Recently I queued up in a sea of cowboy hats piling into CMAC to see country superstar Kenny Chesney. It was a mob scene; a huge crowd of almost 15,000 people. And it's not hard to see why. Chesney's music is feverishly catchy and he puts on a dynamite show. His songs relate to Middle America, both country fans and casual country tourists. It was not just a testimony to the man's talent and appeal, but the entire genre itself: country music is huge.
Yet the appeal seems to drop off sharply when it comes to country music on a local level. Where are the bands? Where are the country-music fans the other days of the year that megastars like Chesney aren't here? Is it a lack of demand? That seems improbable, give the ratings pulled in by country-music radio stations. To be sure, it's not a lack of talent.
There are certainly local country artists and fans of the music, but it is extremely disproportionate to the genre's national popularity when compared to the amount of local concerts featuring rock, blues, jazz, folk, and practically every other genre out there.
When pressed to explain this genre imbalance, we reached out to country scenesters in Rochester and asked them to take a stab at an answer. For the most part, they were just as baffled. Where have all the cowboys gone?
Just as country music is hugely popular in mainstream music (one third of the Top 100 singles on iTunes the final week of August were country hits), country station WBEE 92.5 FM is routinely at the top of the ratings here in the Greater Rochester airwaves. The Entercom-owned, High Falls-based station is especially popular with the coveted 21- to 55-year-old demographic.
"Country music is bigger than it's been in a long time," says WBEE Assistant Program Director and Music Director Billy Kidd. WBEE, along with Big Dog Country 103.5 in Sodus and WCJW in Warsaw, blanket the area with country music, playing music by artists like Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum. Kidd isn't surprised by the appeal.
"A lot of it is very real music, talking about very real things," he says. "Not being a rock star and driving eight Ferraris. It's about driving your pick-up truck with your girl and going out for a drink on Saturday night. There are a lot of love songs, a lot of story songs, a lot of party songs. There's something for everybody."
Yet Kidd still sees a deficit of local bands playing country live.
"There are a handful of bands you see over and over again," he says. "But I don't think there are a lot of venues for them. There aren't a lot of country outlets for them."
It could also be argued that country music has a broader appeal in the country itself — in the surrounding, more rural areas. Brian Chase, the host of "Upstate Onstage," a local country-music show airing Sundays 9-10 p.m. on WBEE, sees it as a geographic phenomenon.
"There definitely is a geographical aspect to it," says Chase. "Artists here come from outlying areas. Most of the guys in [regional country band] Flint Creek come from Canandaigua, Hopewell, Geneva." And Chase points out that many country stars don't come from big cities, but rural smaller towns. Like Kenny Chesney, who hails from Powell, Tennessee. So looking for budding country stars in urban clubs might be futile to begin with.
Of course, if you're trying to find country music locally, you have to factor in the eternal debate of defining what country music is anymore. Country's current mainstream success could be credited to its adherence to pop formulas, both musically and in its business model. Or did the pop stance come as a result of mainstream success? Is country music today merely a coopted pop hybrid? It appears that where rock music has always got one reverential eye in the rearview mirror, contemporary country is more of just that: contemporary.
"The trend is for the newer music, the last 10 years," Chase says, regarding the seeming disconnect of today's country sound from its twangier roots. "It has definitely gone the way of pop culture thanks to artists like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks."
"I think the biggest factor is age," says Kidd. "If you're a 30-year-old and you didn't grow up listening to Johnny Cash, you're probably going to be more in tune to what's going on today as far as country music goes."
As a result, according to Chase, "A lot of bands don't want to be pigeonholed into country music."
That doesn't bother Tim Clark, front man and singer of local band Dang. Dang plays country, but not the kind you're likely to hear on WBEE. He describes it as "classic" country, "older, eight-track style, trucker country of the 60's and 70's." Clark is equally baffled by the overall deficit of live, local country music, but doesn't view the Rochester area as a complete country wasteland, either.
"Bands like Flint Creek and Closing Time have nice big audiences," Clark says. "I suppose if I were smart, I'd pay close attention to their playlists. I made the turn to country during the swing revolution of the late 90's. I wanted to respond to swing by providing Texas swing and met a bunch of players out in Orleans County. The smart move would be to move toward stuff like Kenny Chesney, Lady Antebellum, and stuff like that — I could probably triple what I make. But I wanted to hit something that wasn't being served."
Clark's theory on the relative absence of local country music doesn't point a finger at fans for the lack of overwhelming regional demand, but rather at the slingers and singers.
"You've got to start with the musicians," he says. "They have to be interested in country first and foremost. If there's such an appetite for country music, why aren't there more people doing it? There are not enough musicians in town interested in doing it."
For club owners like Danny Deutsch, who runs Abilene Bar & Lounge on Liberty Pole Way in the heart of downtown Rochester, it goes back to the very definition of the genre. And according to Deutsch, the music fan, the music has been shanghai'd by pop music much in the same way r&b has been. Deutsch doesn't cotton to the new "glitzy, poppy" take on country, he says, while agreeing that it does have its place. "It's the new pop music. It fills the sheds, it fills the arenas. No doubt about it," he says.
Though a relatively small joint, Abilene consistently fills up to the walls with more traditional touring country artists like Wayne Hancock and Hayes Carll. Deutsch mourns the limited amount of original country artists in this town and rattles off a few names like Mike Snow, Grand Canyon Rescue Episode, and the late Dave Donnelly.
"He was the last great country singer locally," says Deutsch. "He was as real and authentic and country as country can be."
Deutsch considers where and when and why he would ever book pop-county with a dismissive guffaw.
"If it was just about money," he says. "Maybe if I had a wife and three kids at home and needed to pay more bills than I do, I would. Then I could have karaoke on Tuesdays and shot girls on Wednesdays."
So there is country music in the Greater Rochester area. It just depends on which definition you adhere to, or if you think there are enough venues and artists catering to it. But the question remains: if it's so goddamned huge in this area — and it is — then why aren't we teeming with bands? Why aren't there clubs packed with honky-tonkers and boot scooters? There's no easy answer.
Dang's Clark agrees. "It's more than e-mail lists," he says. "I can tell you that."
Depending on who you ask — or when you ask the question — you'll get a variety of explanations of what the Sound ExChange Project really is: A local contemporary classical ensemble; a chamber group; an artist collective; composers; curators; educators; community-investors.