Country Comes To Town
The music finds friends in new places
On an expansive, sunny afternoon three days after the Fourth of July, more than 45,000 country-music fans are pouring into Qwest Field, homesteading row upon row of folding chairs on the rubber-tile-protected field and nearly blanketing the leaves of the tippy-top, binocular bleachers.
Plenty of cowboy hats are bobbing through the throng. Boots and big belt buckles abound as well. But if you stroll through the reverberating concourses where the beer lines split the room in half, it's not difficult to notice that this crowd is a far broader cross-section of America than you might expect.
People are wearing Hawaiian shirts and pastel leis — this is Kenny Chesney's "Summer Flip Flop Tour," after all. Packs of guys who look like frat boys in backward caps and sport T's are here, too, and married couples from Oregon and Vancouver and Denver in casual, weekend khakis, who, if you saw them anywhere else, you wouldn't say, "Now, there's a country-music fan."
And then there are the girls — gaggles of teenagers and 20-somethings in cutoff jeans, tight white blouses and high heels. It has to be 70 percent female, this crowd.
Everyone has gathered to see headliners Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, but the excitement started way earlier, with Sugarland. Each time the feisty lead singer, Jennifer Nettles, shouted out the words "Who says?" in the chorus of her Grammy-winning collaboration with Bon Jovi, "Who Says You Can't Go Home," fists pumped into the air, on cue with the beat.
The music is so loud you can feel it on your skin, vibrating the air. Gigantic video screens flank the stage, blowing up the faces and fingers and striding legs of the musicians.
Standing at the end of a front-floor row, swaying close together, singing along with Nettles, one couple — Jim and Amanda Lee — look absolutely jubilant. It is the fourth Chesney concert for Jim, an electrician, and Amanda, who runs a nail salon in their hometown of Sedro-Woolley. "We've tried every year to get good seats," says Jim. "This year we got lucky."
Up in the stands, on the opposite side, West Seattle loan officer Amie Edmondson, sitting with a cousin and a couple of pals from work, is also singing along.
At one level this was just good, cheerleading fun. But there was also something strikingly passionate in Nettles' rallying cry about "going home" that says a lot about why country music is resonating so strongly with Americans these days. Whether you live in Sedro-Woolley or Seattle, Denver, New Orleans or New York City, the new country music — with its reassuring messages and values refitted for a wider swath of middle America — is a phenomenon that reaches deep into the national psyche, telling us a lot about who we are, even in ultra-hip Seattle.
For all our pride in Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, the hidden, unacknowledged giant of Seattle-area music is country. Country station KMPS — not KISW, KUBE or KNDD — has been the top music broadcaster in the Seattle-Tacoma market for the past seven years. A new competitor, "The Wolf" (KKWF-FM), has been picking up even more young listeners. For two years running, Chesney has been the top Seattle concert draw.
"Sometimes I think Seattle is too cool for the room," says Rob Walker, program director of The Wolf. "They say they all listen to NPR. But do they?"
Nationally, while the rest of the music industry went into free fall, country music lost only half a percent in album sales last year. Country stars like Chesney, Reba McIntyre and Tim McGraw are more mainstream than ever, playing on TV, movies and Broadway, adorning the covers of People and selling everything from trucks to milk.
How did a genre once stigmatized as "hillbilly music" wind up running right down the double yellow line?
Industry insiders suggest several reasons. Rock is in the doldrums, they say, and country tends to spike when there's not a lot of excitement elsewhere. Besides, country music sounds more like rock these days. Research also shows country-music listeners have been slower to adopt illegal downloading, the bane of other genres. With its contemporary pop sound, country has snagged impressionable young females. And let's not beat around the bush: 93 percent of country-music listeners are white, so Washington state, with 85 percent of its population white, makes for a ripe market.
But somehow these explanations all sound like memos from a Nashville accountant. What's really going on out there?
"COUNTRY MUSIC IS so much about God, family and country," says Becky Brenner, program director at KMPS. "I think that post 9/11 created an environment in our country where people are valuing what they have more. When the twang went away, it just became America's music."
