The Boston Globe


Author(s): Clea Simon, Globe Correspondent Date: June 6, 2002
C18 Section: Living

Country music usually has a timeless quality. With its songs of heartbreak and broken dreams, honky-tonks and trucks, it supports an iconic image of America as a land of long roads and hard days. These days, however, country is drawing as much from the news as from myths, which makes Saturday a very interesting time for the annual WKLB-FM (99.5) Country Music Festival.

The Tweeter Center festival, the station's largest promotional event of the year, will feature Alan Jackson, who is riding high on his hit about Sept. 11, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." The song is topical, but it draws on the patriotism common to the musical style. Although Jackson is now making headlines, he's long been a staple on the country music station, which actually booked him for the show in October, before the single was released.

"Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don't," says WKLB program director Mike Brophey. "It takes us nearly a year to put this festival together."

While planning the concert, which has been moved up from its August date to take advantage of touring schedules, the station also snagged Martina McBride.

That decision was another smart one: She and Jackson won best female and male artists, respectively, at the American Country Music Awards last month. These two stars top a bill that will present more than five hours of music. Rounding out the concert will be Jeff Carson, State Police Sgt. Dan Clark, Keith Urban, and Cyndi Thomson.

Hoping to make some news will be the seven local finalists from the Colgate Country Showdown.

Kicking off the concert, they will compete for a slot in a regional competition, and ultimately for a $50,000 national prize. They are: Tracilynn McCartney of Burlington; Angels Among Us from Chelmsford; Laura Trione from the Cushing Academy in Ashburnham; Samantha Wildman of Sanbornton, N.H.; MaryBeth Kelly of Braintree; Jimmy Cole of Dracut; and the Country Mile Band from Gardner.

"There's a lot of different styles and a lot of different experience levels," says Brophey, noting the differences between the close-harmony singers of Angels Among Us and the twangier sound of the Country Mile Band. "Are they pure country? No. Could they be in today's world of country? Absolutely."

The definition of country - and what gets played on country radio - has also become a topic of heated conversation lately.

"Generally speaking, we're not playing Conway Twitty today." He names one of country music's biggest stars. "Same thing with Waylon Jennings: It's great music, but it wouldn't fit the format today. Neotraditionalists such as Trace Adkins and Brad Paisley are on the station's playlist," he notes. "They give it that seasoning that I think it needs. Otherwise if it's all Shania [Twain] all the time that gets pretty dull."

Earlier this year, when the bluegrass and old-time harmony sounds on the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" swept the Grammys, some radio watchers expected fiddles and banjos to show up on commercial stations. That won't happen, says Brophey.

"We'll get calls or e-mails asking why aren't you playing `O Brother,' he says. "But it's frankly not country music."

Brophey says he enjoys those old-time sounds himself. With his young son, he attended the "Down From the Mountain" concert that featured many of the "O Brother" acts. "I scanned the crowd," he says. "They didn't look like my listeners. They looked like NPR listeners." home page