Country musician Brad Paisley’s first tour of the United Kingdom in 2000 didn’t leave him much to write home to West Virginia about.
Paisley and the other acts on the tour flew commercial airlines and saw their precious band gear stashed into the jet’s regular luggage holds. The hotels were spartan, the venues were small and they were lucky if the promoters would give them a soundcheck before taking the stage.
“I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” Paisley said. “Knowing who I am in America, what am I doing here?”
These days, Paisley is finding a warmer reception overseas. He first noticed the thaw in 2010 when he booked a show in London.
“I was told, ‘You’ll be playing a small venue and it probably won’t sell out,’” Paisley said.
But tickets went so fast a second show was added and sold out. When Paisley returned to London in 2011, he was booked at the O2 arena. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ They sold 10,000 tickets. That’s a good night in America. It feels like the tip of the iceberg.”
For decades country acts rarely toured abroad, with exceptions for superstars such as Johnny Cash. But it’s now one of America’s hottest musical exports.
Love of family and country — core American values — are part of the appeal for a growing number of global fans. No other form of pop music more consistently expresses the virtues of hard work, self-reliance, honesty, equality and, often, a maverick attitude toward the status quo.
One measure of the shift: of the 100 highest-grossing concert tours of 2011 worldwide, according to the concert-tracking service Pollstar, 11 were country acts. Two years later, 15 broke that threshold, selling more than 300,000 concert tickets outside the U.S. last year.
Some of the credit goes to bands working harder to build audiences through fan sites on social media, and the ability to reach audience directly through YouTube and similar services.
Another factor: Country music these days is a little less country, and a little more pop. Crossover superstars such as Taylor Swift helped make traditional country instruments such as steel guitars and banjos more accessible to foreign audiences.
“It’s a phenomenon that probably started half a dozen years ago when Taylor Swift emerged as a major international artist,” said Bob Shennan, director of music for three BBC Radio stations. “She came to the U.K. being very much a country artist, then came back and came back and grew a real fan base and now has morphed into the biggest pop act on the planet at the moment.”
Younger country acts with a knack for marketing themselves on social media are among the most active, and most successful, in reaching out to world audiences. Swift mastered that skill early on and her template is being emulated and expanded on by a growing number of her young peers, including Kacey Musgraves, the Band Perry, Chris Young and Brantley Gilbert.
“The Internet has been a huge help,” said Scott Borchetta, head of Swift’s label, Big Machine Records. “Whether it was the first time we took the Band Perry over or the first time we took Taylor, there was already an awareness by a small group of super fans. That never would have happened pre-Internet.”
Then there are high-profile country music events such as the new Country To Country (C2C) Festivals that promoter AEG staged with the Nashville-based Country Music Assn. for the past two years in London, adding Dublin to the mix this year. Over the course of two days in March, the 2014 C2C London shows drew nearly 30,000 fans.
When Garth Brooks announced plans to resume touring after a 13-year hiatus, he could have chosen any city in America to make his splashy re-entry into the music business.
He chose Dublin, Ireland, and promptly sold 400,000 tickets for five concerts — in a nation with a total population of just over 4 million. When Dublin city officials limited him to three nighttime shows, he canceled all of the shows and left politicians accusing each other of denying Irish fans the chance to see the singer that one Belfast newspaper compared to Elvis Presley.
“It’s a fantastic testament to his global importance that he chose Ireland,” said Shennan, noting that country music is often referred to as “Nashville music” in the U.K. “I think it also demonstrates the real popularity of country and the currency now of a real positivity around this music.”
Country allows audiences as far away as China to connect with a slice of life distinctly different from their own.
Ong Zihan, a 23-year-old college graduate in Beijing, began listening to country after watching singer Blake Shelton on “The Voice.”
In addition to the music, she’s drawn to the songs’ messages that “come from a specific cultural background — it’s almost exclusively American,” she said.
“Pop music sometimes can be brainwashing,” she continued. “As I grow more mature, I tend to prefer country music, which I can listen to over and over.”
Milly Olykan, senior event producer for AEG Europe and one of the organizers of the C2C Festivals, said the unapologetic expression of Western values is one of the allures of country music. “Part of what fans are buying into (is) a way of life, a piece of America,” she said. “It’s made country music relevant and cool to a younger audience.
“When British fans show up to our event, for instance, many of them are wearing cowboy hats and Western shirts,” she added. “These are urban people who love the sounds of Nashville and want to be fully immersed in it.”
Paisley said he was surprised at the overseas embrace of one of his hit songs, “Mud on the Tires.”
“I remember thinking, ‘Obviously they don’t go four-wheeling in England.’ But I found out they like the thought of it, and like hearing about it,” he said. “Somebody once told me, ‘Your big obstacle is gonna be that white cowboy hat on your head.’ Now I hear people say, ‘You have an advantage with that cowboy hat. You look like what they want someone to look like when they hear country music. They don’t want someone who looks like everybody on MTV.’”
Dolly Parton, whose music grew out of her rural upbringing in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, played to an estimated 150,000 people on June 29 at the Glastonbury Festival in England, where the headliner was Metallica. She sold out most stops on her recent tour of Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Norway and Sweden.
Veteran British critic John Robb crystallized a broader sense of the international appeal of country music in his review of Parton’s Glastonbury concert:
“Dolly Parton is like a theme park,” Robb wrote. “A country-tinged singer who sings from the heart and soul of whatever is left of the American dream. ... With the twang of her y’all accent — the Deep South flavor that was apparently an old-English accent from Norfolk way and brought back home to the heart of the English Deep South. ... This the voice of dashed dreams and all human emotion is here.
“Dolly is not just another singer. Dolly is America. America is Dolly.”
Beijing bureau assistant Nicole Liu contributed to this report.