The secret to country music's growing success is young fans

Jon Bream
McClatchy Newspapers

Rascal Flatts

Keri Dallman of Eagan, Minn., switches back and forth between her two favorite radio stations. But lately her loyalty has been lopsided -- 70 percent to the local country station and the rest to the local Top 40 station.

"Country lyrics hit closer to home," said the 23-year-old hairstylist. "They're a little more down-to-earth."

Most Americans agree with her: Country ranks as the nation's hottest musical genre. Check the numbers:

* Sales of country CDs are up 11 percent over last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while all other genres have declined and overall sales are down 5 percent. The bestselling album of 2006 is country trio Rascal Flatts' "Me and My Gang."

* The year's bestselling concert tour is by the country's first couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill; three other country acts are in the Top 10. The Upper Midwest's top country festival, We Fest, sold out for the first time in its 24 years.

* Experts say Monday's Country Music Association (CMA) Awards will draw more viewers than the Grammy show, as did last year's CMAs, staged in New York City for the first time. New Yorkers certainly noticed the hillbillies -- Vanity Fair, that arbiter of style, just ran a 33-page spread on country stars.

Why is country hotter than it's been since the peak of Garth Brooks a decade ago?

A young audience is attracted to country's fresh new faces -- Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Sugarland, each of whom has had a 3-million-selling album this year.

Another reason is a void in other genres: There is no dominant pop, rock or rap artist, as 50 Cent, Norah Jones and OutKast were in recent years. Aside from classic rockers, the only musician playing stadiums this year is Kenny Chesney, one of country's hottest figures of the past five years.

Still, Chesney, who attracts truckloads of high school and college students, is no Garth. This is not an explosion centered on one supernova. As Rascal Flatts' album suggests, this is about the whole gang.

"It's a really diverse, rich patchwork of characters," said Country Music Television general manager Brian Phillips.

Rascal Flatts, a cuddly, unthreatening trio of married guys in their 30s, have become America's biggest band without crossing over to pop.

"They haven't made the Rolling Stone cover yet -- and may not," Phillips said.

The other hot stars are of various stripes.

There are the girls next door: "American Idol" Underwood, 23; Sugarland's twangy-voiced Jennifer Nettles, 32, and the Wreckers, the duo of ex-pop star Michelle Branch, 23, and Jessica Harp, 24.

Then there are the newer guys on the block: curly-haired, roguish Dierks Bentley, 30, high-energy mavericks Big & Rich, and playful Brad Paisley, 34, the token traditionalist among today's newer male stars.

Established acts include Chesney, 38, and studly, rock-leaning Keith Urban, 39, who both married Hollywood movie stars, and the hunky McGraw, 39, who is trying to become a movie star.

Then there are some surprises: Bon Jovi, the veteran New Jersey rockers, had a No.1 country duet this year with Nettles. And craggy-voiced country giant Johnny Cash, whose posthumous income recently moved into fourth place behind rock legends Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley and John Lennon, has proved that something old can be new again.

Don't discount the Dixie Chicks, either. Even though they've thumbed their noses at country fans and radio programmers, their new CD, "Taking the Long Way," ranks among the year's bestsellers, at about 2 million copies.

The Chicks, like McGraw and Hill, have broad followings -- from preteens to grandparents.

So does Alan Jackson, a star since Garth's heyday who packed the Minnesota State Fair's grandstand this year. "Look at my crowd: there's young kids, teenagers, old people," he said at the fair. "Some people look like a lawyer, some like a farmer. Just all kinds."

Indeed, country seems to be the only safe family-friendly choice.

"There's nothing else for them to listen to," argues Jackson, 48. "Some of the teenage stuff is a little rough for younger kids, like rap and that kind of stuff. And people my age and older -- unless you want to listen to oldies, I don't know what other format you'd find some music on."

For many fans, it comes down to the message of the music. And whether people are concerned about the Iraq war, the U.S. economy or their own love life, country seems to speak to them.

"I believe our country is in unfamiliar territory," Chesney said in an interview. "There are a lot of heartstrings being pulled, a lot of things going on emotionally. When that happens, maybe people are gravitating to more lyrically driven songs."

That is definitely the case for Marissa Chryst, 26, a manufacturing manager from Bloomington, Minn. Eclectic in her musical tastes, she has the current Nickelback and Rascal Flatts albums as well as everything that McGraw, Hill and Shania Twain have released. She downloads pop singles but she stopped listening to new rap music a couple of years ago.

"Rap, rock and pop sing about the same stuff with just different words," she said. "Country seems more real than a lot of music. Country is about everything you go through (in life). More people can relate to it."



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