Has Boston Gone Country?

Like it or not, the honky-tonk sound of the South is taking over Rock City. We’ve come a long way, cowboy.

Illustration by Mark Matcho

It’s mid-August, and the streets around Fenway Park are abuzz. The legions of fans piling into the neighborhood aren’t here for a Red Sox game, though—they’re here to see country superstar Morgan Wallen, who’s playing a set of three completely sold-out shows in America’s oldest ballpark. Lansdowne Street, in fact, is swarming with folks in cowboy hats and boots, ducking into the country bar Loretta’s Last Call and getting ready to spend the night with the singer whose song “Last Night” is hitting its 16th week atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, breaking a record previously set by pop-star sensation Harry Styles.

If the scene outside Fenway Park is humming, the scene inside the concert is screaming. Almost 38,000 superfans holler along as Wallen runs through a chart-topping list of favorites such as “You Proof” and “Wasted on You.” Boston is feeling the love for Wallen, and he’s clearly feeling it right back. “This is badass, man,” he tells the audience. “I opened here in 2018 for Luke Bryan. We played at about 5 o’clock, and there weren’t a lot of people here. It’s incredible to see the difference from that year and what I came out on stage to tonight. Thank you guys so much for making that happen.”

The final flourish comes with the encore. Of course, he’s going to sing “Last Night” to mark the chart-topping history his song recently achieved. The surprise is that he comes out and sings it wearing a Red Sox jersey.

Full disclosure: I was actually not at the Morgan Wallen show, nor did I soak up the good vibes outside. In fact, I was following news of the sold-out shows online, and my first reaction was: Country music taking over Boston? WTF?! For this middle-aged New Englander, at least, Boston becoming a country-music hub seemed completely incongruous with the city’s identity. After all, this has forever been a Grade-A rock town, the home of Aerosmith, the Cars, and the Modern Lovers in the 1970s; the Pixies, the Lemonheads, and Letters to Cleo in the 1980s and 1990s; and Dropkick Murphys, Passion Pit, and Bad Rabbits in the 2000s. I’ve lived my life immersed in these bands, and when I wasn’t listening to rock, I was listening to Boston-bred soul and hip-hop artists such as New Edition, Donna Summer, Ed O.G., and Guru from Gang Starr. From my long-standing vantage point—which, of course, I deemed absolutely correct—there was no room for country in the Hub of the Universe.

For this middle-aged New Englander, at least, Boston becoming a country-music hub seemed completely incongruous with the city’s identity.

But soon after my knee-jerk reaction, I began asking myself a different question: Have I been living under a rock—or, more precisely, rock music—for too long? Even cursory research shows that country music is definitely having a moment in pop culture nationwide: The music-industry-focused research group Luminate, for instance, reports that sales and streaming of the genre were up a whole 20 percent in the first half of this year, with Wallen himself estimated to be responsible for 40 percent of that growth. Here in Boston, what began as a trickle of down-home music has become a flood that fills stadiums, arenas, and airwaves: Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, and other stars have turned the New England Country Music Festival (better known as Country Fest) at Gillette Stadium into one of the liveliest concert days in Greater Boston every year, and this August alone, country radio station 101.7 The Bull saw an almost 42 percent increase in broadcast ratings over the previous year, while digital listening increased 13 percent.

Yet even presented with irrefutable evidence of country’s boom in Boston, I still can’t help wondering how a predominantly southern music genre gained a foothold in this northernmost of cities, which has been anti-South since, well, the Civil War. And politics aside—because the truth, as I’ll learn, is that a very small percentage of country music is political—how have songs featuring lyrics with mostly genial, rural themes become so big in an intensely urban northeastern city jammed with Massholes?

I decided to ask my friend Kathleen Daley, a lifelong local who has made the transition from die-hard rock to die-hard country. She grew up in Stoneham and, as a young-adult rock fan, spent as many nights as she could seeing local rock bands such as the Sheila Divine and Godsmack. Still, now that she’s in her mid-forties, she loves listening to country music. “I feel like it’s so light and happy, and I know the subjects aren’t always light and happy, but maybe it’s the tone or the twang—it’s summer music,” she says. “I’m at the beach, I want a beer, I’m with a lot of friends.” This past summer, she saw her share of live country, including Chris Stapleton and Zac Brown Band. Best of all, she brought her two girls to their first big concert, one of Morgan Wallen’s Fenway shows.

The music has also been a balm for her in an era overshadowed by a pandemic, climate change, and war, not to mention the everyday challenges close to home. “Country music is an escape,” Daley says. “It’s just easier to listen to with kids in a stressful life. My brother James was a big country fan, and I used to make fun of him. He said, ‘You don’t like country because you haven’t lived it, but someday you’ll understand, and you’ll have a place for country.’” Then she speaks directly to me: “You should really get into it, Matthew.”