Country has been headed toward mass acceptance for a long time, starting in the '70s, when stars like Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Kris Kristofferson crossed over to the mainstream, and "outlaw country" (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson) became a hit with the counterculture. (That crowd can still be found at Seattle's Green Lake saloon, the Little Red Hen, which mixes rednecks and hippies as smoothly as tequila and lime, and the Tractor Tavern, where "alt.country," a later development, draws a huge following.)
But the real turning point came with what Nashville calls "The Class of '89" — Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson — who started to sell unheard of numbers of albums, particularly to younger women. Stars such as Chesney, McGraw, Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts — singing rocked-up fast songs and swooning, adult-contemporary ballads — soon occupied the territory.
By 2000, country music was, quite simply, the new pop/rock.
Part of the attraction is how this new music assumes the frenetic textures of the pop/rock of the '70s and '80s, the very sounds new country fans were listening to in their teens. Take Chesney's hit, "Beer in Mexico," a spinoff of the Jimmy Buffet tropical hedonism that spawned Chesney's "Flip Flop Summer Tour." The feel may be loping, but those sizzling guitars come right out of Southern rock (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd), the aggressive, descending horn lick from Memphis soul, and the ticking straight-eight guitars from new-wave rock.
And "slap my grandma" if the snarling guitar riff on Trace Adkins' hilariously horny "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" ain't good ol' rock 'n' roll. Never mind the "1-2-3" hook of Tim McGraw's "Last Dollar (Fly Away)," which rivals the Village People's "Y-M-C-A" for athletic crowd participation, or his wife, Faith Hill's out-and-out cannibalization of the ultimate '70s icons, ABBA, on "The Winner Takes It All."
"I was raised in Chehalis, listening to the Judds and Reba," says Tara McCormick, a 26-year-old former Miss Washington USA who showcased her second, self-produced CD at Blazing Saddles in Stanwood last summer and recently packed up her horse trailer for Nashville. "But I was also listening to Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey."
Not surprisingly, some of the same producers who turned out those classic rock records are now in Nashville.
"Dann Huff, who produces Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, came out of an '80s/early-'90s rock band, Giant," says Ken Tucker, country specialist for music-industry magazine Billboard. "Mutt Lange, who did Def Leppard, is now producing his wife, Shania Twain."
Not only the recordings but live country shows rival — and often surpass — rock shows. The packed McGraw/Hill concert at the Tacoma Dome in June featured a dazzling light show, elaborate staging with airport-length runways, a 17-piece band and an ear-splitting sound system.
"It's not," says Amanda Lee, "the cryin' country you used to listen to."
THE TEARS MAY have dried, but today's country songs still have the ring of authenticity when it comes to the emotions and experiences of ordinary folks. Both Amanda and husband Jim say it's just this personal, everyday touch that makes country music so attractive.
"Most of the songs tell a story, more than other types of music, and I think that's why I like it," she says.
Amanda met Jim in high-school science class and though she got pregnant before graduating, she and Jim have made a good marriage these past 10 years. Amanda co-owns her shop and Jim commutes to Anacortes, where he works at the Tesoro Oil Refinery. They have two children — Tucker, 9, and Hailey, 8.
Jim, the oldest of six kids in a family that "had it pretty rough," fondly recalls his 12th summer, when he slept out in a camper and listened to KMPS deejay Ichabod Caine on a little AM-FM radio. One of the songs that made a big impression was Garth Brooks' populist manifesto, "Friends in Low Places."
In middle school, Jim recalls, "the school bus driver would turn the radio off and everyone would be shouting out the lyrics."
For recreation, the family likes to hunt and fish and go camping in the four-wheel drive. "Hailey bagged her first turkey this Thanksgiving," Jim says.
Four-wheel drives, hunting, a small-town nail salon — Jim and Amanda sound a lot like stereotypical country fans. Yet their lives, and the music they listen to, reflect some subtle changes, especially in the roles played by men and women.
