NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Country Takes New York, and Vice Versa

Payoff for First-Ever CMA Awards Venture to Manhattan Is to Come

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

NEW YORK — Every single black-beaded evening gown in closets throughout Long Island and all across New Jersey was hauled out on Tuesday (Nov. 15). I know that because I saw every one of them being worn at the CMA Awards show at Madison Square Garden. There were more bare backs there than at the Cheyenne Rodeo. The country music ladies turned out dressed to the nines, with many of their men sporting various versions of 10-gallon hats.

The atmosphere in Madison Square Garden building up to the awards show was truly electric. The true New York-area country fans finally got their night to howl, and they really cut loose. It was like they were headed for an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a full open bar on the side. For an evening at least, Madison Square Garden was country music’s living room. Entire families, all dressed up, were carting armloads of popcorn and hot dogs and all manner of candy, wine, whiskey and beer and settling down happily to catch three hours of their own music live and in person.

And they loved it. The true fans’ biggest moments and loudest ovations came for Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, George Strait, Sugarland and Rascal Flatts. The single loudest, almost deafening audience ovation of the night began when McGraw first walked downstage to join his wife Faith Hill during their duet of “Like We Never Loved at All.” And the ovation carried throughout the song. This is a romantic audience.

The day after the big show, the country music tornado has come and gone and all the Nashville cats are out at LaGuardia, waiting for flights to take them back to Music City. New York City is still the same. It takes a lot to shake this town. Country music made a favorable impression as a visiting media blip, but it’s hard to see what lasting effects there will be, if any.

Anyone who follows country music demographics knows there are many hardcore country music fans in New York City, but a lot of those — especially in Manhattan — are the bluegrass, folkie and Nanci Griffith fans. The true country demographic is out there in the hinterlands, across Jersey and throughout Long Island, and it’s hard to sell a big media conglomerate on maintaining a major country radio station for that audience. As has been proved over the years by previous country stations in New York, country radio in New York can do well — but not as well as, say, talk radio or sports radio. And making a lot of money is all that the big radio conglomerates are interested in. Without a major radio station, it’s difficult to promote big country concerts. And it’s hard to see that this country blitz could inspire a hard-nosed, bottom-line radio conglomerate to try a country station in New York.

Of course, the other story is that there is an active country music scene in New York whose practitioners don’t really need or want missionaries from Nashville invading their turf to preach them the gospel. There is a thriving club circuit in New York and many local country artists. On CMA Awards night in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Country Music Association awards show was being held at Hank’s Saloon on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and I wished I could have been there as well to hear their sentiments.

The CMA Awards show mostly passed muster with the hardcore fans I was watching with in the Garden. They now approve wholeheartedly of Lee Ann Womack and her new sense of new traditionalism. They felt it was a damn shame that Alabama’s Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry couldn’t end their long careers with a farewell message. These Hall of Fame inductees were waiting to speak when fellow Alabama member Mark Herndon talked and talked and talked overlong and was cut off and the show went to a commercial break and that was that. No matter how loudly the fans up in the balconies yelled, “Bring Alabama back!”

Goodbye, Alabama. Welcome to reality. Randy and Teddy did deserve a little gold-watch retirement moment before they totter off to the old folks home. I mean, that’s a hell of a way to end your career. You build a long resume of country music hits, you finally get elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, you’re waiting for your 12 seconds on the CMA Awards on national TV to be validated and say goodbye. And poof! It disappears. And you’re gone. Vanished. Country music has many lessons for us all.