Here’s someone I know well and respect, reminding me that being open-minded isn’t just lip service but a process. So I promise to learn, though I don’t promise to get into it. Before I say goodbye, I ask where she learns about new artists. She mostly streams music, but when the radio is on in the car, she listens to 101.7 The Bull. “I think it’s one of my preset stations from before I got into country,” she says with a laugh. Because, as we both know, 101.7 used to be the highly influential alternative-rock station, WFNX.

Boston is spectacular at creating horrible morning commutes, and today is a masterpiece of misery. The sky is the dank gray color of corrugated steel, wind and rain are pummeling my car windows, and the traffic on Route 16 out to Medford is a bleary constellation of red brake lights. I love this city, but this is utterly depressing.

As I’m stuck in New England rush-hour miasma, I’m entering a sonic portal to happier times on 101.7 The Bull, a station I’ve long passed over. It’s playing artists such as Lainey Wilson, Tyler Hubbard, and Eric Church, all of whom are singing about memories of young love, weekend nights dancing in exurban fields, dreamy girls in cutoff shorts, and drinking alcohol in a way that’s romantic instead of destructive. It hits me now, as I pull into a corporate courtyard off the state road, that perhaps I’d rather be there in that songworld than here in this dreary shitstorm.

I park outside a pleasantly nondescript office building and head to the third floor, home of The Bull itself. Or, to be more precise, home of iHeartMedia Boston, the parent company of radio stations ranging from pop epicenter Kiss 108 to classic rock stalwart 100.7 WZLX to hip-hop HQ Jam’n 94.5. But today, I’m here to meet with The Bull’s program director, Joey Brooks, and Amanda Jo Parker (a.k.a. Amanda Jo on the air), who wears many hats at the station: assistant program director, music director, and on-air personality.

The Bull is a symbol of country music’s increasing reach in the city. After WFNX folded in 2012, iHeartMedia took over and turned 101.7 into a dance station called Evolution, which lasted all of a year and a half. In the midst of Evolution flooding listeners with synthesizers and drum loops in 2013, country singer Jason Aldean was selling out concerts in Fenway Park. By 2014, natural selection made Evolution extinct, and The Bull was born as Boston’s second source for country on the radio, joining the veteran station Country 102.5. These days, according to Nielsen, Country 102.5 is the fifth-most-popular music station in Boston, with a 4.4 share of average quarter-hour listeners, while The Bull is the seventh, with a 3.4 share. Combine them, and that’s quite a large number of Bostonians listening to country all day, every day.

Even though iHeartMedia is a big national conglomerate, Brooks and Amanda Jo are decidedly homegrown talent. He was raised on East 6th Street in Southie and always loved country. She spent her formative years hanging around farming families and partying in the woods with friends in Greenfield, where rural Massachusetts better approximates the vibe of a country song. Both are excited about how country music has evolved beyond old-fashioned twang to an updated mainstream sound, one that entices new fans.

I’m being transparent with everyone I interview, so I mention to Brooks and Amanda Jo that I, too, grew up in New England but have never been a country fan. It hits me immediately that this is an awkward way to advance a conversation with people whose livelihood and passion is spreading this music to the masses. Amanda Jo looks at me with a different intensity, but I soon learn it’s because she’s thinking of songs that could change my mind. “When someone tells me they don’t like country music, I’ll ask them, ‘What kind of music are you into?’” she says. “Tell me your favorite artists, and I’ll find you a country artist you should listen to. It’s a challenge where you let me invite you to like some good music that I like. A lot of people have that roadblock, where they think country music is this one thing, but it’s not like that anymore.”

At one point in the interview, she asks, “Do you like David Bowie?” Oh, she has definitely found my weak spot. I love David Bowie and have ever since my cool big sister Liz played me Ziggy Stardust and Low in our parents’ basement. Even more, he’s been a musical keystone for me, influencing so many of the postpunk and college-rock bands that shaped who I am today.

So she plays me the new single by Chris Young, “Young Love & Saturday Nights,” which takes the power-chord sequence of Bowie’s decadent 1970s classic “Rebel Rebel” and turns it into a hooky country song about romance and small-town nightlife. Even with Bowie, I maintain that no music is sacrosanct, and, in fact, Young has done something rather brilliant here. I say so to Amanda Jo and thank her for sharing it with me.

“This is my gift,” she says with a nod of the head.

Next, I ask if The Bull programs music for Boston any differently than other regional country stations. For instance, how did Jason Aldean’s controversial anti-woke, anti-gun-control hit “Try That in a Small Town” go over here? Brooks explains pragmatically that they played it just like they play any top hit, and no one complained. Then it leveled off, and the next big hit took over. Are there certain songs that might blow up or fail here? Brooks says that massive hits work here as well as anywhere, but if the New England market is any different, it’s that pop-oriented country gets big here more quickly.

