Nashville takes over our town
It's not your granddad's country, and it's huge in Philly.
HOW HOT is country music in our urbane metropolis?
On Monday, Upper Darby's Tower Theater will be honored with just one of four national tour stops for " 'Nashville' in Concert," featuring the singing/strumming cast from the ABC-TV prime-time drama with lotsa music.
"We're just getting our feet wet, testing the waters in a few friendly towns," said cast member Chris Carmack, who plays handsome hunk Will Lexington.
Five days later, guitar-wailing country popster Hunter Hayes will conclude his record-breaking (he hopes), multicity/multishow "24 Hour Road Race to End Child Hunger" at the Trocadero. Despite commencing at 5 a.m., the gig sold out in a wink.
Check out the latest Arbitron ratings and you might be surprised to learn which radio station is No. 1 with the trendy young adult (18-to-24) crowd: Philadelphia's country music stronghold, WXTU (92.5 FM).
While the radio station is about to turn 30, it's evidentially more trusted than ever before.
"We were also No. 1 in the last weekly rating with adults 18-to-49, and third in 25-to-54," shared program director Shelly Easton.
While Florence and Tel Aviv are Philadelphia's main "sister cities," it might be time to embrace Nashville as a kissin' cousin.
"Hardly a week goes by when I don't hear of someone else from Philly who's moving down here."
So shared Downingtown-to-Nashville transplant Liz Longley, a terrific singer-songwriter (with just a hint of adopted "twang") who's found the Tennessee town "wonderfully welcoming and inspirational, with music in all shapes and sizes, everywhere you turn."
Longley staged a homecoming last weekend at the Ardmore Music Hall to a very enthusiastic audience.
And Glenolden's own country-blues singer Audra McLaughlin has convinced the world that she's the real deal on NBC's "The Voice" this season, first winning endorsement from country star/show judge Blake Shelton and now as a strong finalist contender.
Young Phillybillies are also flocking to Nashville in droves for vacations. When Molly Rigas turned 25 last month, her three-years-older friend Francesca Gunning organized a celebratory group outing to the Music City to visit hot spots, like the Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry.
"We all watch 'Nashville' together," Gunning said. "The show is shot on location, which warms you up to the hot spots."
The roundabout route
Generations of mainstream music fans once wrote off country as "corny," oddly foreign, almost unapproachable. Today, crossover country/pop star Taylor Swift, from the wilds of Wyomissing, Pa., is the biggest-selling artist in all of contemporary music "because she sings about relationships rather than beer and pickup trucks," noted WXTU's Easton.
Doesn't hurt that big summer "shed" shows and extravaganzas, like last weekend's cablecast Stagecoach festival, in California, are often as hard-rocking 'n' -stomping as a Bruce Springsteen show. Friday's Stagecoach headliner, Eric Church, even paid homage to the Boss with his traditional show-closer, "Springsteen."
And with country sophisticates T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller as original and current executive music producers, respectively, "Nashville" the TV show focuses often on the artier, more poetic, Americana singer-songwriter side of country, with material written by the likes of John Paul White (of the chamber-folkie Civil Wars) and next-big-things Striking Matches, the duo of Justin Davis and Downingtown native Sarah Zimmermann, who've just completed their first album for the newly revived I.R.S./Capitol label. The pair made a cameo appearance on last week's "Nashville: On the Record" ABC concert special with the cast.
Now living "a dream come true," Zimmermann is a former high-school marching band and coffeehouse play pal of Liz Longley.
Thrown together with Davis six years ago at a freshman-year, make-some-music-fast "hazing challenge" at Nashville's Belmont University, the duo "instantly clicked," Zimmermann said. Later came a deal with Universal Music Publishing.
And they've had six songs in the first two seasons of "Nashville" - three performed by petulant Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, not on the current tour), two sung by ever-noble Deacon (Charles "Chip" Esten, who's from Pittsburgh) and most recently the knockout "I Ain't Leaving Without Your Love," dealt by the dynamic trio of Sam Palladio (who hides his British accent well), Jonathan Jackson and Chaley Rose.
And while they haven't connected through a song "as yet," Zimmermann also is a "big fan" of Clare Bowen, the Australian talent who plays waifish Scarlett O'Connor "and sings even better live than she does on the show."
Bowen is recording material for a possible solo album; ditto Jackson, who has an announced deal.
Keeping it real
As a microcosm of the town's music-centric population, the cast of "Nashville" has become "very much like a family" and is "very serious about keeping this music honest, from the heart," shared Carmack in our recent chat.
Like a lot of today's new country music makers (and fans), this commanding singer/guitarist/actor/model came to the party "more as a fan of classic country-rock groups, like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd."
His education in current Nashville music started only when "the breakdown for my character said, 'a Jason Aldean type.' I had to Google to discover he was only the country male vocalist of the year. Yeah, I was completely ignorant! But I've come to love quite a bit of this music and am grateful to the show for exposing me to it."
Carmack's so into the music, "I'm sticking around Nashville all summer to gig. I'm calling this my summer of fantasy band camp."
The "Nashville" cast has yet to learn if the show is being renewed, but Carmack has a "gut feeling" it will be.
"There's a pretty good darn cliff-hanger," he said, involving his compelling character, Will, a closeted gay man "with a certain amount of self-delusion," who impulsively decided to marry a woman "to get ahead of the rumors" - and, even worse, participate in a reality-TV show.
"It's an awesome role, a story line with a lot of meat on the bone," Carmack said. "I've yet to meet any Nashville music maker who's admitted to being gay, but the fate of Chely Wright, a full-on country star who came out and doesn't get played on the radio anymore, is instructive.
"And I have had a lot of genuine thank-yous and slaps on the back from the LGBT community for telling it like it is. For the first time in my career, I'm feeling like I could be making a difference."
Ready to rethink country, now?