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Southern comfort for hard times

He's the son of a farmer, the father of five. He digs Jesus, of course. Uncle Sam, too. He has blue-collared his body to pay for his house, his pride. But although you can break his back and his bank account, you'll never crack his American spirit.

Cornpone cliche? Maybe. Skoal-chewing Superman? Somebody get this cowboy a cape.

Give it up, y'all, for the hero of Small Town Southern Man, the current hit by country superstar Alan Jackson. Written by Jackson himself, the song is a bear hug for the Bud-chugging Everyman, a modern version of Merle Haggard's Workin' Man Blues. And just last week it helped the 49-year-old score his fourth No. 1 album (Good Time) on Billboard's Top 200, beating out a host of pop and hip-hop newbies.

Jackson sings of a humble man, but Small Town's success is a big deal, culturally and economically.

At a time when the nation is at war in Iraq and facing recession at home, country music offers real-world consolation, ideally suited for the struggles of Joe Six-Pack.

"In times of stress, country music has always provided a refuge," says John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. "It's a narrative genre that tells stories in realistic terms that people can understand. Country tends to put the lyric up front. That doesn't always happen in rock."

At a time when the overall music industry is declining (total album sales were down 15 percent in 2007), Jackson's success is also a testament to the loyalty of country music fans.

Whereas today's pop stars have disposable charms, and yesterday's rock icons have lost their clout, Nashville grooms its artists for the long haul.

"If country music fans hear a new artist they like, they'll stay with that artist for their whole life," says newcomer Jason Aldean, who'll open for Nashville stalwart Tim McGraw at Ford Amphitheatre on
May 9. "They're supportive. You don't see that kind of loyalty with any other kind of music."

Even though Jackson can sell out any venue, he recently played the Strawberry Festival in Plant City. He will appear at June's annual CMA Music Festival in Nashville, a phenomenon also known as Fan Fair, where fans get up-close-and-personal with their fave performers.

"It's a given that country music stars have to get in bed with the listeners," says Randy Price, an on-air personality at WQYK-FM 99.5, the Tampa Bay area's largest country station. "Country fans expect that as the reality, not the exception."

That loyalty shows at the cash register. According to Nielsen SoundScan, seven out of the 10 most-played artists on the radio in 2007 were country acts. Country album sales were down last year, but this week's Billboard cover story predicts a major Nashville "revolution," as artists are blending tradition with digital technology.

Can you smell that country cooking?

Selling themselves

It is no coincidence that when singer Dierks Bentley first appears during a recent show at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, he's on a platform in the middle of his throngs. He's dressed in Exxon chic — scrubby jeans, work shirt, mussed hair — and flashing that deadly aw-shucks smile.

With the crowd screaming, the 32-year-old Arizona native leans into the mike and wails about a guitar on his back, lonely railroads tracks and the love of his life leaving him yet again.

"I think what separates country music from other genres is that the songs are about life, not just the good, but also the bad, the ups and downs," says Bentley, sitting in a backstage lounge before his local gig. "It really is relatable music. The people that are singing the songs, we're pretty much regular guys."

Bentley built his following and his platinum album sales by selling his songs and himself in smaller shows, during hundreds of backstage meet-and-greets and on the Internet. He's releasing a greatest hits collection next month, and in a cool twist, he's letting his fans pick which songs will appear on the disc. He'll also run hundreds of fans' names in the liner notes.

"About once a week I get on (my blog) and write a message," says Bentley, who's hosting events such as meet-and-greets for his fan club, too. There's nowhere for Bentley to hide from his public, but he wouldn't have it any other way. "Any (star) who complains about not having privacy cracks me up because I started singing to hopefully find people to listen to me," he says.

Internet isn't a threat

According to Billboard, about 4 percent of country album sales are digital downloads. That's incredibly low compared with other genres. The majority of country albums are still purchased at Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy.

But the times are changing. Eighteen-year-old newcomer Taylor Swift, whose self-titled debut has sold some 3-million copies, was discovered via her MySpace page, which she still updates. Carrie Underwood, who hit it big on American Idol, has been a strong presence on the Internet, scoring the second-most-streamed song of 2007 (Before He Cheats). Even veteran star Brad Paisley scored a chart-topper with the song Online.

With the rise of illegal downloading, the Internet has been a bittersweet place for pop music. But it's becoming the perfect place for country music. Bentley follower Rachel Martin, a 33-year-old from Pensacola, has seen the singer 13 times, including his latest stop at the Times Forum. She even has a "DB" tattoo on her wrist. She's an online junkie, spending three hours a day on his site. But forget about illegal downloads, the scourge of the pop music industry. This loyal fan wouldn't do it to Bentley.

"It's not helping him get the No. 1's," Martin says.

Steeped in tradition

During the Great Depression, country acts such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers were heroes on the radio. Broadcast towers on the Mexican border — with a broadcast range 10 times stronger than the legal limit — carried country music all over the southern United States. Songs about the common condition swept the land: Keep on the Sunny Side, I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow, That's Why I'm Blue.

"Country flourished on the radio back then," says the Country Music Hall of Fame's Rumble. "It was about work, patriotism, religion. Songs affirming traditional values, the virtues of fundamental Christianity. "

It still is. Seventy years later, the playlist at WQYK reads as sepia-toned as ever: Shiftwork, All-American Girl, Gunpowder & Lead, Home, Country Man, Things a Mama Don't Know. Bentley's Trying to Stop You Leaving. And, yes, Jackson's Small Town Southern Man.

"When times get tough for the country, people have a tendency to hang onto family values," says Veronica Young, WQYK's popular nighttime jock. "And country artists have a tendency to not forget where they came from. They give off a less pretentious vibe than other artists. They're real people singing about real things."

During a visit to WQYK last week, I asked listeners why country fans are so loyal, so passionate. I asked them how they differ from rock or hip-hop fans. The phones lines immediately lit up.

"It's about the real world."

"A friendly place."

"Comfort food."

"From the heart."

"Tradition, family."

"Today's world is so confusing, but sometimes all I have to do is listen to country music."

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

Fast Facts

Country on top

Since 1991, half of the 10 bestselling music acts are country stars, showing Nashville's fan loyalty and business clout. Here are the Top 10, with their total album sales for the past 17 years, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

1. Garth Brooks, 64.4-million

2. Beatles, 55.7-million

3. Mariah Carey, 49.9-million

4. Celine Dion, 49.7-million

5. Metallica, 48.7-million

6. George Strait, 39.2-million

7. Tim McGraw, 36.4-million

8. Alan Jackson, 35.3-million

9. Pink Floyd, 34.5-million

10. Shania Twain, 33.5-million

Southern comfort for hard times 03/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2008 9:38am]

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