Boston’s Problem with Country Music

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People love country music.

It’s just if you look around Boston for it, it’d be nearly impossible to believe.

Last night, probably one of the biggest new acts in all of country right now – Zac Brown Band – played down in Mansfield at I-Still-Call-It-Great-Woods. In recent summers, they were touring ball parks around the East Coast with Dave Matthews Band, but they skipped Fenway. Still not really finding a place in the city, ZBB was banished to nearly Rhode Island as it hit the road to support their new album that came out last month.

Bruce Springsteen isn’t even the most popular hit on Spotify for music that includes his own name. That honor goes to rising country star Eric Church and his eponymous song about the Boss. But in Boston, you’d probably never know it based on your live opportunities to see the two performers: Church’s headlining tour played on a cold March night up in Lowell; Springsteen got two perfect Summer nights under the Green Monster in Fenway.

It’s like there’s some sort of anti-country Death Star hovering over 128, preventing country from breaking into the city. Boston is the last frontier free of country music, cowboy hats strewn along the roadside outside the Weston tolls. Abandon all twang ye who shall enter here.

It was July 2005, and Gillette Stadium was hosting what was billed to be the largest music event to ever happen in New England thanks to 68,000+ country fans in attendance. It was an incredible line-up, headlined by Kenny Chesney and featuring Keith Urban among others; the tailgate, too, was worthy of any country pre-game anywhere. It’s become a reliable part of each summer since 2005 that Gillette would get the biggest Country tour on the road, which has generally been Chesney’s. Even though country has gotten more popular and mainstream (see Swift, Taylor and Antebellum, Lady), these acts are still stuck out beyond 495.

We’ve yet to see the biggest acts in country get the summer treatment at Fenway, even though I’d guarantee they would sell out. Unless you count Jimmy Buffett (I don’t), no country act has ever graced the outfield in the Fens. New Kids on the Block have been there, but the biggest country stars like Chesney, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts have all been at Tweeter or Gillette. Fenway just filed for permits for next summer for two days in July – what genre do you think it’s going to be? Not country.

On Friday, July 27, Miranda Lambert played the Bank of America Pavilion down in Seaport. But looking at a country concert calendar, Mrs. Blake Shelton’s show was the exception to what appears to be a pretty hard rule: every country act rolling through the New England area is staying far away from downtown. Headline tours make appearances down at Great Woods. In the winter, you usually have to go to Tsongas in Lowell for the major acts. Want to go see any up-and-coming artist or secondary headliner? They aren’t going to play Paradise or House of Blues; you’ll have to go to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill in Foxboro or all the way to Mohegan Sun.

It stinks for country fans in the city, and it is preventing further growth and tours from coming here in the future.

Can anything be done?

We just got a Toby Keith joke during the Sam Adams tour. What town am I in?
Dave Levy

The short answer, I think, is no, and the reason may kind of be the Occam’s Razor of Country Music. There are always forces at play when it comes to music discovery, and there’s likely a very, very simple explanation as to why Country doesn’t click in Boston versus the surrounding areas.

First off, there is one radio station – 102.5 – dedicated to Nashville’s hits. It’s a decent station, but it’s still a traditional FM channel. Why is that a problem? That’s part two: the new country audience skews younger than other formats – and Boston’s young professionals and college students don’t exactly huddle around radios in dorm rooms or spend a lot of time in a car. Outside of the city in Lowell, Worcester, Foxborough and Springfield, there is a natural assumption that the opportunity to be in a car and listen to the radio is higher, and by way of that, a higher chance of country exposure.

Barring some sort of Xfinity black out where the only available channel is CMT (and Pure’s not even HD!), country won’t be planting any new Boston roots soon, and acts will stay in Foxborough and Mansfield for the likely future. Us country fans will live with our shame, we just ask: be open-minded. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, just in case.