Like a secret lover embraced in private yet rarely seen in public, country music’s relationship with New York City has been a curious, hush-hush affair.
Country music sells well in New York, yet it hasn’t had much of a presence on America’s ultimate music stage. There’s no country radio station, and even country music’s top acts rarely include New York on their tour dates, performing in its surrounding areas rather than in the city itself.
“New York City is a notoriously hard market to perform country music in,” says singer Trace Adkins.
It may get a little easier after this week.
For the first time, the Country Music Association Awards — usually Nashville’s big shindig — will be held in New York. Instead of the Grand Ole Opry House, Madison Square Garden will play host to the likes of Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Faith Hill, Lee Ann Womack, Gretchen Wilson and Brooks & Dunn, who are hosting the show. The event will also integrate pop’s elite, including Elton John and Bon Jovi.
“Our business is based in Nashville and it always will be, but New York City is still our No. 1 or No. 2 market,” says Kix Brooks. “There’s an amazing history of country music here, most people just don’t realize. Garth (Brooks) is still the biggest concert that was ever in (Central) Park.”
And the celebration has already begun: The days leading up to the show include numerous performances and events designed to showcase — and enhance — country’s popularity here, including a “Broadway Meets Country” concert featuring the top stars in both fields, and a celebration of the Grand Ole Opry’s 80th anniversary with a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Big city, big performersWhile this is the CMA Awards’ first adventure in New York City, the Grand Ole Opry has been at Carnegie Hall before, though it was more than four decades ago — Opry legend Minnie Pearl joined Ernest Tubb there in 1947 and performed with its stars there again in 1961.
Monday’s anniversary show will feature Paisley, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss and Adkins, to name a few.
Pete Fisher, the Grand Ole Opry’s general manager, hopes the showcase, along with country music’s week in New York, will help it shed its reputation as a genre popular with the South and Midwest only.
“I was born and raised in the Northeast, and country music often times is attached to a stereotype, and really, the evolution of country music over the past couple of decades shows it is mainstream music,” Fisher says.
Country music’s mainstream appeal is enduring and undeniable. Three of last year’s top 10 selling albums came from country artists — Wilson, Kenny Chesney, and Tim McGraw. Next week, Chesney’s latest album is expected to debut at the top of the sales charts.
Yet while New York routinely hosts the most coveted acts in rock, pop, jazz, rap, R&B and classical, country’s biggest stars don’t often get heard here.
“I know there are a lot of country music fans in New York City but the problem with doing a show in New York City is its very difficult to promote,” says Adkins. “There’s no way for (fans) to hear about it unless it’s word of mouth. If there was a country music radio station in New York they would know exactly where to get their information from.”
Which is why the CMA board member initially was against the idea of uprooting the awards show from Nashville to New York City. But Adkins eventually was convinced it would be a good idea.
“If you look at it as trying to broaden the appeal and kind of get out of the box and maybe reach some people who otherwise don’t become exposed to country music, it could turn out to be a really good thing,” says Adkins.
‘Let them sample it’Though the CMA Awards will return to Nashville next year for its 40th anniversary, the show’s longtime producer, Walter Miller, says it was time for a change.
“We could have taken it anywhere, and you feel it’s time to make a move for a different look and a different feeling,” he says. “But why take it anywhere where it’s already accepted? Let’s bring it to New York where they do not have a country station and let them sample it and let them appreciate it.”
Womack, who along with Paisley is the most nominated artist with six, is performing with Shooter Jennings at the Bowery Ballroom, better known for rollicking rock concerts, on Monday night.
She suggests that New Yorkers’ sporadic exposure to live country music makes them even more enthusiastic: “I felt like as a listening audience they were a little more receptive and not quite so jaded. They really seem to appreciate having something different.”
Pat Green, who’s also performing Monday night (at a new Times Square theater), credits the same reason for his sellout performances in the city.
“I’ve probably played there about six times, over the last two years. It’s one of my favorites — I think it’s incredible,” says Green. “I think that good music does well in New York City, and that’s what I’m excited about.”