A few months back, I noticed a change.
Upon turning the key to start the minivan, after my 18-year-old son had been driving it, I was no longer assaulted by hip-hop music, like I had in the past. Instead, there was the sound of an acoustic guitar and a twangy voice crooning about cowboys and angels or drinking beer with Jesus.
About that same time, my 15-year-old daughter began singing the praises of The Band Perry, and I noticed she would brighten considerably when the radio played a Toby Keith song detailing the finer attributes of a red Solo cup.
“Country’s cool now,” she told me matter-of-factly.
And that does seem to be the case. Crossover artists have begun to blur the lines between rock, pop and country, leaving the barn door wide open for a whole new crop of country music fans who are not only singing along, but also attending the concerts, learning the dance steps and dressing like their favorite stars.
Not your parents’ country
For years, the typical hard-core country music listener was securely ensconced in middle age, according to Jake Thomas, program director for WGNA-FM. Those dedicated listeners are still tuning in, but the audience is now expanding to include teens and 20-somethings, he said.
“It’s got to do with the fact that some of the artists who have really hit their stride in the last two or three years really are mass appeal, but they’re hipper-sounding. They have a little more of a rock flavor to them in a lot of cases and sometimes a pop flavor to them that makes those younger listeners feel comfortable with it,” he explained.
The 2013 summer concert season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center will feature four big country acts, the most to ever hit the stage during a single season, according to Tim Tobin, marketing manager for Live Nation. The Times Union Center has multiple country shows on this year's schedule, as well.
Country music concerts rack up some of the highest attendance rates across the nation, Tobin said, and the Capital Region is no exception.
“It’s not just for the South anymore or in those areas where country music kind of started. It's definitely matriculated across the Northeast and become very popular. You're even seeing country shows in New York City now, which is a change, too,” he pointed out.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of WGNA’s Countryfest, an open-air country music jamboree traditionally held in July. A younger audience has been kicking up its heels at the event for the past few years, Thomas said.
“The 21- to 25-year-olds, we see them out at a lot of stuff that if you went back five years ago, we didn't see as many of them,” he noted.
This year, WGNA has added a three-day Taste of Country Music Festival at Hunter Mountain to its schedule of events. Slated for June 13-15, the festival will feature acts ranging from Lady Antebellum and Gloriana to Trace Adkins and Willie Nelson.
“That’s how big the format is now,” Thomas said. “You can put something together and literally bring a crowd in for three days in the Northeast, which is speaking volumes. A lot of these huge festivals have been going on traditionally in the Southeast, which has always been traditionally the biggest hotbed for country music, as well as the Midwest, and to see that kind of passion in the Northeast is incredible.”
Christina Amedore-Smith, country music buyer for Trans World Entertainment’s national retail chain, f.y.e., confirmed that country music has found a firm footing in the Capital Region. F.y.e.’s Albany and Queensbury stores have higher country music sales than any other f.y.e. store in the nation, she reported.
“I believe this genre of music is starting to get more popular with the younger generation because the music is crossing over into other genres,” she said, noting that the trend is going in the opposite direction, as well. “You’ve got people like Lionel Richie who came out with his own country duets album last year, so other genre big names are starting to cross over too into country.”
Country music, which delves into topics ranging from romance to religion has a wide appeal, which is good for concert ticket sales, Tobin said.
“It depends on the show, but there’s definitely screaming girls, like there would be at a Justin Bieber concert, to older couples that just enjoy the music just the same,” he explained.
The country starlets presently attracting attention don’t dress like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn did at the height of their careers. They’re often seen in skin-tight, sequined dresses and stiletto heels, ripped jeans and revealing tops.
One wardrobe item that has stood the test of time is cowboy boots, but even those have evolved. Double M Western Store in Ballston, which caters to the country crowd, has seen western boot sales on the upswing since last spring, said Cindy Martin, the store’s owner. She attributes the uptick in business to the popularity of country artists like Taylor Swift.
In the past, the boots sold at Double M were mainly of the utilitarian sort, but now the stock has been tailored to appeal to the store's best customers: teenage girls and young women, said Martin.
“We’ve got every color from purple to red to pink to blue to silver to white. Every color you can imagine, we have, and we get new styles in every day,” she said. “Nowadays they’re tucking their jeans and leggings inside of the boots so you can see the [intricate] work that’s on them.”
The apparel now being sold at Double M has been selected to appeal to those more likely to wear the clothing to the mall than to the horse barn.
“It’s got a western flair, but it’s not the hard-core western you remember, like Annie Oakley. It’s not cowgirlish,” Martin explained. “We carry a lot more dresses than we’ve ever carried. We carry brand names of jeans that are more fashionable, from the city, as opposed to severe western. They’ve got the bling.”
Those fashionable country duds are likely sported at Danceland in Latham, where line dancing lessons are offered several times a week. Owner Jim Apicella said he’s seeing a good-sized younger crowd starting to attend the beginners’ classes, which were previously more popular with the over-40 set.