Seattle, You Love Your Mainstream Country Music

You just won't admit it.

Chesney’s Qwest concerts set a Seattle attendance record.

Chesney’s Qwest concerts set a Seattle attendance record.

Who are these people? Like that guy singing karaoke. With his mustache, embroidered NASCAR shirt, Wrangler jeans, and cell phone fastened to his hip, he’s the type of good old boy TV news reporters love to stop in the 7-Eleven parking lot when tragedies strike small towns (“Lived here my whole life; never expected somethin’ like this t’happen”).

In walks a broad-shouldered Alan Jackson look-alike. He, too, has the mustache, fitted denim, and cell phone at the hip. He’s also got hair to the middle of his back topped off by a large cowboy hat—a little more of a bad-boy allure. Other guys are sporting Tim McGraw’s geometric facial hair; still others cop Kenny Chesney’s baby-faced quarterback shtick. And the women—well, if they aren’t in the fashion of Faith Hill’s American Eagle-meets-Nashville-slick, then they resemble the type of gals who give pedicures and perms.

These people don’t care about looking hip. They are country music fans, every one. And in Seattle, where it’s easy to believe each person is cut from the same New Yorker–subscribing, NPR-listening, liberal-leaning cloth, it’s bewildering to learn that mainstream country music ranks at or near the top of the city’s most popular genres. So popular that Chesney broke local records for concert ticket sales—more than 44,000 people went to see him two years in a row at Qwest Field, which made his shows bigger attractions than those of Madonna, U2, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones.

In fact, for five of the past seven years, the top local FM radio station has been mainstream country station KMPS (it’s been one of the top three local stations for 32 years). Seattle is also one of the nation’s top markets for country music in terms of album sales. Yet, without fail, most people still raise an eyebrow at the assertion that Seattle is a country town.

“Believe me, it’s frustrating for us,” says Becky Brenner, programming director for KMPS. “You try to tell people that country is the biggest format, and they go, ‘What? It’s the home of grunge and rock!'”

The numbers speak for themselves, but the local live country scene does not. The Little Red Hen is the only bar located within the city limits that regularly offers live mainstream country music, and there are only a handful of local artists working in the genre. Most of them, if they want any success at all, have their sights set on Nashville. Compare this with the local indie-rock scene, where bands like Grand Archives get signed to Sub Pop after one show.

“It’s a tough city,” says Nathan Arneson. “It’s definitely different, mostly because there [are] not many places to play.”

Seated in the very uncountry West Seattle Easy Street Records, Arneson has a well-calculated country swagger, a precise way of tilting a beer bottle to his lips, and a very polite, two-pump country handshake. He has a way of tucking only the front of his T-shirt in (so his belt buckle shows), and wears a cowboy hat made out of hide, with two beaded feathers hanging from the back. Today, however, he’s in a Seahawks jersey and knit cap.

Arneson is a member of Nathan Chance & North Coast, a band he’s in with another local country singer, Chance McKinney (the two split singing and songwriting duties). His style of country is in line with several of the mainstream stars of today, his vocals heavy with classic-rock flavor. For six years, Arneson ran the Little Red Hen’s Wednesday karaoke night, where he was dubbed “Country Nathan.” But he recently stepped down to focus on the band and do some work in Nashville, namely nailing down a producer to work on an EP.

Arneson has played country music in Seattle for years—formerly with Latigo Lace—and is aware of the fact that bands like his are few and far between. “When we say we’re the only game in town,” he says, “it’s because we kinda are. There [are] just not many quality country bands around.”

Being the cream of some very slim pickings has provided Nathan Chance & North Coast with great opportunities. Whereas groups like Band of Horses ignite bidding wars between local rock clubs, Arneson’s band has been first on the list to open for George Strait, Rascal Flatts, Brooks & Dunn, and Chesney’s record-breaking Qwest Field shows.