Brooks and Amanda Jo deal with the biggest country stars, but I also wanted to hear from some local musicians. So I turned to a former Boston Bruins reporter and middle school teacher from the South Shore named Brian Scully. As the lead man for Dalton & the Sheriffs, he’s opened for stars such as Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, headlined at MGM Music Hall, and this fall has a monthly residency at the House of Blues. Hearing his group’s country rock, I can’t help but notice the gritty, urbane lyrics and anthemic spirit, which bears some similarity, believe it or not, to Dropkick Murphys.

That’s no accident, Scully says, and it’s also why Boston’s latency as a country-music town is coming alive. The genre “has much of its roots in Irish music, so there’s been more of a country audience in the city than people have paid attention to. And if you change your rural themes to blue-collar ones, you have found a home here for country.” He also credits an unexpected catalyst: Boston’s status as the ultimate college town. As thousands of students come to Boston from the South and Midwest, they’re bringing in country as the soundtrack to their college years.

Years ago, Elisa Smith was one of those students. She came from Illinois to study music production at the Berklee College of Music, but stage fright ended her performing career. Then, in 2015, while she was pursuing a master’s in arts education at Harvard, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood visited the school to speak about their careers. Brooks described how nervous he gets before a show until the first chord he plays on his guitar releases him. This led Smith to raise her hand and ask how he gets up on stage in the first place, and when she mentioned that she played country music, he invited her up to play a song. She felt the stage fright melt away instantly, and when she told Brooks afterward that he may have just changed her life, he gave her his guitar. Nearly nine years later, Smith is still using that same guitar, recording albums in Nashville and playing gigs at Loretta’s with Berklee students in her backing band. She sees how country music itself is undergoing a paradigm shift that makes it an easier sell here. “What you hear today is much more poppy and hip-hoppy, more urban-influenced than rural-influenced,” she says. “The banjo is buried deep down, and the drum machine is really present.”

Smith adds that Bostonians’ long-standing love of drinking and dancing dovetails nicely with two of country music’s major themes. “It’s kind of a perfect storm when you have a more urban influence mixed with a huge party culture—of course Boston is going to go country.”

It’s a September evening in Boston, but the air is so sticky and sultry and perfumed by damp leaves as I walk through the Fens that I half expect southern magnolias to be blooming along the banks of the Muddy River. Soon enough, though, I’m back in urban Boston as I emerge onto Boylston Street and approach the mayhem that is Lansdowne Street, where crowds are swarming the strip from end to end.

Inside Fenway Park, the Yankees are sweeping the Red Sox in a day-night
doubleheader, and sports fans are roaming wild. As I pass by MGM Music Hall, a long line of ticketholders stretches a full block down Ipswich Street, all of them queueing for the sold-out double-bill of indie-rock veterans the Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie. Even though I don’t like either band, the emotionally detached presence of the fans—clad in ripped jeans, obscure band T-shirts, and studiedly casual hair—feels as comfortable as a worn pair of Chuck Taylors. After all, I’ve spent most of my years going to concerts with people like these.

I linger on that thought until I notice a young couple as they cross the street in front of me. He’s wearing a Tough Mudder T-shirt and a baseball cap, with an American-flag bandanna in his back pocket; she’s in a black crop top and cutoff jeans. Both wear cowboy boots, and they’re holding hands. My heart almost leaps—on this night, these are my people. And that’s because I’m going country line dancing at Loretta’s Last Call.

Loretta’s opened in 2014, when there were no country-music clubs in the city. Owned by entertainment behemoth the Lyons Group, the club immediately filled a void opened by the New England Country Music Festival and those Jason Aldean Fenway shows. Something happens there every night of the week, whether it’s line dancing or live music. And quite an array of big names have performed there in their early days, including Mickey Guyton, Cole Swindell, Carly Pearce, and Brett Eldredge.

As a result, Loretta’s has built a loyal following, regularly filling to its 267-person capacity. “It’s one of those things where people come in, and maybe they don’t like country music, but they come out hungry for more,” says Myles Kopka, the Lyons Group’s director of training and guest relations. Until recently, he had been Loretta’s general manager since 2017. “I’ll go to Nashville wearing a Loretta’s shirt, and bands down there know Loretta’s, and they have played here. That’s a cool experience, as we’ve all worked very hard to establish a brand.” When I arrive at Loretta’s, the place is packed—even with all of the other options nearby, even when there is zero parking, even when it’s a random Tuesday.

