Despite Tight Touring Market, Country Acts Are Ready to Roll

Strait, Dixie Chicks Likely to Be Big Winners

No one is wearing black armbands, but those who buy, sell and monitor live country music talent agree that the market is going to be tight again this year. Only a handful of superstar acts are expected to attract hordes of ticket buyers. The demand for country performances has been in gradual decline since the late ’90s. Last year, gross sales of country music tickets dropped $22 million below the 1998 level — from $138 to $116 million, according to the weekly talent trade journal Amusement Business.

Country is losing market share, observers say, for several reasons, including a wider entertainment menu for ticket buyers to choose from and a scarcity of exciting new musical personalities. While prospects are rosy for big-name and even for alternative country performers, mid-level acts are feeling the squeeze. There are fewer dates available for them, and many are lowering their prices for the dates they do book.

“The [George] Strait tour is a given — it’s going to do great,” says Ray Waddell, who covers live talent and touring for Billboard. “I have a feeling the Dixie Chicks tour is going to do well. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are going to tour as co-headliners, and I imagine [they will] do some good business. But then it drops off after that.” (While Waddell says McGraw & Hill will tour, McGraw’s manager, Scott Siman, will not confirm it.)

Brooks & Dunn will be back on the road this summer, as will Reba McEntire. But Alan Jackson, another reliable ticket-seller, is taking off all of July and August. (McEntire will sideline her current show, “The Singer’s Diary,” for her upcoming appearances at fairs and outdoor amphitheaters but will return to the intimate revue in late September or early October.)

“A lot of fairs are turning to classic rock and other things because country acts don’t have the popularity there they once had,” Waddell explains. “But country is still the mainstay — still No. 1 — with the fairs. It’s just that [the fairs] have branched out and diversified, which is probably a good thing. It’s always cyclical, and country is probably at the downward trend of its cycle right now. Hopefully, it’s bottomed out.”

“From what I’m feeling out there,” says Brian Jones of the Bobby Roberts Company booking agency, “most of the middle-range country acts who are going after your average county fair [are finding] there’s not as much work to go around as there used to be. Fairs are looking for a bigger menu of entertainment to pick from nowadays. They’re looking for the classic rock bands. Classic rock is hot … That’s why we’ve started working with a few acts like that the past few years. And we’re looking to find a few others.”

Jones represents “The Classic Rock All-Stars,” a package that features the lead singers of Rare Earth, Iron Butterfly and Sugarloaf.

The market is growing for alternative and Americana country acts, asserts Ben Ewing, head of the Ewing-Roberts division of the Bobby Roberts Company. Ewing has been booking Jack Ingram and Shaver (Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver) for the past several months. He recently added Jon Randall, Sisters Wade and poet/singer R. B. Morris to his roster.

“At this point in time,” says Ewing, “there’s more work than I have artists.” He says his acts are aimed at venues of about 500 seats. Ingram, however, occasionally plays houses of up to 1,500 seats. This fall, he will open shows for John Anderson and BlackHawk. Although the Southwest is a particularly active market for Ewing’s acts, he says they are also in demand in the Southeast, the Midwest and on the West Coast.

Gil Cunningham, vice president of Romeo Entertainment Group, is cautiously optimistic about the future of live country music. His company, which is based in Crescent, Iowa, buys and supplies talent for approximately 170 fairs, festivals and rodeos.

“The fairs are still very interested in booking country music,” Cunningham observes. “As everybody knows, [the market's] been soft the last four or five years. We’ve gone into a slide. But there have been some things, I think, that have encouraged buyers like myself, producers and fairs. And that is we’re seeing some of those baby acts and mid-range acts starting to make a move. Martina McBride, for example, is selling quite well on this current tour. And we’re getting quite a bit of favorable response on Brad Paisley and Chely Wright and some of the other country acts. Then there’s been Lonestar’s success with ‘Amazed.’ So there have been a lot of positive signs. That could be indicative of the market starting to swing back again.”

Whatever the market outlook, country artists are gassing up their buses and preparing to begin their summer treks across the U.S. and Canada, confident that they’ll find country fans hungry to hear their music. Some artists even have European dates planned.

Though he’ll play only 10 stadium dates starting Saturday (April 29) in Charlotte, N.C., George Strait again will have one of the highest-grossing country tours of the summer. In its third year, the cumbersomely named “Nokia Presents the George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival” will feature Strait with Tim McGraw and Martina McBride (the Country Music Association’s reigning male and female vocalists of the year), Kenny Chesney, Mark Chesnutt, Lee Ann Womack and Asleep at the Wheel.

Strait played 18 dates in 1998 and 17 in 1999, grossing over $66 million for the two years combined. The tour has averaged about $2 million in gross revenue per market in the past, according to Billboard magazine.

