When local country music station WKLB launched nearly 20 years ago, music director Ginny Rogers had a very difficult job.
“I remember back in the ’90s trying to get George Strait to play up here and his booking agent said, ‘Well, there aren’t that many country music fans in the Boston and New England area, so we don’t like to come up there too often,’ ’’ she recalls. “And I was scratching my head and saying, ‘You’re wrong, they’re here. We need the acts to come up because we know our listeners are out there.’ ’’
They certainly are. In the most recent Arbitron ratings, WKLB-FM (102.5) ranked third in listeners behind WXKS-FM (KISS 108) and WMJX-FM (Magic 106.7). The station has consistently ranked in the top five since 2010. That is a marked contrast, says program director Mike Brophey, to a decade ago when “we used to pray to be in the top 10 once in a while.’’
Thanks in part to those listeners, earlier this month Rogers and Brophey — who are married — were on hand at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville to accept the trophy for the major market radio station of the year during the telecast of the 46th annual CMA (Country Music Association) Awards on ABC.
It’s been a boom time for country music in Boston. The same week WKLB was notified of its CMA win, country star Jason Aldean bested the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and Boston’s own Aerosmith by selling out Fenway Park in just seven minutes. Aldean, who recently hit number one on the Billboard album chart with his latest release, “Night Train,’’ quickly added a second show at the historic ballyard, which sold out in 45 minutes. Shortly thereafter, Taylor Swift — who replaced Aldean at the top of the Billboard album chart — announced a July 27 show at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the pop-country thrush has entertained three previous sell-out crowds herself; and Kenny Chesney just announced his annual Gillette appearance on Aug. 24.
While country music, both of the mainstream and alternative varieties, has always been popular in New England and Massachusetts — especially at suburban venues in Foxborough, Mansfield, Worcester, and Lowell — it has definitely made inroads into the city in recent years.
Artists like Lady Antebellum, the Zac Brown Band, and Miranda Lambert have played at the Agganis Arena and Bank of America Pavilion. Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill have lit up the TD Garden. Rising stars like Randy Houser and Jamey Johnson logged time on the stage at the Paradise. The Boston Pops have increasingly invited country stars like Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts to take part in the annual Fourth of July celebration at the DCR Hatch Shell. And this is all in addition to the perennial parade of country stars that play at the Comcast Center in Mansfield like Keith, Rascal Flatts, and Brad Paisley.
Additionally, the CMA has begun hosting its prestigious songwriters series at Royale in the Theatre District, attracting major country stars like Carrie Underwood this past summer and Chesney last year. “We want to keep Boston in the loop,’’ says CMA CEO Steve Moore. “It has always been a good market, but I have seen it over the last several years just continue to get more robust.’’
While the country format has risen to a higher visibility nationwide over the last few years thanks to a musical evolution that finds artists like Swift, Aldean, and Lady Antebellum incorporating more Top 40 pop and rock sounds into the genre — which is the number one radio format in the US — industry observers say that in Boston and New England, access and promotion have been equally important.
“WKLB is the factor that has changed the scene here in Boston,’’ says Dave Marsden, senior vice president of booking at Live Nation New England. “The job they’ve done is astounding. Before ’KLB you couldn’t effectively promote country music anywhere in this market,’’ he says, recalling a disappointing turnout for a Comcast Center (then Great Woods) show by superstar Garth Brooks in the pre-KLB era.
A station in Boston winning a CMA Award, which are peer-voted and judged on airchecks, ratings history, community involvement, and format leadership, is significant for several reasons, says the CMA’s Moore.
“The conventional wisdom is there aren’t many country music fans in the upper Northeast,’’ he says. “You and I both know that’s simply not true; there’s really some of the most ardent fans in the country. It is such a vibrant market for country music and the station has been a big part of that number one. Number two, [the winners are] voted by their peers, so other radio station executives and participants across the country get to select who they think has made the most impact.’’
Chesney, who has sold out nine shows at Gillette Stadium over the last seven years, concurred when speaking to the Globe this summer. “The fans up there, shoot, they’re more than fans, they’re family. I mean that. This thing we’ve built with them over the years — even when we were playing the small clubs and the amphitheaters, it was just a passionate bunch of people.’’
That passion was something Rogers and Brophey identified early and have slowly convinced the country booking agents and artists exists.
“We gave them a comfort level,’’ says Rogers. “As they saw the ratings grow they realized, ‘We do need to play up there more often.’ ’’
The station also brought budding artists into the city to play its acoustic “Rockin’ Country Music’’ series at the Hard Rock Cafe over the last four years, including now-big names like “The Voice’’ star Blake Shelton. “I think the promoters and the artists realize that it is cool to play downtown Boston, and the people that live in the city do listen to country music and it’s not just the suburbs,’’
When calculating the surge in local popularity, all concede the fact that country music is closer than ever to pop music is a major element.
“The music is better than it ever has been before,’’ says Brophey. “I’ve been involved in country since 1984 and the early ’90s was a heyday with Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, and Brooks and Dunn, and that was huge. But it’s also more varied than it’s ever been.’’
“Country music has evolved into a really great blend of the music people [the current artists’] age have grown up on,’’ says Rogers, of contemporary country acts who were reared on rock and top 40 as well as country. “So those rock people have come over because they’re a little disenfranchised. Pop people have come over because we’re easier to listen to. We try to make a mix where everyone of all ages are satisfied.’’
“Maybe it’s more defined now because of the stark differences of the artists,’’ says Moore. “If you look at the country music spectrum you can find just about every flavor. But clearly the newer acts lean more heavily pop and rock than some of the more traditional fare and that’s led to some making the tent bigger.’’
That bigger tent also helped welcome New Englanders with outmoded images in their heads about the genre.
“We think that people were afraid they were going to have to go out and buy boots and a cowboy hat and learn line-dancing to be part of the format, when nothing could be further from the truth,’’ says Rogers. “When people reference bull riding and hay bales that’s so not us. We’ve spent 20 years trying to cast aside those stereotypes.’’
“It really is America’s pop music now,’’ says Marsden.