Half-empty fifths of Fireball whiskey and red Solo cups lined folding tables in front of a herd of pickup trucks filled with blacked-out boys in backwards hats.
Joey Shruhan, 27, described the scene from one of his most memorable country music tailgates.
There was an old couch in the bed of one truck: the perfect perch for viewing the sea of cowboy hats and daisy dukes. Two American flags adorned the truck, because, you know, #Murica.
It’s officially country concert season. Or basically Christmas for Shruhan, country music lover and self-proclaimed bro.
Shruhan’s tailgate set-up at Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, is “fucking sweet,’’ with a grill, corn hole, beer pong, and most importantly, plenty of Fireball—a brand of cinnamon whiskey that has earned its own category in country-concert tailgating.
“Everyone’s into Fireball by the way,’’ he said, four shots deep into the “whispering whiskey’’ because he pre-gamed our interview.
The tailgate is a spectacle, he said. It’s all contrived to “mingle,’’ with women specifically.
“We are looking for girls. Everyone is looking for girls. There’s tons of them there. That’s a huge factor,’’ Shruhan said. “We gotta stand out so people come to us. There are girls everywhere and everyone wants to meet a girl when you go to a country concert so we just go find a big group of them and go talk to them and tell them to come back to our set-up with us.’’
When the show starts, his crew—now rolling 20 deep—makes their way to the lawn, the grassy standing-room area behind the venue’s ticketed seating sections.
“You’d rather be there than up close (to the stage),’’ he said. “Unless, you know, it’s Taylor Swift. Then I want to be right up front, if not backstage.’’
Dancing. Drinking. Mingling.
In between sets, he said he hits the bar. He starts with vodka, before he moves to Bud Light. Or a summer ale if he’s “feeling classy.’’
And then Shruhan sees it: the vendor making rounds around the lawn selling cowboy hats.
“Yeah buddy, come over here! I want that!’’ he hollers to his new friend, who he quickly dubs the “hat guy.’’
Shruhan said he always ends up with a hat by the end of the night. When he gets home, he’ll throw it in the pile with the 15 others and wonder again why he didn’t just bring the first one to the show.
You can say Shruhan’s been to a lot of country concerts.
He bought the Xfinity Center’s Country Megaticket months in advance—which includes tickets to all eight of their country shows—and he’s bought one every year for the past eight years. He lives for these shows.
This year’s line-up at the venue, happening now, includes some of the hottest names in country music: Sam Hunt, Dierks Bentley, Florida-Georgia Line, Darius Rucker, Thomas Rhett, Frankie Ballard, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Billy Currington, and more.
The eight-show series doesn’t lack for testosterone. But, these days, neither does country music in general.
In May’s Billboard top country songs, over half of country radio’s top 40 songs fall in the category of “bro-country.’’
Live Nation’s ticket sales for its country concerts grew 50 percent from 2013 to 7 million, according to the New York Times. The ticket-selling titan said it now views country as “one of its two fastest-growing genres, along with electronic dance, the hot youth trend of the moment,’’ according to a report issued by Live Nation in 2014.
Country music in the Boston region has come a long way from the days when George Strait would play concerts in Worcester because he was worried he couldn’t sell tickets in Boston.
The region’s embrace of country as a music genre and a lifestyle took off around the same time as its overall shift toward bro-country in 2013.
Double J Western Store, the largest high end country-style apparel and accessories shop in New England, has seen average sales increase over the last few years from about $150 to $200 per customer to over $300 in sales per customer, with a notable increase in customers coming from Boston, owner Brenda Hodge said.
Some bars have even embraced the theme full-time, serving “moonshine’’ in Mason jars and line dancing at Loretta’s Last Call, which opened on Landsdowne Street by Fenway Park in early 2014, and hosting mechanical bull rides at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill, which in 2011 opened its only New England location within spitting distance of the Patriots’ Rob Gronkoski, well, gronking, at home games.
Other Boston bars—the dives once solely dedicated to dance music and live cover bands—are now embracing country themes with weekly country nights, like every Saturday at West End Johnnies or every Friday at the Harp.
And, perhaps most notably to the locals, the radio is following suit. Turn on two of the one-time hit alternative rock stations and you’ll find WKLB’s Country 102.5 and 101.7 The Bull.
Longtime WKLB program director Mike Brophey said that the station had a rival country station in the 1990s, WBCS, but in 1996, Greater Media consolidated the stations with the thought that WKLB would fail based on lack of interest in country music at the time.
WKLB is now in third place in Nielsen ratings among all Boston stations, with more than 897,000 unique weekly listeners in May.
“Country music popularity has surged the past few years,’’ Bull program director Lance Houston said.
Houston said The Bull, which only started a little over a year ago, ended May ranked 16th place among all Boston stations, with an average of 418,000 unique weekly listeners, according to Nielsen, numbers that Houston and Brophey both confirmed.
“Bro-country is basically party music, and partying isn’t really going away, so I think in some way, shape or form bro-country is here to stay in some extent,’’ Brophey said. “The combination of great songs, great concerts, and people wanting and having the time to party all fits into the summer better than any other season.’’
It’s time to face an uncomfortable reality: Boston is super bro.
The reasons why range from the important to the frivilous.
Bro-culture is targeted towards 18-to-34-year-olds, which is a large percentage of the Boston population, with over 50 colleges and universities in the area and more than 250,000 students in Boston and Cambridge alone; sports fandom is a serious business for the region, perhaps not better illustrated than by actual protests defending the name of Patriots’ idol Tom Brady; and Boston was named by The Daily Beast drunkest city in 2013—for the second year in a row.
Then there’s the city’s love of lawn games, a force so strong that a 40-foot-by-40-foot patch of green AstroTurf will be introduced to City Hall Plaza next week.
And demand for Fireball, Shruhan’s drink of choice, is so high that Justin Thompson, co-owner of Belle’s Cocktail House in Lexington, which focuses on premium whiskeys, told Gaznette that the bar only started selling Fireball after they kept continously finding empty Fireball minis in the bathrooms’ trash.
As country music embraces all that is deemed cool about being a bro—booze, babes, and a #YOLO party attitude—it makes sense that Boston is now listening.
“Listen, I don’t think anyone would be drinking Fireball right now if it wasn’t for Florida Georgia Line,’’ Shruhan said. “And now if we don’t bring Fireball to Countryfest, we are going to be kind of fucking losers.’’
Bro-country has created a loyal fan-base of consumers in the Boston region, a sub-culture cult of whiskey drinking, party-loving, truck-driving, and arguably misogynistic followers in tank tops listening to catchy songs with twang.
“If you look at anyone from 18 to 28, that’s their life,’’ he said. “They go out every Friday, Saturday night. They want to drink, they want to hang out with their friends, they want to have fun. They want to drink and do everything at every moment of their life.’’
For Shruhan, who grew up on classic country, he’s happy to be a part of what he calls “our generation’s hippie movement.’’
“It’s kind of a rebellion almost,’’ he said. “Now everyone listens to country in the younger generation, and it is completely different from what your father or mother used to listen to in country music.’’
Except this rebellion is concerned less with social issues and more with socializing.
For now, Shruhan said for now he’ll “keep living’’ and focus on having fun.
“I am just hanging out with my buddies right now in this generation, and I am listening to bro music,’’ he said.
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