"My stepdad acted tough all the time," recalls Jim, "otherwise there were names they were called."
Today, he says, the guys still playing those macho roles are easy to spot: "Most of them are divorced."
Notes Amanda: "My brother-in-law's at home with the baby today."
Popular country songs reflect that new reality of shared responsibilities. Rodney Atkins' "Watching You" opens with a parenting father encouraging his 4-year-old to clean his plate. Carrie Underwood's "Wasted" and the soaring duo by superstar Reba McIntyre and "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson, "Because of You," deal with female empowerment, the former describing a midnight escape from an alcoholic relationship, the latter, a psychologically abusive childhood.
This is the kind of inspirational psychologizing Oprah Winfrey's been driving home all these years on daytime TV. The messages clearly have reached beyond the suburbs.
"Anymore, it's not 'I lost my dog, I lost my wife,' " says Jonathan Harris, a Tacoma country singer also making a bid for Nashville fame. "We're singing about real-life things."
In Nashville, "real life" spells real profit. Country is the nation's top radio format, with more than 27 percent of the adult radio audience. Four of the top-10 best-selling albums and top-grossing tours of 2006 were by country artists. McGraw and Hill's Soul2Soul II tour alone drew more than 1 million fans, grossing close to $90 million.
"Country stars of a generation ago," writes Billboard's Ray Waddell, "couldn't conceive of such numbers."
COUNTRY MUSIC has always been popular in these parts. Hey, drive 10 miles from Seattle and you're in the country. (The "Coal Miner's Daughter" herself, Loretta Lynn, who raised her kids in Custer, Wash., after moving there in 1947 from Kentucky, got her start at the nearby Delta Grange Hall.) But the emergence of KKWF two years ago marked a significant shift. Until then, 32-year-old KMPS ("Compass," 94.1) had enjoyed several years of near-monopoly on country music's 12 percent share of local listeners. (The area now has three country stations, counting Tacoma's "Q-Country," 102.9 KNBQ-FM).
Which is exactly why The Wolf came knocking at the door. KKWF launched Nov. 30, 2005, and by spring 2006, with a pack of disc jockeys drawn from pop radio, had snapped up a bigger bite than KMPS of 18-to-34-year-old listeners like so much red meat.
The brainchild of Scott Mahalick, respected former operations manager at Entercom (which owns KISW, KKND and KKMT), The Wolf plays virtually the same music as Compass, but tosses it into a goofy blender of amped-up, cartoonish, slightly blue on-air personalities — "but not too blue," says Walker, "kids are in the car" — and nonstop exclamation points that mimic Top 40 radio.
You know the rhythm: "100.7 The Wo-o-o-olf! How-oo-oo-ooo-ooo-ooo! And here's another Wolf Triple Play! . . . But first (spooky reverb),"Escapethepressureofhomedebt... (crash! bang! Ouch!) . . . (suddenly intimate voice) Buy the perfect ring she'll treasure forever."
Jocks talk to callers on the air — constantly — a percussive underscore rumbling in the background all the while.
Radio pro's call this "imaging" a station, and Walker says Mahalick is a genius at the craft. In Seattle less than two years before he left to unleash a new Wolf in San Francisco, Mahalick pooh-poohs such praise. "We're in show business," he says.
Compass' reaction to all this racket has been to stand its ground as Seattle's "heritage station" — calm, adult, and without benefit of a soundtrack — though it did shift to an excellent, nationally syndicated show in the evenings to counter The Wolf attack.
"Young people are early adopters," says Brenner. Because KKWF spent much more money in marketing, "they brought many new people to the format. Fortunately for us, we're still more popular."
THE WOLF ONCE did a Valentine's Day promotion with a guy proposing to his girlfriend, arriving in a suit of armor in a horse-drawn carriage. That the station focused on a marriage proposal is no accident. Like Jim and Amanda Lee, more than half of country music listeners are married, and family is a top priority. The same goes for urban country listeners like Amie and Tyler Edmondson, whose upscale lifestyle might lead you to think otherwise. (While it's true most of the Seattle area's country fans live outside the urban core, pockets of fans are tucked into White Center, South Seattle and Kirkland.)
