing that much!"

- Lucas Hendrickson