We've gone country

Blake Shelton

It's not your imagination: South Florida's music calendar really is exhibiting a more-pronounced country twang, with top acts playing the big amphitheaters and new singers staring their careers at strip-mall bars.

The Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach had seven country shows in 2011. That number grew to eight in 2012 and to 10 this year.

"And when we first started, we would have only three or four," Cruzan general manager Joe Nieman says. "I think that speaks to the popularity of the music."

Meanwhile, country-themed bars are regularly booking new acts, which are plentiful down here, as locals attempt to graduate from playing coffee shops to local festivals and even clubs in Nashville.


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So why is country so popular in South Florida, which has long been dominated by dance and pop acts?

Musicians from other genres are going country. Crossover artists such as Taylor Swift (following her predecessors Faith Hill and Shania Twain) are bringing pop fans over with them, notes Mike Carroll, president of SouthFloridaCountryMusic.com.

"Country has become such a viable genre these days that we've seen a flood of pop and rock stars convert to country artists," he says.

West Palm Beach's Cassadee Pope, who led the pop group Hey Monday before winning NBC's singing competition "The Voice," saw her new video hit No. 11 on GAC's fan requests this month. She joins Darius Rucker, Jessica Simpson, Kid Rock and Bon Jovi as pop artists who've thrown on cowboy hats and hopped on the country bandwagon.

"Even Lady Gaga had a country version of her hit 'Born This Way,' " Carroll says.

Country isn't all fiddles and farm songs. Carroll notes that there is pop country with Swift, Lady Antebellum and Carrie Underwood. There's rock country with Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert and Miranda Lambert. There's even rap country with Colt Ford, the Lacs and Cowboy Troy. David Nail boasts a heavy blues influence.

Blake Shelton. The country star, who played Aug. 31 at the Cruzan, has evolved from a cowboy-hatted, blue-eyed pretty boy into "looking a little bit like Leonardo DiCaprio's redneck cousin," according to Men's Journal, which put him on the cover of its August issue.

The magazine describes Shelton's playful rapport with pop singer Adam Levine as a funnier incarnation of the old Simon-and-Paula act from "American Idol," and claims it "almost single-handedly changed NBC's fortunes."

In addition to elevating a network and his own career, Shelton has brought fans who wouldn't be interested in country music into the circle. His popularity also has increased the fan base of wife Miranda Lambert, who will co-headline with Dierks Bentley Sept. 21 at the Cruzan.

Younger acts are grabbing headlines. In addition to Shelton, three performers younger than 40 are among country's hottest tickets. Jason Aldean, who will appear Sept. 7 at the Cruzan, is 36, Luke Bryan, who will play the venue on Oct. 26, is 37. Eric Church, who packed the BB&T Center in Sunrise earlier this year, is 36. All have blossomed in the past three years after each spent a decade in bars and smaller venues.

Fans are eager to see new faces, says Ken Boesen, operations manager for 99.9 WKIS-FM, better known as Kiss Country, the station that annually presents the Kiss Country Chili Cookoff all-star music festival in Pembroke Pines.

"There's so much young talent coming out of Nashville," he says. "It's always churning, and there's still a voracious appetite for new music. We don't give up on artists we love, but country music is pretty accepting of new artists who embrace their music."

The fans are loyal. Since 2010, Kiss has presented concerts by performers whose identities are kept secret until showtime. These "undercover concerts" have featured such acts as Rodney Atkins, Ronnie Dunn, Josh Turner and Aldean. The radio station doesn't sell tickets to the shows, but gives them away to listeners.

"They've become pretty much our hottest ticket," Boesen says. "Country fans are very loyal to their music.

The next undercover concert will take place Sept. 8 at Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino's theater, which holds about 800 people.

"I'm not sure all genres are as willing to do as many up-close-and personal-appearances," Boesen says.

Nsortal@SouthFlorida.com