As the members of Barn Fire began to play on a recent Saturday night at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, a popular Patriot Place country western spot next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Kyle Thellen sang along.
Barn Fire, which bills itself as New England’s premier country cover band, dove headfirst into a rendition of “All Alright,” a hit single by the Zac Brown Band. Thellen, a student and laborer from Brockton, knew all the words.
If that seems an unremarkable feat, consider that at this time three years ago, you were more likely to find Thellen at a classic rock concert — and maybe, if friends could coax him, even at a hip-hop show.
“Country has grown,” he said. “It’s grown on me. It’s good music. Solid music. I guess I’m part of that new wave.”
The “wave,” as he put it, is the rapidly growing popularity of country music and country western culture in Greater Boston. From Lynnette and Easy Ed’s monthly Honky Tonk Dance Party at the Canadian American Club in Watertown to line dancing at the Moose Lodge in North Reading, the suburbs are becoming more than a little bit country.
In June, 101.7 FM in Medford converted from electronic dance music to country under a new name, “The Bull,” and now ranks with all-country 102.5 WKLB-FM “The Wolf” among the area’s top radio stations in terms of listeners. Trade magazine Radio Online: The Industry’s Front Page, said WKLB is in third place in audience figures in Greater Boston.
And longtime country shows on student-run radio stations at Boston College and Harvard are experiencing unprecedented ratings.
Country star Jo Dee Messina said she certainly sees a change in the region where she grew up.
“I can remember as a child, coming up in Framingham, that you had no options for radio but WOKQ if you wanted to hear country,” Messina said in a recent telephone interview from her tour bus, en route to a performance in Atlanta. “That was it. It says a lot that now the Boston area has two major country stations that are extremely popular, and the entire state of Massachusetts has, what, three or four more all-country stations?”
Messina said artists in her genre also know that things have changed around Boston because there are more places for them to perform.
“When I was a teenager, I got my start playing small clubs all across New England, but not necessarily right here at home,” she said. Her tour schedule had her performing Friday night in Malden, she noted, “and the festival season around there — the outdoor, warm-weather festivals — are dominated by country these days.”
Mike Brophey, program director at WKLB, agreed on the power of the live concert venues, pointing out that the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, for example, hosts as many as 10 country concerts each year, compared with maybe one or two annually a decade ago. Brophey said those venues have catapulted country to the top in the region because it attracts more first-time fans than other genres of music.
What Brophey calls “ball-cap country” is experiencing a great run right now, through acts like Jake Owen, Luke Bryan, and Kenny Chesney — the latter two who have sold out Gillette Stadium in the past two years. But he said new fans of classic country are driving the movement too.
“The ball-cap stuff is the hottest right now — that sound from the Florida-Georgia line,” Brophey said. “It’s great party music and lots of fun, and unlike more traditional stuff more about anticipating your next date than complaining about your last breakup. Rarely with the new country do you get ‘she left me’ kinds of songs. But even the older style is bringing in new people.”
Lynnette and Easy Ed’s Honky Tonk Dance Party, held each month at the Canadian American Club on Arlington Street in Watertown, also draws fans both old and new.
Party nights sometimes start with free two-step country dance lessons by veteran instructors Sue Huppe and Roger Weiss, and headlined by the Pioneer Valley Pioneers, a band influenced by old-school country artists like Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard.
“What you’ll find in and around Boston are two schools of country fan,” said Lynnette Lenker, the band’s singer and guitarist and one half of Lynnette and Easy Ed. “There are the new fans who’ve just discovered country, and maybe what they know of it is what they hear on the radio, more pop-influenced music. And then there are the old-school fans who know Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette. Our fans are the latter group. But the thing is that fan base is growing too.”
The North Shore, meanwhile, has emerged as the epicenter of country line dancing. Brian and Arlene Lee host one of the most popular dance parties in the region, held at the Moose Lodge in North Reading.
Until the months before their marriage seven years ago, neither of the Lees, who are now in their mid-40s, was a country music fan. They were into ’80s rock.
“One day, while we were on the road to Springfield and the station we were listening to went out,” Brian said, “I started flipping stations to find something different and this country song came on. It was Brad Paisley’s ‘Little Moments.’ We both agreed it would be good at our wedding.”
That song, which they did ultimately play at their wedding, got the Lees hooked on country. Their fandom now includes frequent concerts and “Smokie’s Bar,” their monthly line-dancing club.
On the campus of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Kate Walker, who is known as “Cousin Kate,” holds court on 90.3 WZBC-FM as host of “Sunday Morning Country,” one of the longest running country music shows in the region, on the air for 35 years.
“I’ve hosted the show for the past seven years,” Walker said. “And it’s more popular than ever — not because of me, but like everyone else says, because the base is growing. In our case the base is definitely more traditional. We tend to focus on that noncommercial country. So we’re playing to people who have discovered Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and even some of the early ’90s folks.
“I think one of the neat things we’re seeing is a lot of our new fans are young,’’ she said. “And for those young fans who are musicians, they’re like emissaries. They’re taking this sound, starting their own bands, and leaving town to go back to the roots of the music in Nashville or Austin and places like that.”
Brian Scully, a founding member of Dalton & the Sheriffs, said he and the other musicians in the Weymouth-based band are a perfect example of Cousin Kate’s observations.
Scully said that the band’s growth during the past dozen years or so has been bolstered by hearing the classic sounds Walker spins for her listeners, and meeting younger fans with built-in rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities.
“That combination and that dichotomy have forced us to explore and grow our own sound,” Scully said.
“As a result, as the scene has grown around here, we’ve been able to bridge both sides of it. We’ve played and sold out the House of Blues, and have regular gigs at other big local venues.”
Dalton & the Sheriffs also took on the famously tough songwriter’s challenge at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Cafe. They passed the test, and will be playing the Bluebird on Oct. 19.
“Bottom line, we identified a trend and got on board,” Scully said. “Finding out what moves people and learning to play it for them? Doesn’t get more country than that.”