In fact, Loretta’s has tapped into such an intense fan base that it’s no longer alone in the city. Celebrity chef Jason Santos opened the Nash Bar & Stage in the Theater District in December 2021, and it, too, offers a lineup of concerts, line dancing, and country brunches. Santos admits he’s not a country fan—he listens to house music and EDM like Tiësto or Diplo, with some rock like Green Day thrown in—but he saw an overwhelming market that was being underserved. “I realized it was becoming very big in Boston, and not a lot of venues were around to let people appreciate it,” he says. “As far as the city goes, country was not cool 12 years ago. People didn’t brag about liking country music. But now it’s one of these things where it’s a trend, what’s current and what’s hip. It’s not about me—it’s about what the people want.”

As I walk through Loretta’s, I’m keenly aware that this scene is certainly not about me either. I left my black Pumas and steel-toed Doc Martens at home and instead have on a fresh pair of jeans and my well-worn motorcycle boots. In terms of style, I fit in enough. But what gets me when I look around is this: I am old. Kopka had told me that most of the clientele would be in their twenties and early thirties, “with a few outliers in their forties.” I am most definitely an outlier, an aging hipster feeling the weight of self-consciousness.

Kopka, who is working at Loretta’s tonight, greets me warmly and introduces me to Jason Peterson, Loretta’s in-house line-dancing instructor, DJ, and emcee. A jovial 35-year-old with a big brown beard, Peterson lives with his wife in West Newton and is a healthcare consultant by day. He has led line-dancing nights at Loretta’s for seven years and has added two more nights at the Nash Bar. At least once a year, he hops down to Nashville for dancing conventions, where he learns new choreography and brings it back here.

As we talk, I’m suddenly surprised to hear T-Pain rapping over banging beats in the club. Peterson explains that he plays about 60 percent country, but the rest can be hip-hop, Ed Sheeran, Nickelback—anything that works. “I like all genres of music,” he says, “but I have a soft spot for country music, and I think country music these days really bridges many genres.”

It makes sense, given that audiences can stream whatever they want and don’t have to silo themselves into specific genres, either. “That’s what has helped it grow for us, that it’s not all country,” Peterson says. “It’s also an amazing, welcoming community. There are a lot of divisive things out there, not just in Boston. But here, you can have someone who is right-wing dancing with someone who is left-wing, and it doesn’t come into play on the dance floor. It’s all about respect.”

Watching the crowd, I can see what he means. There are people focused on dancing, maybe whooping and hollering here and there. There’s laughter and drinking of beers, but minus the lurking shadow of belligerence you get at some of the heavier bars downtown. And to be honest, the crowd looks a bit more diverse than the one standing outside the alt-rock show across the street.

Peterson serves up his line-dancing instruction about every 45 minutes, when there seems to be a lull in the crowd. That time is now, so I finish my Sam Adams and head to the dance floor. The mellow healthcare consultant I’ve just been talking to is now onstage, hyping the next dance with gale-force brio. It’s called “The Bartender Stomp,” and it’s meant to be simple for beginners. He walks us through the steps multiple times, then puts on Travis Tritt’s cover version of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” and away we go.

At first, I forget everything. Do I take three or four grapevine steps to the right or to the left? Do I forward stomp or stay in place? But by the first chorus, muscle memory kicks in, and I find myself concentrating less and just moving. It’s a long way from my usual horribly dated mash-up of postpunk pogoing and new-jack-swing moves I learned from Bobby Brown videos. There’s no improvisation here, no showing off. Just a group effort, and frankly, the anonymity of it removes my self-consciousness.

I can see that if I had a crew who loved this, too, if I hadn’t built up a hard shell of competitive coolness over the decades, I could be into country line dancing.

When the songs change to more complicated dances, I take a break from the dance floor and simply watch all the men and women leap, jump, and spin in ways that would take weeks or months to achieve. Dancers come up and joke with Peterson, quickly chatting about music or a family acquaintance, and then add to his request-list notebook, which is dozens of songs long. I can see what it would mean to be a regular here. In fact, I can see that if I were in my twenties, if I had a crew who loved this, too, if I hadn’t built up a hard shell of competitive coolness over the decades, I could be into this. But the truth is that it doesn’t matter: Country music is getting big in Boston because it is that generation’s scene now, not mine so much.

As I hop in my car at the end of the night and merge onto Storrow Drive, 101.7 The Bull is playing Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night.” I’ve certainly gotten used to the song by now, and I like it, but I don’t love it. To be honest, I haven’t yet heard a country song on the radio that I absolutely love and that speaks to my soul as if it’s my own voice. But I’d like to find that song, so over the past few weeks, I’ve asked everyone to suggest a country song that they think would convert me, and now seems like a good time to break one of them out: Kopka had suggested “Boondocks,” by Little Big Town, as the one that made him a country fan when he was a teenager in small-town New Hampshire. So I cue the song up, roll down the windows, let the warm breeze blow in, and press play.

First published in the print edition of the November 2023 issue with the headline, “Has Boston Gone Country?”