Country music fandom is full of Urbanites — that is, fans of Keith Urban (left). But how about lower-case-U urbanites? The Country Music Association aimed to both break down and have fun with stereotypes about the supposed incongruity of country in the big city by holding this year’s Country Music Association Awards at Madison Square Garden instead of Opryland. And it wasn’t just a one-night invasion. The week leading up to the telecast was filled with events that found midtown Manhattan overrun with Manuel-designed cowboy jackets and Stetsons — and probably left some New Yorkers feeling like Nashville tourists in their own hometown.
For country fans who either have industry ties or a lot of money to spend, the week was a bonanza. Some of the genre’s biggest stars, including Urban, Lee Ann Womack, and Brooks & Dunn, did rare club shows at scruffy alt-rock venues like the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza.
Lee Ann Womack used the eve of her awards triumph to share a billwith alt-country upstart Shooter Jennings at the Bowery Ballroom. She’s made her act much moretraditional this past year, which pleased the crowd of rowdyrockers — but she did perform her treacly crossover hit of some yearsback, “I Hope You Dance,” with an introductory mea culpa. “There wasonly one time I didn’t sing this song at one of my shows,” sheapologized, “and I got this woman saying: ‘Lee Ann Womack, you suck!’”
Urban’s two-night-stand at Irving Plaza was certainly one ofthe week’s hottest tickets. He borrowed a song from another band thathad gone slumming in that club: U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Maybe he washaving a premonition of the beautiful night he’d have when he would winEntertainer of the Year in front of millions instead of hundreds thefollowing night.
(Read more about country music in Manhattan after the jump.)
Neckties outnumbered bolo ties (for probably the first time at a GrandOle Opry show) when the 80-year-old radio/TV/variety series made a sidetrip to Carnegie Hall. Down on the floor, there were some bona fideTrace Adkins fans who’d paid the high ticket price to see possibly themost star-studded Opry lineup ever. But the box levels were filled withsuit-and-tie types — bringing to mind the time the royal performancewhere the Beatles suggested the fans below clap along and the regaltypes up above just rattle their jewelry.
Host Vince Gill managed to combine one of his characteristic jokesabout his fluctuating weight with some New York humor. “I’m happy totell you I’ve been here since noon,” he told the Opry/Carnegie crowd,“and I’ve had 17 slices of pizza.” Others on the bill includedcontemporary stars Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Alison Krauss, andBrad Paisley. Unfortunately, the Carnegie show was not filled with theOpry’s usual between-song pitches for sausages and Cracker Barrel. Butthe event did capture some of the freewheeling flavor of the real Oprywhen diminutive old-timer Little Jimmy Dickens, who has been performingsince 1938 and on the Opry since ’48, came out to sing “May the Bird ofParadise Fly Up Your Nose.” Another veteran of many decades, BillAnderson, sang a duet with Paisley on “Too Country,” a pointed balladthat decries Nashville sellouts who utter the title phrase as theyeschew traditional sounds and songs. The irony that thisanti-crossover, stick-to-your-roots number was being ferventlyapplauded by a lot of Upper East Siders attending their first countryconcert wasn’t lost on many. (The show was aired live on radio and wasvideotaped for airing on the Great American Country channel early nextyear.)
If you’re the confused sort who can’t decide whether you preferAndrew Lloyd Webber or Webb Pierce, the “Broadway Meets Country”concert at a jazz hall in Lincoln Center was the event for you.Nashvillians sang show tunes, theater stars got twangy, andoccasionally, in cross-genre duets, the twain did meet. American Idolwinner Carrie Underwood teamed up with Oklahoma! star Patrick Wilsonon a sublime “Suddenly Seymour.” Brian Stokes Mitchell covered a Garth Brooks’ “Standing Outside the Fire,” sounding tailor-made for a GreatWhite Way extravaganza. Ben Vereen did a few dance steps while crowninghimself “King of the Road.” Two comic highlights stole the show: JamesNaughton managed to master the tongue-twisting Johnny Cash/Hank Snowfavorite “I’ve Been Everywhere” without even referring to the monitors,as other performers did. And theatrical grand dame Marian Seldes did ahilariously melodramatic spoken-word reading of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’tWoman Enough to Take My Man,” which the well-spoken actress rendered as “You aren’t woman enough…” (The show was taped for audiobroadcast on XM’s Broadway channel.)
The New York premiere of the Johnny Cash/June Carter biopic Walkthe Line at the Beacon Theatre — a moviehouse turned concert hall,returning to its roots for the night — drew more visiting country starsthan actors. Joaquin Phoenix did walk — er, work — the line of press alongthe black (get it?) carpet. As he spoke with me, he started lookingover my head and seemed to be acknowledging someone or something upthere. Oh oh, did I have a frog in my hair? “Firefighters,” he explained. Iturned around, and sure enough, there were some guys on a passingfiretruck waving at him; seems they share a bond since Ladder 49.Once inside, probably everyone was glad, given the unique nature of thecelebs on hand, that this was a hall with a hat-check counter. Think about it: What does Trace Adkins normally do when he goes to the movies?