Take one glance at Arneson’s tour lineup for the next few months, however, and you won’t see Seattle on that list anywhere, even though he’s lived and played here since 1995. Kitsap and Skagit County casinos, sure—but unless those big-name Nashville acts come through town, his local gigs here are few and far between.

“Even though there’s obviously a large market for it,” he says, “unless you’re playing casinos, your only options are opening shows. But the casinos aren’t really good places either because the people aren’t there to hear the music. We get people all the time asking us, ‘Why don’t you play more shows?’ Well, we would if we could get them.”

It would seem more versatile, welcoming clubs like the Showbox and the Triple Door could do well by booking mainstream country acts, but that’s not the case. “Country is tough,” says Triple Door booker Scott Giampino. “We love doing country shows…but it’s harder to reach many of the country fans to let them know of our possible shows.”

Compared to places like Neumo’s, the Triple Door is comfortable, unpretentious, and has good acoustics and food—all qualities that should play well with the country crowd. But Giampino claims that the few times they’ve hosted acts like Hal Ketchum and Ryan Shupe, ticket sales have been poor, thus dampening the club’s enthusiasm for booking future performances.

However, Giampino notes that Shelby Lynne, a singer with appeal in pop and alt-country markets, has played the Triple Door twice and packed it both times. He suspects one reason for this is that her fans are more inclined to peruse the outlets his club advertises in, namely the two alternative weeklies, as well as community radio stations like KEXP. At the Little Red Hen, longtime bar manager Connie Robertson, an older woman who loves the club’s patrons but takes no guff from the unruly ones, adds that her clientele doesn’t bother looking for country shows at venues that don’t have a reputation for booking them.

Considering that Chesney had thousands of people come from as far away as Sedro-Woolley and the Olympic Peninsula for the Qwest shows, it would be easy to assume that mainstream country fans are not city people—that the reason KMPS thrives is because its signal reaches, as Brenner says, “from Vancouver to Vancouver and as far east as Cle Elum.” All this points to an oft-forgotten fact: Seattle is a smudge of cosmopolitanism surrounded by a whole lot of country.

“You have to look at the whole area,” says KEXP’s programming director, Don Yates, citing Snohomish, Pierce, and South King counties as hotbeds for country fans. “A lot of those places were farming communities, places like Kent, Renton, Mill Creek. And those places are filled with people who maybe had to sell off their family farm but didn’t want to move.”

While that may be true, Robertson and Arneson both say that most of the country fans they know reside within the city limits. Yates adds that Seattle is filled with people who have—in the manner of a classic country song cliché—moved from the country to the city in search of work.

“Take a song like [Bobby Bare Sr.’s] ‘Detroit City,'” he says. “It’s all about a guy who moves from the South to Detroit to work in the auto plants.” Likewise, Robertson claims several of her customers are transplants who have moved for jobs in the tech industry, but also want to maintain a connection to their roots.

“We’ve got lawyers in Bellevue driving BMWs, and we’ve got farmers out working in the fields,” says Brenner of KMPS’s audience, which is estimated to be about 500,000. “Country songs are all about God, family, and country. It’s about these conservative values, and whether you’re living life on the farm or living in the city and dreaming of the simple life, it’s got something for you. It’s escapism to a degree.”

Seattle has been an undeniable hotbed for alternative country over the years, having birthed the genre’s magazine of record, No Depression (which recently announced it will end its print publication). In Ballard, the Tractor Tavern books all forms of roots music, and Seattle has been home to several successful artists of that ilk, including Neko Case, Christy McWilson, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, and Mark Pickerel. KEXP also boasts three weekday evening programs for roots music fans: Greg Vandy’s The Roadhouse, Leon Berman’s Shake the Shack, and Yates’ (under the pseudonym Don Slack) own Swingin’ Doors, which attracts more than 13,000 local listeners each week.

Still, Seattle is a liberal city. And mainstream country—as opposed to its more live-and-let-live offshoot—is one of the few genres of music closely aligned with political conservatism. After 9/11, the country airwaves were saturated with cheesy, jingoistic anthems, and the Dixie Chicks were roundly chastised for telling a European audience they were embarrassed to be from the same state as President Bush.

