THIS IS WHAT CONTRY LOOKS LIKE
Yes, some sport cowboy boots, but fans of country music today make up a surprisingly diverse crowd who—young or old, hipster or hippie, local or global—are drawn to the genre’s stories and authenticity.
There was a time, in the early 20th century, when country music was a regional curiosity, the province of “hillbilly” fiddlers, an aural postcard from the American south. It was a sound that filled taverns. Today, country music is a global phenomenon, a whirl of influences and experiences. It is a sound that fills stadiums—from Nashville’s LP Field to Boston’s Fenway Park, London’s O2 Arena to the Tokyo Dome. It is both America’s most popular music genre (according to trade publication Billboard magazine) and a huge export and attraction. Today, it seems, we are all a little bit country.
Thisweek, 80,000 people will crowd Nashville’s streets, clubs, hotels and football stadium for four days and nights to celebrate country music at the annual Country Music Association (CMA) Music Festival. Fans from around the world will come to see more than 450 acts including singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley, acrobatic vocal group Little Big Town, upcoming Country Music Hall of Fame inductees The Oak Ridge Boys and guitar-slinger Brad Paisley (the Rolling Stones’ opening act for their June 17 Nashville show).
At first glance, it may be difficult to connect the fiddles and banjos played by country musicians in the 1920s to the diverse acts at country concerts like CMA Fest and those across the world (see “Country Goes Global,” page 8), or to today’s country radio jumbles of rock-ready guitars and hip-hop flourishes. But country is a big-tent genre and the tent gets bigger every year. At its heart, themusic is defined not by instrumentation or song form, but by passion and connection.
“Every song has a story in country music,” says Gilles Belanger, 57, a former construction worker from Mattawa, Ontario, who recently made a bucket list trip to the
Grand Ole Opry show in Nashville with his daughter, Tammy. “Themusic means something.”
That connection to authentic feelings and relatable experiences creates loyal fans who, year after year, travel many miles and wait in long lines simply to say “hi” to their favorite performers. At its core, country music
“These fans, when they buy an album or a ticket, it’s not just about the music. They’re making an investment in you as a person.”
remains a handshake business—even while its fan base is growing across generations and continents.
THE BEST FANS IN THEWORLD
Dierks Bentley, who has a show in Nashville this week, raves about the fans. “We do a fan club party at CMA Fest that takes six, sometimes seven hours,” he says. “We play, then sign autographs and take pictures with every person. And the core fans, I’ve seen them over and over, for 10 years. When they buy an album or a ticket, it’s not just about the music. They’re making an investment in you as a person.”
The first time a fan made such an investment in Bentley was 17 years ago, at Station Inn, a charmingly inelegant Nashville club Bentley discovered as a Vanderbilt University student. Back then, he would watch bluegrass bands, and sometimes sit in. Ann Soyars, a retired Bell South worker who manned the Station Inn door until she died in 2014, took notice of Bentley.
“Ann was my first fan,” he says. “Back before I had a record deal, she made two T-shirts that said, ‘Dierks Bentley, Future CMA Award Winner.’ She sent one to mymom, and kept the other. That was the power of one person.”
The biggest-selling country artist of all time, Garth Brooks, felt that power multiplied in 1996. He famously posed for photos and signed autographs at CMA Music Festival’s predecessor, Fan Fair, for 23 consecutive hours. New-century-country-star-turned-pop-queen Taylor Swift signed for eight straight hours in 2008, then, in 2014, mailed personalized holiday gifts to fans she’d found and researched on socialmedia.
“As far back as I can remember, it’s been that way,” says Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson, who wrote his first No. 1 hit song, “City Lights,” in 1958 and
has remained an in-demand songwriter and performer. “My signature will never be worth a dime: I’ve signed it so many times it’ll never be a collector’s item.”
Such interactions are special, but by no means unprecedented in countrymusic. When countrymusic stars die—as was the case with the 2013 passing of two of country’s elite, George Jones and Ray Price—the Internet swells with tales of personal meetings accompanied by amateur photographs. And some fans say countrymusic changed their lives.
Denise Gilson, an analyst for the New York Stock Exchange Governance Services Group, was living in Brazil, Ind., dealing with anxiety issues that left her unwilling to go more than a few miles beyond her home—until October of 2004 when she saw a video of Keith Urban singing “Days Go By” and heard its lyrics: “Days go by/ I can feel ‘em flying like a hand out the window in the wind/ The cars go by, yeah, it’s all we’ve been given/ So you better start livin’ right now.”
“I decided I needed to change my life,” says Gilson, who mustered the courage to travel to Nashville and attend three Urban concerts. “I was scared of having panic attacks, but I went anyway. I met people who were fans, and we connected. Now, every year at CMA Music Festival, we reunite.”
THE YOUNGEST TRIBE
“I used to listen to the Opry on the radio when I was growing up,” says Winnsboro, La., native Emma Jones Blackshire, age 58, one of 13 siblings, ages 53 to 79, who traveled to Nashville in May for a reunion that included a trip to the Opry, which turns 75 this year. “I love country music because it’s real,” says the U.S. Army JROTC instructor.
Today, the younger generation also appreciates country for its authenticity (think Taylor Swift’s broken-heart songs)— and relatability (cue up The Voice star Blake Shelton’s party tunes).
In fact, in the past 10 years, country music consumers age 12 and over have grown 31 percent, from 80.9 million to 106.6 million. Country music fans from 12-17 years old have increased 42 percent since 2004, and consumers aged 18-24 have grown 56 percent in 10 years.
“All my friends love country music,” says high school senior Emma Benninghoff, 18, of Falls Church, Va. “The concepts are light and fun; I love driving— and singing along—to Carrie Underwood songs like ‘Before He Cheats’ or any Miranda Lambert song. It’s an attitude.”
THE CIRCLE UNBROKEN
Charlie Worsham, 29, caught the country music bug when his father, a banker, took him to hear Keith Urban at a Mississippi music festival at age 14.
“Dad and I were two of 30 people there to hear him,” Worsham says. “He blew our minds, and 28 other people’s minds. He played the last song, unplugged his guitar and walked towards his bus. Onthe way, he stopped and shook my hand and said, ‘Hey.’ I became a fan for life. I bought his record, and every one after that.”
Now Worsham, a recording artist for Warner Bros., will perform at the CMA Music Festival. He has his own fans, and he’s as appreciative of them as they are of him. “There’s a quiet diligence to country fandom,” he says. “These are people who buy every copy of your record at Walmart and give them to their friends. It’s like spreading the gospel. These are people who wait out by the bus until two in the morning just to hand off baked goods that they spent all day making. And the expectation they have of you is, ‘Hey, keep making music.’ It’s a beautiful thing.” Benninghoff and her friends go to country music concerts in packs, she says, all dressed in their cowboy boots, jean jackets and sundresses. It’s a look that has country roots but, like the music, has become mainstream.
Visit Parade.com/fans for more photos of fans photographed for Parade at the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum onMay 1 and 2.