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Thousands of fans hadn’t even arrived at the amphitheater when Pat Green began his opening set for the Dave Matthews Band.
Those who were already there seemed more interested in getting a cold beer before Matthews took the stage than watching the country rocker perform under the hazy sun.
But as the show wore on and people settled in, the applause grew from polite smattering to enthusiastic cheers, and Green had to feel as though he’d gained a few more converts.
It was a scene the singer-songwriter has grown accustomed to outside his native Texas. Back home, he’s a star who fills arenas. Yet in much of America, he remains largely unknown.
Green, 34, is working on that. His latest album, “Cannonball,” came out Tuesday and already has two songs climbing the country charts: “Feels Just Like it Should” and “Way Back Texas.” He’s in the midst of promotional tour that sometimes takes him to two or three cities a day.
“I want to have an impact with my music, and I want to do it as soon as possible,” he said recently from a hotel lobby.
Dressed in worn jeans and sipping Diet Coke, he was preparing to open the last in a string of shows for Matthews, a rocker with a soft spot for country music. The pairing complemented Green’s own heartland rock leanings, with strains of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp filtering through his 45-minute set.
A common threat with rockers“The common thread is that the songs that were big for those people on rock radio, for the most part, would be considered country songs now,” said Green. “I think it’s almost generational. This generation’s rock music might be next generation’s country music.”
The eighth of 10 children, he caught the performance bug while watching his stockbroker father perform in stage musicals.
He started out playing at parties at Texas Tech and built a huge following in Texas and on college campuses in the South before New York-based Republic Records signed him in 2001.
“I’ll never forget the day I was about to go on stage at the Astrodome,” he recalled. “There were 56,000 people there. It was sold out. My dad says, ‘Man, what does it feel like? Are you nervous?’ I said, ’Dad, it feels as cool as you think it does.”’
But Green, who lived in Austin for a decade, worried about growing complacent and knew he had to move beyond Texas if he wanted to be a national act.
“Austin is a place where you can get really comfortable. It makes it sometimes harder to break out of there because everything feels so right,” he said.
He toured persistently and turned a corner with 2003’s album “Wave on Wave.” The title track cracked country’s top 5 and seemed to put him on his way. But the follow up, 2004’s “Lucky Ones,” failed to capitalize and Green decided to shake things up.
Eyeing his Southwest fan baseFor “Cannonball,” he switched to Nashville’s BNA Records, part of the powerhouse Sony BMG Entertainment umbrella that includes Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood and Sara Evans.
The label had its eye on Green for a while, impressed by his fan base in the Southwest.
“We looked at him five or six years ago,” Sony BMG Chairman Joe Galante said. “At that time Pat was really looking at trying to do something country but also more rock.
“The conversation I had with him then was that that was not what we do, but that if he wanted to do that, then he should. And that’s what he did.”
In the intervening years, a couple of things happened. Country radio became more receptive to rock-oriented acts like Montgomery Gentry, Shooter Jennings and Gretchen Wilson; and Green, who writes most of his own material, continued evolving as a songwriter, penning more lyrics about family and love and less about partying and hitting the road.
Most of the 14 tracks on “Cannonball” deal with relationships, some looking back fondly to young love, others bemoaning lost love. In the reflective “Dixie Lullaby,” he sings, “It was college, work, then love. And then the babies came.”
Green, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife, Kori, and two young children, said he writes as honestly as he ever did, it’s just that his reality has changed.
“That was my truth then,” he said. “Now, I’m writing about my kids, my wife. It’s no different from anybody else. If you’re 40 years old and married with kids and still writing about drinking and doing all that junk, then you’ve probably got a 12-step program in your future.”