A country twist – businesses profiting from country fads

Susan Holly

In music, clothes, cuisine, even lifestyle, “country” is hot and spreading its Western accent.

By day they are computer programmers, government workers, teachers. By night they are cowboys and cowgirls, dressed in their $300 boots, $150 hats, $100 painted-desert shirts, and good old standby jeans–perhaps cut a little looser to accommodate aging baby boomers.

They hit the dance floor two-steppin’ to Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire at any one of hundreds of country dance bars that have popped up in the past couple of years. And this isn’t just in Amarillo or Nashville. This is in Santa Monica, New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.

Many businesses across America are profiting from a newfound passion for country music, country dancing, and the whole ephemeral, idyllic notion of country living. Garth Brooks is out-selling rock superstar Michael Jackson. Discos are being converted into country bars. Shoe stores have moved cowboy boots to prime position in their display cases. Nouvelle cuisine is giving way to country cooking. “Country happens to be where we’re living today,” says Bill Boyd of the Academy of Country Music, a Los Angeles-based organization that promotes country music worldwide.

At the Riverside Inn, long an authentic cowboy bar in Seattle, business is up about 40 percent just in the past year. On a typical Friday night, 700 customers crowd in to do the Texas Two-Step or the Achy-Breaky, a dance popularized by country-music star Billy Ray Cyrus.

Moreover these new customers are not the rural patrons you might expect in a country bar, says Blake Dowen, the marketing director and 23-year-old son of owner Steve Dowen. They’re yuppies you would expect to find at TGI Friday’s. Although the club still has about a 10 percent core of real cowboys among its customers, the rest are “wannabe” wranglers from Seattle’s swanky suburbs.

Theories abound to explain the current country craze. The popular wisdom is that Americans are turning back to hearth and home for comfort in somber economic times. “Country started as a place,” says Danita Allen, editor of Country America, a monthly magazine that covers the country scene’s music and lifestyles. “There is a national historical consciousness that country is a good place. It is wrapped up with a whole lot of values–being neighborly, friendly, a hard-work ethic.”

Country music speaks directly to those values, says Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association, an organization in Nashville, Tenn., that includes country musicians, marketers, and broadcasters. The music “reflects the stuff of the basic human condition,” Benson says.

Although country music has repackaged itself–presenting young, good-looking artists in polished performances–it has not forgotten its heritage of simple melodies and words that toll a story. Many find the music comforting compared with the anger and frustration of rap and the primitive screams of heavy metal.

As rap music has worked its way into the mainstream, the mainstream has switched channels. Baby boomers have trouble relating to rap or today’s heavy metal, music experts say, but country now sounds familiar to them. The new country artists take their cues as much from the folk rock artists of the 1970s—the Eagles, James Taylor, and Dan Fogelberg–as from traditional country-music singers like Merle Haggard and George Jones. “You don’t have to sing through your nose and have a fiddle in your band” to be a country singer, says Boyd.

As the demographic power of the baby boom has taken hold of country music, it has translated into business opportunities for other boomers. Take Kathy Bressler, 42, better known by her company name, Cattle Kate, in Jackson Hole, Wyo. In 1981, with a $300 loan, Bressler began designing and manufacturing authentic Western silk scarves. A few years later she expanded her business, designing a full range of clothing with the look and feel of the old West.

Sales have been growing steadily for the past three years, and Cattle Kate’s annual revenues are now about $500,000. Her clothing is sold in 500 stores in the U.S. and through 250,000 catalogs mailed out annually,

Bressler, born in Pasadena, Calif., says “the frontier was always calling to me.” She spent eight years living in an authentic ghost town along the Oregon Trail, where she was the town seamstress sewing clothes in a back room at the Mercantile Saloon.

After moving to Jackson Hole, where she married and had a baby, Bressler started her business, doing all the work in her home. She now employs a network of 15 home seamstresses to sew the clothes she designs.

Cattle Kate’s apparel includes dresses for $150 to $300, men’s shirts with buttonon collars for $135, vests for $100 to $120, petticoats and pantaloons for $100, men’s frock coats for $329, and riding outfits for $275 to $395. The designs are all authentic Western styles–with fitted bodices, full skirts, hand-made laces–and the materials are all natural fibers.

In the beginning, Bressler’s customers were working ranchers. “The roots of my design are with Western cowboys rather than Western glitz,” she says. Today, a number of her customers live in big Eastern cities. “They are people with visions of country living. They want to wear something that can take them back to the West,” she says.

Many of her designs undoubtedly show up on the dance floor in country bars, says Bressler, herself a country dancer. The boom in country music and dancing has certainly helped sales, she says. “That’s part of what my clothing is about. The skirts are cut full; there’s a lot of swishing.”

And while Cattle Kate designs are sashaying about in dance halls, another small business may be providing the music.

