Country strong

Country star Kenny Chesney performs at Lincoln Financial Field, part of his 17-stadium "No Shoes Nation" tour. Saturday's concert was Chesney's sixth visit to the Linc.
Country star Kenny Chesney performs at Lincoln Financial Field, part of his 17-stadium "No Shoes Nation" tour. Saturday's concert was Chesney's sixth visit to the Linc. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 03, 2013

IT'S PRETTY EASY to understand why country music's so popular down South, why so many fans are blaring the hits in their pickups on the way to their favorite fishing hole on a sunny, summer Sunday.

I've always been confused by country's appeal up here, though, in the land of rock 'n' roll and rap. Crossing over the Delaware River the other day, I tuned in to a country station knowing I'd be writing about it soon and listened to a singer reminisce about parachute pants, Trans Ams and skating rinks, lamenting the mortgage and SUV that tied him to responsibility now. I wasn't a fan of the music, but the message hit me.

I miss the turbo-powered Buick I had as a teen. I drive a four-cylinder Honda now and never have time to go fishing on Sundays. I get it.

That song, "19 Something," was playing on Philadelphia's 92.5 WXTU-FM, a bulwark on the local radio dial since 1984, a station that's stayed country as neighbors up and down dial here chased ears and switched formats.

Country already dominates national radio, according to Arbitron ratings, with thousands of stations playing it, but WXTU, way up here in the Northeast, is a juggernaut of its own, the fourth-most-listened-to country-music station in the nation.

"I used to say I'll work anywhere but country. I wasn't a fan myself, and now I'm hooked," said Shelly Easton, a WXTU on-air personality and the station's programming director.

The listening audience for country keeps getting bigger and younger thanks to crossover acts like Taylor Swift and shows like "The Voice" and "American Idol."

Fans want to see their favorites - Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley - play venues once reserved for Springsteen and the Stones. This year, Live Nation is hosting nine country shows in the Philly region compared with two in 2001.

More than 20,000 fans showed up Sunday for WXTU's 29th Anniversary concert at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, kicking off with a father-daughter-son trio called the Henningsens.

"It's the radio station, plain and simple. It's huge and the genre is huge," regional president of Live Nation Geoff Gordon said backstage at the event.

For years, Robert Duvall playing Mac Sledge hogged up the whole definition of country in my head, singing a sad, little tune in the movie "Tender Mercies" as his estranged daughter drove away on a two-lane Texas road for the last time. Country artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus would often pop into my radar. Lately, every other week or so, friends are telling me to go see Kenny Chesney bare his biceps at some arena, "even if you just go for the party."

I always imagined Mac Sledge meeting Kenny Chesney and saying, "Son, I do believe your sleeves have fallen off," but that old traditional country from that movie isn't why the genre's blowing up above the Mason-Dixon Line.

"It's mainstream. It's rock 'n' roll now, it's not that old twangy country people think of. It's music people can understand and relate to," said fan Mike Abagnale of Franklinville, Gloucester County.

David Allan, a professor of marketing at St. Joseph's University, said country artists make themselves more accessible to fans, too, signing autographs and touring constantly.

"Instead of a concert designed to make money, these artists make it feel like a giant thank-you to the fans," he said.

WXTU's Easton said Philly is still very much a rock town, yearning for big rock bands led by big personalities, like Springsteen or Jagger. But there are few bands like that around these days. Country, particularly country rock, fills that void.

"There's a stereotype that if you play a country song backward, the singer gets his wife back, his truck back," said Easton. "There are plenty of songs in country that are very 'feeling-dense,' but a lot of them are as simple as 'let's have fun, let's live for today.' "

There's plenty of songs about booze or guns or bonfires or getting muddy with carefree girls. Often, it's a combination of all those things in one song and America eats it up.

"The music tells a story and we all love stories," Allan said.

In the parking lots surrounding the Susquehanna Bank Center on Sunday, there was whiskey galore, beer pong and barbecuing. Some young women danced around a stripper pole in the back of one truck as some guys in an adjacent truck splashed rainwater on them for extra effect.

Camden County police said there were 45 arrests (most for disorderly conduct) at the event, down from recent years, and I saw fists fly only once on the lawn up by a beer line.

Many in the parking lot were angry because security, they claimed, was making them take down Confederate flags, claiming it was against a city ordinance in Camden. At a recent Toby Keith concert here, a Delaware County man was arrested for waiving a rebel flag and tossing racial slurs at local residents.

Still, there were plenty of rebel-flag bikini tops and belt buckles that stayed on, mixing in with the twentysomethings in Phillies caps and work boots, the older couples wearing boleros and cowgirl skirts and children in camouflage. Sunday's headliner, Brad Paisley, addressed the "red flag" in his recent song "Accidental Racist" with LL Cool J.

Country's always been big for the 25 to 54 crowd, Arbitron's 2013 "Radio Today" report said, but it's now the most popular format for 18- to 24-year-olds and the second-most-popular choice for teens.

"I can understand the lyrics. When I listen to Little Wayne, I have no idea what he's saying," said Tory DeFrance, 21.

The Abitron report said blacks and Hispanics make up less than 10 percent of country music's fan base. Listeners, the report said, are avid outdoor enthusiasts, likely to own powerboats and ATVs and more likely than average to purchase sports-logo apparel.

They're also buying a lot of cowboy hats, said Meryl Alleger of Zane Western Wear. Zane was one of several vendors at the Susquehanna Bank Center, selling hats, stickers and shirts.

Alleger said business has picked up in recent years because people want to look the part.

"Business is good," she said. "By the looks of it, it's just going to keep getting better."

And as I stood off by a side-stage in my baseball hat and Nikes, I heard artist Chris Stapleton ripping it up on guitar, his gravelly voice singing about a river, I thought to myself, "If this is country, it's getting better."

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On Twitter: @JasonNark

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