Country music is hot in the Capital Region, and the industry is taking notice.
The genre’s current bad boy, Eric Church, who headlined last year’s annual Countryfest, has been a regular visitor to the area almost every year since his first appearance at Countryfest in 2008. WGNA-FM, which has hosted the daylong festival for the past 19 years, was one of Church’s earliest supporters.
“WGNA is a station that believed in us early on when a lot didn’t,” Church said in an interview with The Gazette prior to last year’s Countryfest. “I owe a lot to the area, and those folks, when it wasn’t the best of times for me.”
Up-and-comer Tyler Farr, who was part of WGNA’s Rising Country Stars series at Proctors earlier this year, has noticed strong support from this region as well.
“Surprisingly, in New York I have quite a few people on Twitter and Facebook and stuff. I’ve already had some people hit me up about the show coming up,” Farr said prior to his Proctors appearance. “It always just blows my mind. I never expect people from New York to know my music, to know who you are. It’s just kind of weird.”
“There’s no question that country music today is a format and a genre of music that has a broad appeal and is resonating,” said Dhruv Prasad, executive vice president of live events at Townsquare Media Group, which owns WGNA-FM. “I don’t know if it’s the circumstances of the country right now, and I don’t know if it’s anything particular to the Northeast necessarily, but country music, I think, is enjoying more resonance in audiences than at any point before in its history — it has a broader fan base than at any point in its history.”
This year, Townsquare Media Group decided to up the ante with its country music concert offerings. Countryfest is still going strong, and will celebrate its 20th year at a new location at Schaghticoke Fairgrounds on Saturday, July 13. The bill this year features headliner Darius Rucker, crossover singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow, Easton Corbin, Joe Diffie, Mark Wills, Greg Bates and Joel Crouse.
But before that hits, an even bigger country festival will make its debut at Hunter Mountain, long the site of electronic jam band Disco Biscuits’ annual festival Camp Bisco. The Taste of Country Festival, taking place from Thursday, June 13, through Saturday, June 15, will feature a variety of acts both new and classic, including Thursday headliner Willie Nelson, Friday headliner Trace Adkins and Saturday headliner Lady Antebellum.
The other acts on the bill include Parmalee, LoCash Cowboys, Weston Burt and Hop City Hellcats on Thursday; Montgomery Gentry, Justin Moore, Craig Campbell, Blackberry Smoke, Rachel Farley, Austin Webb and Dakota Bradley on Friday; and Billy Currington, Hunter Hayes, Joe Nichols, Gloriana, Dustin Lynch, Lisa Matassa and Katie Armiger on Saturday.
“I think we just felt there was an opportunity to do something that was even bigger than Countryfest, to give that community a place to come together,” Prasad said. “Countryfest is a single-day event, a great event, but we wanted to so something that was more regional in scope and multiday in scope.”
Drawing farther afield
Countryfest has no problem drawing from all areas of the Northeast, with attendees coming from all over New York state, western Massachusetts and other New England states in past years. With Taste of Country, Townsquare Media has specifically sought out this audience.
“Countryfest is really targeted at the Capital Region,” Prasad said. “What we’re seeing from the Taste of Country festival is that it is drawing music fans from Albany — people are going to both of them, which is great — but we’re also seeing support in the ticket base from Poughkeepsie, Hudson Valley, and frankly into New Jersey, New York City and Long Island. . . . Countryfest has certainly drawn from those areas as well, but what we’re seeing is a greater concentration of sales, a higher proportion of sales from outside the Albany area.”
Taste of Country isn’t the only newcomer to the Capital Region country music scene. Last year, The Cat 104.9, WZMR-FM, which switched to a country station from its previous incarnation as active rock station The Edge in early 2010, launched the Kickin’ It Country festival, another daylong festival to rival Countryfest. The festival took place in September at the Altamont Fairgrounds, Countryfest’s former stomping grounds, with Montgomery Gentry (another Countryfest alum), Craig Morgan and Steel Magnolia heading up the lineup.
As of press time, WZMR-FM has yet to announce a 2013 Kickin’ It Country festival. Calls to the station were not immediately returned.
Country at SPAC
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, long a haven for classic rock and other heritage acts during its summer concert seasons, has been diversifying its offerings in recent years. This season Live Nation, which puts on the venue’s popular music concerts, will present five country shows, its most ever, including last Sunday’s Brad Paisley show; Rascal Flatts on Sunday, June 16; Jason Aldean on Sunday, Aug. 11; Luke Bryan on Sunday, Aug. 25; and the Zac Brown Band on Saturday, Aug. 31.
“That trend is going across the country — these country acts are the new rock stars, as country shows are becoming more mainstream than they used to be,” said Tim Tobin, Live Nation marketing manager for upstate New York. “They are definitely family-friendly — people are going to these country shows with the whole family, and parents like it as well as kids.”
The high number of country shows at SPAC this summer is part of a bigger push by Live Nation to increase the mix of musical genres being presented at the venue. This season is one of the highest show counts that SPAC has had, according to Tobin, and it includes everything from heritage standbys (Dave Matthews Band, which opened the season in May; Rush on Tuesday, June 25; The Allman Brothers Band on Wednesday, Aug. 28) to hip-hop (Lil Wayne on Saturday, Aug. 3) to metal (the Uproar Festival headlined by Alice in Chains on Tuesday, Aug. 13).
Other big SPAC shows coming up include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, playing their only Northeast date this summer on Sunday, June 23; Phish’s three-night stand Friday through Sunday, July 5-7; and Bob Dylan’s AmericanaramA Festival of Music, also featuring Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Ryan Bingham.
“It just happens to be what’s touring and what dates we have available,” Tobin said. “Again, a lot of that is going back to people wanting to play at SPAC and making it a part of their summer touring. We’ve also seen the growth and interest in the country market, which is part of the reason we have more country shows. There’s a lot of good tours out there this summer.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.