Gone Country: The crossover appeal of country music
By: Carol Enright
When Hunter Hayes was 13, he performed country legend Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” on the now defunct “America’s Most Talented Kid” on NBC. Hayes, who is now 20 and one of the hottest young artists in country music, recently played the Pageant in University City, a venue that most would not associate with country. Then again, the music Hayes is putting out doesn’t sound at all like the country that was defined by the likes of Williams, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
Appealing to a younger crowd
“The generation of country that we have now is a younger sound – it’s a poppier sound,” said Steve Stewart, program director for country music station 93.7 The Bull. “It’s more geared toward younger females, which is quite different from what country used to be years ago when it was geared more toward middle 30-something to 60-something-year-old males.”
Even the name of the music has changed.
“It’s not your grandpa’s country and western anymore,” said Stewart. “It’s country and it’s mass appeal.”
Stewart traces country’s crossover appeal to a pop music audience to the fast rise in popularity during the 1990s of country artists such as Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks – artists whose songs attracted a younger, more female audience.
“At that time, country radio stations said, ‘We’ve been so male-dominant for years. What would happen if we started playing these female-targeted songs?’ And then it just exploded,” said Stewart.
Jesse Raya, who handles marketing and promotions for the Pageant, said the crossover appeal of country goes back even further.
“Back in the mid ‘70s, there was a huge country and pop crossover. We saw people like the Bee Gees meddle in country. You saw Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers hit the top 10 on the Billboard charts – and we’re seeing that again. I think it’s becoming more and more appealing to a younger demo,” said Raya.
Raya said that even as country artists are marketing to a whole new “younger and younger” fan base, the “kids and teens are discovering this music on their own.”
Stewart said his station follows “very closely research numbers, tracking numbers and, in particular, iTunes and local sales downloads in this market to see which country songs are being more exposed and downloaded.”
“They (young people) are the ones on the cutting edge of a lot of these songs. So they’re saying, ‘We really like these songs. We want to download them and spend money on them,’” said Stewart.
Stewart said he sees a growing country fan base among college students. He cited a recent sold-out concert by country artist Eric Church at Chaifetz Arena on the campus of Saint Louis University.
“There’s a huge group of college listeners that are following a lot of the young country artists right now – and they’re just really pushing the format pretty far,” said Stewart.
Pop and country stars teaming up
Duets between pop and country music artists also are fueling the crossover popularity of country music. “Picture,” the 2002 duet by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, was a huge pop-country crossover hit that climbed to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 21 on the country charts. Just last year, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” a duet by pop star Kelly Clarkson and country music artist Jason Aldean, hit No. 1 on the country music charts and made it to No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Jason Aldean had one of the best-selling albums of last year, and I think that’s largely due in part to the pop crossover that he had with Kelly Clarkson,” said Raya.
Stewart said that pop artists are starting to understand – and wanting to tap into – the loyalty of country music fans.
“When you’ve got the other stations that play so many different types of music – like Y98 or even Z107.7 – there’s less loyalty to those individual artists, because they’re not playing as many songs from a Taylor Swift or other artists that are on the station,” said Stewart. “Once you get to the country side of it, there’s a bigger loyalty – and the pop world has started to discover that.”
Stewart pointed to Clarkson releasing a country version of her song, “Mr. Know It All,” that now plays on country radio.
“We see more of the pop and rock artists gravitating towards country because they know it has mass appeal,” Stewart said.
A message – and a sound – that appeals to all ages
Country music has long been known for its family-friendly lyrics, making it a music that all generations can rally around.
“There’s so much bad news and questionable music and questionable content television, a lot of people are just looking for something to gravitate towards that’s positive – that has a good message and is more about just being real, being down to earth,” said Stewart. “You can go to a Carrie Underwood concert, a Taylor Swift concert, and you’ve got preteens, teens, parents, grandparents – it’s the whole spectrum.”
Danny Montana, music director for 92.3 WIL, said that country music artists have been successful connecting with a larger audience by keeping the music and the message real.
“The artists we have today are real. Taylor Swift, what you see is what you get. She writes a song, it’s about her, it’s her life,” said Montana.
Montana also credits the diversity in style and sound of today’s country music for appealing to a growing country music audience.
“I think that country music is at its best when there are so many different sounds,” said Montana.
He listed off a string of crossover artists including Swift, Underwood and Aldean along with more traditional country stars such as Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.
Stewart said that while young country artists with a poppier sound are driving the crossover appeal of the genre, radio stations like WIL and The Bull still need to play music that resonates with listeners who want to hear the outlaw, or traditional, country music they grew up on.
“The trick to it for our station is to make sure that we have the healthy balance of both,” said Stewart. “We know that the people who like the twang are going to be able to get enough of that from us and not be turned off when they hear Taylor Swift. And the people who like Taylor Swift are not going to be turned off when they hear something kind of twangy.”
Raya said today’s hottest country stars – including Hayes, Church and Aldean – are creating “a whole different sound for country” that attracts a much larger fan base.
“Whether it’s the outlaw country fan or the pop country fan, I think they met right in the middle. And I think that they’ve really created a bigger audience than what it used to be,” Raya said.
Roots deep in West County
To die-hard country and western fans, the best place to hear the “real stuff” is Stovall’s Grove in Wildwood.
Dating back to the 1840s, Stovall’s Grove Rockhorse Saloon and Dance Hall, located along Highway 100, six miles west of Hwy. 109, offers live performances Wednesday through Saturday night and features local artists such as the Missouri Fiddlers and Country Music Association, the Missouri Valley Boys, the Grovers, and more.
A glance at Stovall’s monthly calendar of special engagements (online at stovallsgrove.com) reveals that even this venerable country and western venue appreciates the crossover nature of country today with most of the scheduled artists performing a variety of traditional country and western songs as well as Top 40 and even a little “rock.”
Co-owner, Liz Elze, explains Stovall’s long-lasting popularity this way: “We have a down-home charm where it’s still OK to pull on your boots and wear your Stetson – where the entire family is welcomed for a night of traditional country music. It’s all about the music here, always has been, always will be.”
America’s Most Popular Music
If this summer’s lineup of seven country music concerts at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater is any indication, country music is big. Just how big is it?
- According to Arbitron, the largest radio ratings service, country music is the number one music format in America.
- Country music is second only to news/talk radio in its popularity on the radio.
- Country music has the largest audience share of any music on the radio, with more than 65 million weekly listeners.
- Country music ranks number one among adults 25-54 and number two among teens 12-17.
- Almost half of all country listeners are under the age of 45
- Thirty-three percent of country listeners are 18-34.