Society has a way of dividing Americans into neat little boxes, but apparently it's the sound of country music that has what it takes to bring everyone back together. It blurs lines between ages, incomes and educations. Regardless of the boxes you check on questionnaires, the tunes that come out of Nashville make neighbors of the most diverse fans.
Like Joan Hyatt and Maddie Mitchell. Hyatt, 76, of McGee, Ark., has been a choir director and a piano teacher. Now she's a grandma. Bored with retirement, she stumbled onto a country music TV station.
"I found what I was looking for when I didn't even know I was looking for it," Hyatt said. "I love what country music is saying today. Trace Adkins says it best in `Songs About Me': `Songs about lovin' and livin'/And good-hearted women/Family and God/Yeah, they're songs about me.'" Hyatt added that her switch to country surprised her family. "You would've thought I'd taken a lover on the side," she said.
And then there's Mitchell. Just 13, from Clarendon Hills, Mitchell is all about country music. "My dad's the one who turned me on to it, but I go to concerts with my mom," Mitchell said. "My friends and I agreed that next time Rascal Flatts came to Chicago, we were going. We're raising ticket money by baby-sitting as much as possible before June 10," she added.
A unifying force
Ethan MccGregor and Ed Reid don't have much in common, either. MccGregor, 24, from Sussex, Wis., is a firefigher and helps with his dad's construction business. Reid, 37, from an affluent suburb of Chicago, works as a trader in the city. They wear different collars, but share a love for country's lyrics. "I love the brutal honesty of the lyrics," said MccGregor. Reid agreed, saying that the lyrics, and accompanying videos on Country Music Television, are what pulled him in. According to CMT, its programming does equally well with men and women, mostly between the ages of 18-49.
MccGregor and Reid aren't the only men listening. There's a perception among outsiders that country concerts have a 10:1 female-male ratio. Not true. It varies from show to show, but the number of men enjoying the music (and not just killing time as purse holders) is staggering. According to Arbitron, the number of adult men listening to country radio during the day is growing. Yet the number of adult men listening to rock stations has recently reached its lowest point in seven years.
But still, the number of middle-age women is undeniably high. Any country show is bound to give off a housewives-gone-wild vibe. Even within that demo, though, there's diversity. There are the single moms who've scrimped to buy nose-bleed seats. And the moms whose husbands indulged them with front row.
Lisa Gendregske, 37, of Saginaw, Mich., is a stay-at-home mom. Living in Spain, Gendregske found there were no English-speaking TV shows, so she tuned in to the radio through the Navy base. "Every day around dinner they would play country. I would turn it on for noise other than my screaming kids. I had just turned 30, and I heard this Tim McGraw song `My Next Thirty Years,'" she said. The lyrics, about how you should "Drink a little lemonade and not so many beers/Lord have mercy on my next 30 years" struck a chord with Gendregske.
Another stay-at-home mom, Eileen Novick, 37 of Evergreen Park, has been listening since 1995. "I got free tickets to a Clint Black concert. That was the day I was turned on to country music," Novick said.
Lisa Hernbrott, 39, of Gurnee, is passing the torch to her kids, whom she takes with her to concerts. "My daughter's really got a thing for Phil Vassar right now," Hernbrott said.
It's moms like her who may explain the influx of young country fans. Arbitron reports that more than 46 percent of all country radio listeners have at least one child in the house. Ann Jurasek is 22 now, but even as a child she knew she wanted to be a part of country music. "My parents brought me to Fan Fair (a country music festival) in 1997, and I fell in love with Nashville," Jurasek said. She has since moved to Nashville from Jackson, Mich., received a business degree from Belmont University in Nashville and started interning at a record label.
Everybody loves a good yarn
John Howell, morning co-host on Chicago's WUSN-FM 99.5, says country music appeals to so many because so many songs tell stories. "And no matter what age, everybody loves a good story," Howell said. "Listen to country radio for 15 minutes and you'll find a song that hits home. And you can understand the lyrics without an interpreter or pharmaceuticals."
Songwriter and country-radio veteran Bill Lloyd says country appeals to all kinds of people because the stories are ones they can relate to. "When Keith Urban sings, `Let go of my pride, let it fall like rain in my eyes. Tonight I wanna cry,' I think a lot of people can say, `I've been there,'" Lloyd said.
What almost every country music listener will tell you is that the words are what got them. Nashville's lyricists have always had a way of telling stories of real life. Which may explain why what's playing on country radio now is less wholesome than it was 20 years ago. There are still the songs about small-town life, love and heartache. But now you hear ones about unplanned pregnancies, teen suicide, alcoholism, prostitution, child abuse, infidelity and vengeful battered wives. The songs don't always take the moral high road anymore, but neither does real life.
Fiddle riffs, banjo picking
And unlike the lyrics in other genres, you can hear the lyrics in country songs. There's a beginning, middle and end, none of which are drowned out by over-achieving guitar players. Rather, the stories are punctuated with fiddle riffs, quiet banjo picking and the occasional cry of a steel guitar.
The artists themselves seem to stay on top of the righteous pedestal fans put them on. With the exception of a couple of short-lived marriages and DUIs, country stars stay out of the tabloids and manage to live lives not too different from the people they're singing to. So when an artist like Brad Paisley sings about feeling like a nobody (as he does in his new single "The World"), it makes you think he gets real life. The chorus, "To the world/You may be just another girl/But to me/Baby you are the world," reveals Paisley's normal-guy side.
To be fair, there are other genres that have broad appeal as well. It's just that they're easier to stereotype. Senior citizens listen to Sinatra on vinyl. Tweens call Radio Disney with Hilary Duff requests ad nauseam. Young adults download every song the Dave Matthews Band releases. And Baby Boomers lose a little bit more hearing every time the Rolling Stones do another farewell tour.
Country music listeners used to be grouped into one Skoal-chewing, NASCAR-watching, pickup-driving redneck demographic, but those rules don't apply anymore.
"Country has something that appeals to everyone," says Ed Warm, owner of Joe's Bar in Chicago, which hosts country shows. "Party songs, ballads, songs that tell stories. You have the gamut of `Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off' to `Jesus, Take the Wheel.'"