Photo by Rose Lincoln for The Boston Globe
Barn Fire performing at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Foxborough, where Maggie Bavoso of New Jersey joined Scott Owens of Foxborough on the dance floor.
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.”