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.

Los Angeles Times - - PARADE - By Peter Cooper • Cover & fea­ture pho­tog­ra­phy by Ron­ald C. Mo­dra

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.”

—Dierks Bent­ley

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.

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