RECENTLY I took my 13-year-old in-house expert on popular music to a big country show at the TD Garden. Lady Antebellum, consummate 21st-century pop songsmiths out of Nashville, were the headliners. The opening acts were Kip Moore, whose songs about young love and trucks might add up to one meta-song about an intimate relationship with a truck, and Kacey Musgraves, a rising star whose big night at the Grammy awards boosted her album “Same Trailer, Different Park” to number one on the country charts.
My consultant had a fine time at the show — “I can’t say that I’m not excited” was how she put it — and enjoyed staying out late, rambling unsupervised through the crowd (which I wouldn’t let her do at many other sorts of arena concerts), and singing along with songs she knew from the radio.
That she knew those songs, a product of her recent drift down the dial from KISS 108 to WKLB 102.5, Boston’s mainstream country station, points to larger forces at work in pop music around here.
Once buried in the ratings, WKLB now consistently places high in the local competition for listeners, and reached number one over the summer. The industry has rewarded it with various forms of recognition, including the Country Music Association’s Major Market Station of the Year award in 2012.
Mike Brophey, WKLB’s program director, points to the station’s success in attracting listeners who don’t fit the conventional country-radio mold of older folks who keep the radio tuned to one station. “We’ve got more people listening to us in high school and college,” he says. “They’re sophisticated, and they listen to all kinds of music.”
Improved ratings methodology shows that the exclusive country radio listener barely exists around here. Instead, Brophey says, open-eared pop fans find their way to country because “there’s a much bigger range of sounds from song to song, and it’s not overproduced. You can hear the instruments and understand the lyrics — and we pride ourselves on keeping the lyrics reasonably clean.”
WKLB’s promotional efforts have powered a local boom in live shows, a change from the days when Nashville acts avoided Boston. When I mentioned to Kacey Musgraves during an interview after the show that I had seen a lot of college-age women on their way to the Garden on the T and wondered what had brought them into the fold, she said, “It’s 100 percent country radio.”
Now, there’s plenty wrong with mainstream country radio. As the house organ of a globalized pop-culture industry that puts Nashville on a par with Hollywood, its aesthetic, economic, and ideological tunnel vision rules out most of what I regard as good country music. Its favored product frequently sounds like artificially twanged-up power pop, light rock, or pickup truck ads.
But the Nashville colossus also has significant virtues, chief among them its commitment to songcraft and musicianship. The sidemen and behind-the-scenes craftspeople are astonishingly good, and even the most abjectly packaged cutie-pie star can usually sing and play a little, and cowrite a half-decent song.
And because the mainstream shares tributary systems with Americana, bluegrass, and other less commercial country realms, interesting hybrids can prosper. Musgraves, for instance, who will tour with Katy Perry this summer, came up on the hardcore Texas opry circuit, working on her songwriting chops during the week and singing Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb songs at Saturday-night performances. She’s a genuine country musician, steeped in the genre’s traditions, and in the unlikely event that she doesn’t pan out as a major Nashville diva she could pursue a career as a go-to songwriter.
I don’t love mainstream country radio, but I appreciate it, and it means something to me that WKLB is the one station I can listen to with my daughters in the car. It makes me wish that other genres I care for, like the blues, had country’s market clout. Most of the bluesmen I admire would have made the necessary compromises to get on mainstream blues radio, if such a thing existed, or would at least have welcomed the chance to recruit an audience by defining themselves against it. Mainstream country, flaws and all, generates a deep structure in which many kinds of musicians — and listeners — can find a niche.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’