Sitting on the couch in her West Seattle living room, hands resting on her 8-months-pregnant belly, Edmondson declares, "I think family is the most important thing in the world."
A 30-year-old loan officer for GMAC Mortgage LLC, Amie drives a Mercedes to work with the radio blasting KMPS. Growing up, she played softball — still does — and made the metro volleyball team at Seattle Lutheran every year.
"I'm very competitive and independent," she says. A good year at GMAC, she says, is selling $20 million in loans. In July, she was already at 16 ½.
Edmondson's parents worked in the music industry, so as a kid she heard — and occasionally even met — the likes of Lionel Richie and Janet Jackson. Somewhere along the line, Edmondson got hooked on country.
At her wedding two years ago, she and Tyler danced to Rascal Flatts' "Bless the Broken Road."
"It makes you think of going through life — get married, get fat and have kids," she says with a sigh of faux resignation. "Some of the songs may get sappy and romantic, but they don't go dogging anybody. There's nothing really negative, it's more positive. No swear words, you know. And I like it that they support the troops."
Edmondson's house is festooned with blue-and-gold Deruta ceramics, the legacy of a four-month vacation to Perugia, Italy, where she studied Italian and recovered from an engagement that didn't work out. Downstairs, her husband keeps a climate-controlled wine cellar.
"When I got back, I realized how important family was," she says. "Italy is all about family and being together, very small communities. I'm a very proud American-Italian, like Kenny Chesney's a proud Tennessean."
Edmondson's parents divorced when she was young.
"I'm stayin' married," she says. "It's going to work. I'm the only married person on my mom's side of the family."
Independent, patriotic, hard-working, family-oriented. Amie and Tyler don't sound all that different from Jim and Amanda, despite the fact the Edmondsons live on a busy urban boulevard with a view of Puget Sound and the Lees live what Amanda calls "a laid-back lifestyle, outside the rat race." City and country just aren't that far apart these days. And today's country music brings them even closer.
So what is it about these songs and stories, in these times, that pulls the draw-string on American life? Ten years ago, in the Roaring '90s, we lived through an era of big risks. Opportunity was everywhere, rewards often rained down in buckets. Today, the United States has been at war with Islamic terrorists for six years and fighting in Iraq for four. The mood now is more hold 'em and hope.
When Jennifer Nettles asks, "Who says you can't go home?" one natural response is to raise a fist and shout (in the words of the same song), "There's only one place left I want to go!"
"The war, terrorist attacks — I think people want to hold their family close," says Walker. "They want to think that everything's going to be OK."
Beyond hope, family and country, there is a yearning, say some fans, for something even more intangible the music taps into.
"Faith," says Jeremy Barker, a sweet-faced, cowboy-hatted regular at the Friday-night country dances at McCabe's, in Tacoma. "I have a mother with a strong faith. She tried to raise her kids the same way. Country music has that. There's no moral background to any of the other music."
Barker may be onto something, not just because born-again Christianity (and its music) are flourishing, but because folks are craving "faith" in a broader sense.
One of the most appealing qualities of country music is this humility of expectations. Indie rockers may whine and rappers may boast, but country artist Montgomery Gentry sings:
"I'm a lucky man, God's given me a pretty fair hand
"Got a house and a piece of land, a few dollars in a coffee can
"My old truck's still runnin' good
"My ticker's tickin' like they say it should
"I've got supper in the oven
"A good woman's lovin'
"And one more day to be my little kids' dad
"Lord knows I'm a lucky man."
Sentimental? Sure. Sappy? Maybe. But call yourself sophisticated, urban, even hip. Haven't you set your head down on the pillow at least once these past few years and had one or two of those thoughts?
Paul de Barros is a Seattle Times staff writer. He can be reached at 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.