However, fans of roots music and alt-country still hold up conservative artists like Bill Monroe and Merle Haggard (who now leans further left than he once did) as infallible icons. Here, Yates agrees that when a song is good, politics is a moot point. Rather, he feels the main reason country is so hated by the so-called cognoscenti is the lack of variety.

“On KMPS and other country stations, you only ever hear two kinds of country songs anymore,” he says. “It’s either this overwhelmingly sappy Hallmark greeting-card stuff or it’s cliché redneck anthems.”

Country music, Yates says, is actually one of the most widely varied genres around, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the mainstream filters. For the three hours his Swingin’ Doors show (which takes its name from a Merle Haggard song) is on the air, Yates spins anything from traditional country to cowpunk, rockabilly, countrypolitan, bluegrass, honky-tonk, western swing, and beyond. But he’s also not opposed to throwing on the occasional Jackson or Strait ditty.

“Those two are just straight-up traditional country singers,” he says. “In my mind, they’re not Haggard and [George] Jones, but they’re as close as you can get nowadays.”

Yates says he’s disappointed that KMPS has left no room for more original artists, instead playing the same handful of songs over and over. “I even heard one of the people at KMPS saying they weren’t going to play the new Miranda Lambert single because ‘It’s just not for us,'” laughs Yates. “Sure, in the song she’s sitting at home with a six-pack and a gun ready to shoot her man who’s been cheating on her when he comes home. Back in the day, that would have been a huge hit on country radio.”

To KMPS’s Brenner, folks who lob these sorts of accusations simply aren’t listening: “I tell everybody, if you listen to nothing but country for three days, I guarantee you’ll love it and you won’t go back. You can hear the lyrics; you can understand the songs. No matter who you are, you can relate to a country song.”

The Little Red Hen’s Robertson remembers a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s when she and her friends could begin a night at the Hen and, if timed just right, make it to see another country act at the Cascade in Everett—before hightailing it down I-5 to see yet another band at the Riverside in Tukwila.

“We were crazy back then,” she says.

That sort of whirlwind tour is no longer possible: The Riverside and the Cascade closed in the ’90s (both became casinos and quit booking live country music). But the sweet to the bitter for Robertson is that these venues’ closures have made her club the undisputed king of the local scene.

Opened in 1954, the Hen has held its ground as one of the few remaining holdouts of old, weird Seattle. Originally just another family-run North End restaurant-bar, it’s been devoted entirely to live country-and-western music since 1987.

A few Saturdays ago, Hen regulars the Joe Slick Band played straight-up country covers and a few originals to a packed house. No sooner did the band strike up its first number than men began walking the floor, asking ladies to dance. From that first note, the hardwood dance floor was a whirl of snap-button shirts, cowboy hats, and deep-blue denim. Having spent countless nights at rock shows, where audiences barely move beyond head-nodding, it was refreshing to see a roomful of people of all ages dancing freely and without shame.

The Hen’s interior sees little sunlight, and its yellowed walls are adorned with painted scenes depicting the cowboy life. Even if it weren’t a place for live country, the club would be an anomaly in Seattle. All around it, in the Green Lake neighborhood, old buildings have been torn down in favor of condos. There are several stores devoted to the materialistic fitness buff. Not far away are a PCC and a Starbucks, and a block from the Hen’s front door is a gym with large, street-level windows, past which the bar’s clientele can walk and gawk at people dripping sweat onto incline treadmills.

If there is a battle against homogenization in Seattle, the Hen is one of its representative icons. Some have likened it to a sore thumb, others a middle finger. But none of this matters to the Hen’s patrons. They come here because they love country music—and because it’s the only place they can go. If anything, the Hen is a big fist raised in the air, symbolizing a collective “Hell, yeah!”

