No city for country fans
Cooper Boone thinks you need to come out of the closet.
You, the 30-year-old city slicker who traipses into Lincoln Center and says things like, “Isn’t the new Alice Tully Hall just marvelous?” then watches a performance of Symphony No. Whatever in B-minor until you and your little lady waltz across the street to a fancy cafe and indulge in red vino and “cultured” conversation.
Boone knows. Deep down you want to take off those fancy pants and throw on a pair of Wranglers. You want to be riding a horse instead of hailing that cab. You want to be able to ride off into the sunset and not just watch it disappear from your apartment window.
He sees the way you tap your pretty little lace-ups when he performs at some honky-tonk in the city. You know, the one you don’t talk to your friends at work about.
It’s as clear as day. You’re a country music fan.
“You have no idea how many guys come up to me and say, ‘I don’t tell many people this, but I love country music,’” says Boone.
Boone, 38, is a country musician who lives in New York City and Nashville. He, like many other urban cowboys, is still coming to terms with the fact that he can scroll through 44 FM frequencies and almost never hear Hank, Waylon or Willie.
“I’m telling you, if I had the money, I’d start a country music radio station right now,” he says.
Yes. New York City, the place where culture supposedly flows like Tennessee whiskey on a summer’s day, has not one single, solitary country music radio station. Country music, of all things, the steak and potatoes of American culture. “Oh, but people have iPods. They can listen to those,” says Rachel Ochse, 27, a project coordinator for an environmental consulting company.
But she’d better not say something like that to a country fan here who’s sick of one sissy of a station competing with another sissy of a station to see who can play the most Britney in an hour.
These souls without songs are the outcasts of New York, forced to congregate in tiny, dark bars across the city listening to the ballads of men done wrong by their women and women done wrong by their men told through the twang of a steel guitar and the warble of voices filled with pain.
You won’t catch those folks without a swagger, though. Revelers in Rodeo, a bar in Manhattan that celebrates all things country, remain unashamed. The bartender taps beer under a stuffed life-size bison standing on a cliff. Peanut shells litter the floor, buffalo horns adorn the walls and country music fans find solace in one other.
Garth Brooks sang, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” From that point of view, country music fans living in New York should feel downright enchanted: Their prayers for a country music radio station have remained utterly unanswered.
In May 2002, WYNY-FM (107.1), New York’s only country station at the time, rode off into the sunset to make room for a Spanish Top 40 station.
“How can we live in the most culturally diverse city in the U.S. and not have a music genre that is so popular in the rest of the country?” asks Andrea Greco, 34, the bartender standing under the bison.
Ed Salamon knows a thing or two about country music in New York. He was the program director of WHN when it became the most-listened-to country radio station of all time right here in the big, bad city. He was there when WHN ditched the format in 1987.
“Country music now has even a wider appeal than in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Salamon, who was dubbed country radio’s most influential programmer. “The target audience of country radio is young females, a very desirable demographic for advertisers.”
Salamon says potential New York country listeners are typical New Yorkers: not from around here, making home on a strange range. WHN was the choice of many turbaned taxi drivers and first-generation immigrants.
“In focus groups, they told us that the lyrics were easier to understand than in rock songs and that the themes of home, family and patriotism resonated with them,” says Salamon.
Some in the industry are surprised at the city’s shortsightedness.
“The thing that shocks me most is that country acts always sell out in minutes when artists go to New York,” says Lisa Christie, a morning show host and program director at KSTAR 99.7, a country radio station in Houston. “You would think New York would capitalize on that.”
Christie says country music is thriving in most areas, and she’s sure advertisers would find a specific niche market in New York.
Not everyone, though, thinks that country has a place in the city. Lisa L. Rollins, a country music journalist in Nashville, says, “There is a difference in views in the message of country music and the ways in which the populace of the city as a whole perceives the world around us.
“Country music and the values it espouses, in general, are conservative, and New York City citizens, overall, are liberal.”
Amber Taylor, a radio host for South Central Oklahoma Radio Enterprises, scoffs at the very idea of NYC-country. “I just don’t think country music and New York City goes together,” she says. “Country needs to be felt, and I’m not sure New Yorkers, in general, can relate.”
Then there those who insist they enjoy the fact that there’s no country music in New York.
Take Gail Collins, a columnist for The New York Times.
“One of the reasons I think I came to New York was to rid myself of country music,” says Collins, who is originally from Ohio.
But the New Yorkers who are cursed with this foot-stompin’ gene are left to ponder: Did our parents take the advice of Willie and Waylon, who sang, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,” too seriously?
So Boone and his urban cowboys are left to wander, alone together. But would a true cowboy have it any other way?