In addition to the big-name acts appearing on the main stage, the Strait festival will feature developing acts Clay Davidson, Lace and Jerry Kilgore in a Straitland area featuring vendors, lifestyle exhibits and recreational fun and games. Straitland events begin at 11 a.m. with the concert following at 1 p.m.

The most talked-about country arena show this year, “The Dixie Chicks Fly Tour” takes off June 1 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and doesn’t wind down until the end of October in New Orleans. The headlining tour includes 70 dates in 38 states and Canada. Tickets for the Winnipeg show go on sale May 6. The first U.S. destination is Spokane, Wash., on June 9. Tickets for that show went on sale April 22.

Opening acts cross several genres. Rock singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs and Country Music Hall of Fame member Willie Nelson will each take turns warming up audiences for the Chicks.

“We want to expose our fans to different kinds of music and we wanted our tour to represent us and what we like,” explains lead singer Natalie Maines. “The live element is so important to us, and our support acts are all ones we would want to be entertained by each night.”

The Dixie Chicks are promising some surprises, including instant seat upgrades to select fans who are in their seats 30 minutes before their shows. “Pee before you get there,” Maines advises, “because you won’t want to leave your seats between acts.”

Country Music Television (CMT) is the official media sponsor of “The Dixie Chicks Fly Tour.” A 53-foot CMT promotional truck will follow the tour from coast to coast. There will be special programming related to the tour, as well as a national sweepstakes viewers can enter to meet the Dixie Chicks at one of the shows.

The Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam Tour hits the road for the second year beginning May 5 in Indianapolis. Featured artists include country’s Hank Williams Jr. and southern boogie band Little Feat through June 4, with blues-rock artist Edgar Winter replacing Little Feat for the remainder of the 16 dates. Williams will not play the June 3 Nashville concert due to a previous commitment.

The Volunteer Jam began in 1974 as a one-day, festival-style celebration of Southern rock hosted by the Charlie Daniels Band and featuring surprise guest artists from blues, rock, R&B and country. Last year, Daniels took the experience on the road for the first time, playing 33 cities in front of over 377,000 fans. When this year’s tour rolls into Nashville’s AmSouth Amphitheatre, some of Daniels’ hometown buddies are apt to make unannounced appearances. Last year, some surprises developed at a couple of stops along the tour.

Country traditionalist Randy Travis kicks off his tour June 21 in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and wraps up the road trip Oct. 27 in Memphis. He’s touring in support of his latest album, A Man Ain’t Made of Stone. A new single, “A Little Left of Center,” hit the airwaves Monday (April 24).

Trisha Yearwood’s “Real Live Woman” tour began Tuesday (April 25) in St. Louis and will play to over 50 destinations in the U.S., winding down at the end of August in Gilford, N.H. The theater tour is in support of her latest album and single of the same name, released in March.

Brooks & Dunn will play a mix of dates this summer including arenas, fairs and small indoor concerts. The duo hit the road April 20 in Cherokee, N.C. Plans are to tour until the beginning of October. Hot newcomers Lonestar will join them April 27-30 for four dates in Canada, and both Lonestar and country renegades Montgomery Gentry are on the bill June 2-4 for dates in upstate New York and New Jersey.

Clint Black has over 50 dates lined up, including many state and county fairs, in continuing support of his latest album D’lectrified, released last September. Black’s wife, Lisa Hartman Black, may join him for select dates to sing their hit single, “When I Said I Do.”

Dwight Yoakam, too, has a summer of dates that includes fairs, festivals, some arenas and smaller venues. Yoakam takes to the highways and byways May 16 in Indian Wells, Calif., touring consistently throughout the summer. His scheduled stops include the 10th annual Country Jam USA June 22 in Grand Junction, Colo., IGA’s Country Jam USA July 22 in Eau Claire, Wisc., and the Country Thunder USA festival July 23 in Twin Lakes, Wisc. Yoakam releases a new album May 30. Dwightyoakamacoustic.net includes 25 tracks performed by Yoakam with only his guitar for accompaniment.

Powerhouse vocalist Martina McBride embarked on her latest tour April 20 in Moline, Ill., in support of her album Emotion. She’ll play 10 dates as part of the George Strait festival. She wraps up her touring at the end of August in Doswell, Va.

Perennial favorite Willie Nelson is on the road again, undertaking an expansive tour that includes 90-plus domestic and international dates. His famed bus, Honeysuckle Rose, rolled into New York City’s Irving Plaza April 19, and Nelson at present is slated to continue touring extensively until the beginning of November. His dates with the Dixie Chicks come in October.

Jo Dee Messina began her latest touring stint Saturday (April 22) in London, in continuing support of her double platinum-selling album I’m Alright. The fiery redhead has 50 dates lined up stateside, mainly fairs, festivals and amphitheaters. She’ll open for the Judds’ when they bring their “Power to Change” tour to Nashville June 10, and her third album is tentatively scheduled for release in early summer.

Michelle Nikolai contributed to this story.