The Hen’s proximity to I-5 and Aurora Avenue, as well as its being a stone’s throw from the University of Washington, make it more accessible than the Cascade and the Riverside ever were. It’s also one of the few clubs capable of packing a full house with an age range of 21- to 84-year-olds—on any given night, college students, dot-commers, blue-collar types, and senior citizens can all be seen swingin’ their partners round.

Surprisingly, outside of casinos, the suburbs offer little in the way of country entertainment. There are two McCabe’s: one in Everett and another in Tacoma, the latter of which was recently the site of numerous gang-related incidents during its Monday Top 40 and hip-hop nights.

Visible from I-5, the Everett McCabe’s looks enough like a country bar. But step inside and you’ll see why Arneson is quick to dismiss it as “more of a disco than anything.” It’s a meat-market kind of dance club, with a DJ booth and no stage whatsoever. Like Cowgirls Inc., you can ride a mechanical bull if you like. But recent years have seen McCabe’s expanding its focus to hip-hop and Top 40 as well.

“So, you got the Hen,” says Arneson. “It’s the only place with live bands six nights a week.”

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Garth Brooks was blowing up, Arneson says, bands like the Ridler Brothers, Blue Mariah, and Cowboy Beat thrived. “Those bands were playing the Riverside, and it was packed every night.”

The Hen plays host to a rotating cast of regular groups, including Jerry and the PhilBillys and the Buckaroo Blues Band. But as Arneson points out, those groups, talented as they are, are bar bands that, unlike Arneson, have no expectation of making a blip on the national scene. And while KMPS is obviously doing fine and big-name artists like Chesney have no trouble breaking ticket sales records, with no larger clubs to support and nurture artists the way Seattle’s indie-rock venues have, country acts are forced to look for work elsewhere, often moving to Nashville before even getting started here.

Brenner, who has worked at KMPS since 1982, recognizes the limited exposure local artists receive. “The number of country clubs in Seattle has fluctuated,” she says. “But I think that has more to do with economic reasons and the trend of clubs closing overall.”

Arneson remains undaunted: “There [are] enough fans in Seattle that if someone were to open a club and do country shows regularly, it would do well.”

The Tallboys are a young trio who got their start busking at Pike Place Market. They specialize in raw, old-time music, and now help kick off the workweek by hosting Monday Night Square Dance at the Tractor. Here, snap-button shirts and cowboy hats are abundant, but, unlike at the Hen, worn with a touch of irony.

While their audience consists mainly of folks whose taste in country has less to do with Toby Keith than with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, each song the Tallboys sing is nonetheless rooted in the three conservative American values—God, family, and country—Brenner likes to tout. Their music is plunked out on old acoustic instruments, with the female member prone to bursts of clog dancing and a bearded hippie type standing center stage calling out Appalachian square-dancing instructions as though he were on the set of Coal Miner’s Daughter.

“Don’t be shy…now promenade…do-si-do…swing your partner.”

And the crowd does swing. Aesthetically, mainstream and alt-country are different, but the fundamentals are the same. Which begs the question: Why is it that the Tractor’s rural fantasy is somehow considered cooler than what transpires on any given night at the Hen?

Last year, Yates heard a track by Toby Keith called “Get My Drink On” that he thought was one of the best country songs of the year. The cover of the Keith album that song is from, Big Dog Daddy, speaks volumes about why so many turn their noses up at the genre. It’s a close-up of a bearded, grinning Keith in a cowboy hat, looking every bit like the unintelligent doofus that he’s derided as by liberals. The album title is scrawled out in graffiti, as if Keith has something in common with Snoop Dogg. In short, it looks desperate.

Yet on Big Dog Daddy are songs that, if listened to closely, are as good as any you’ll hear in the alt-country genre, suggesting that, underneath the sheen and blandness of its often overly image-conscious singers, there are good things happening in mainstream country. Perhaps all it needs is more discerning listeners willing to let go of stale biases.

“What’s not to like about it?” Arneson argues. “Country music is not hard to listen to. I mean, it’s one of the only kinds of music with lyrics that are so easy to understand. I honestly think people just don’t give it a chance.”

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