Last summer, having given up an executive position with RCA in Los Angeles, Wynn Jackson, a self-described “closet country-music fan,” headed for Nashville to look for work. He found that all the record companies there were intrigued by the country dance club scene, but none had yet broken into that market. So Jackson spent six weeks compiling a list of what he calls “deejay-driven dance floors”–those without live music–and approached the record companies. The dance clubs would pay an annual membership fee, and he would supply them with two shipments a month from the record companies. In return, he would let the record companies know how well their new releases were being accepted.

By August, Jackson had launched Country Club Enterprises Inc., and he had 35 clubs on his membership roster. Now he has 300 and is starting to see a profit. All but one or two of the 15 major labels in Nashville participate. The popularity of country country music is here to stay, says Jackson: “Country music is a reforming of the tribe. It’s America’s music.”

As at many of the dance halls like the Riverside in Seattle, the customers arrive early in the evening to learn the dances. This has spawned a new small-business opportunity for dance instructors, like Sandy and Dean Garrish in suburban Baltimore. The couple took up country dancing as a social activity about four years ago, went on to place in some national dance competitions, and is now ranked among the top country-and-Western dancers in the U.S.

The Garrishes recently gave up their day jobs–Dean was in construction, and Sandy worked as an administrative assistant–to form their own company, Branded Country, and teach country dancing full time. Every night of the week, they cart a few thousand dollars’ worth of audio equipment and dozens of country-music compact disks to a different dance hall, where they teach from 100 to 350 devotees how to do the country cha-cha, the tush-push, or the barn dance.

They are part of a rapidly growing cadre of country-dancing instructors, numbering at least 3,000, according to Country Dance Lines, a monthly publication for aficionados. Just one year ago the list numbered 2,000.

Western-apparel manufacturers, who once served a small niche of the clothing market, now are seeing their products sell to a mainstream audience.

Long-established Texas boot maker Rios of Mercedes has experienced 20 percent sales growth in each of the past four years. Rios’ growth has come from outside of its core market in the Southwest. “We’re selling into Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Paris,” says owner Trainor Evans. Rios, which produces top-of-the-line boots that start at about $300 a pair, and its sister company, Anderson Bean Boots, which makes a slightly less expensive line, together sell 30,000 pairs a year.

Companies like Rios of Mercedes have seen growth spurts before, most notably in the early 1980s. That’s when the film “Urban Cowboy,” with its glorification of the Texas cowboy culture, inspired city slickers to squeeze into tight jeans, don boots and a hat, and go riding on mechanical bulls like the one in the bar that was featured in the movie.

But Evans says that “the ‘Urban Cowboy’ phenomenon wasn’t like this. That was explosive and unmanageable growth, and we paid the price” when country-theme businesses foundered. The growth this time, he says, has been more gradual, more stable–and perhaps will prove longer lasting.

“Urban Cowboy” was a fad, agrees Benson of the Country Music Association. “That little boom was more of a fashion trend. This growth is about the music, the artists, and the entertainment desires of the audience. Country music speaks to their emotions.”

There is no denying that “country” is hot. Figures from the Recording Industry Association of America, a Washington, D.C., trade association for record manufacturers, show that sales of country-music albums have more than doubled since 1988, from $425 million to close to $1 billion.

Country artists Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus dominated Billboard’s Top 200 chart for much of last year, ahead of both rock and urban contemporary (rap) in number of weeks at the top. In the early ’80s, Nashville was home to six major record labels. It now has 15. Last year, 2,203 radio stations reported having a full-time country-music format, an increase of 63 stations and 6 million listeners from the previous year.

Industry ratings indicate that Country radio is now second only to adult contemporary as the preferred format in the nation’s top 100 markets. A year ago, country stations had an 18 percent share, just behind adult contemporary’s 20.9 percent share. Five years ago, country had a 12.9 percent share, behind both Top 40 and adult contemporary,

Another indicator of the strength of country music is the emergence of Branson, Mo., as a country-music mecca in the Ozark Mountains. Country singers like Roy Clark, Box Car Willie, and Mel Tillis have settled in Branson, which has two dozen country-music theaters. Visitors to Branson have steadily increased over the past several years, now nearing 5 million annually. The Branson Chamber of Commerce reports a 260 percent increase in visitor center walk-ins from 1991 to 1992. Motels and restaurants are booming.

Branson also is home to a new cable television venture, the Americana Television Network, due to go on the air in April. A project of former Country Music Television executive Stan Hitchcock, Americana will join CMT and The Nashville Network (TNN), both based in Nashville, in bringing country music into millions of American homes.

As country-music artists grow in public recognition, so do sales of items bearing their images–T-shirts, posters, mugs, calendars. San Francisco-based Winterland Productions, which manufactures such products, shipped $15 million worth of country merchandise in 1992, compared with $1 million in 1991, says Paul Grushkin, national sales manager for Winterland’s wholesale division.

The country trend also is sending sales figures for country-and-Western apparel manufacturers upward. The International Western Apparel and Equipment Show in January was the biggest ever, say organizers. There were 730 exhibitors–100 more than in 1992–and more than 7,000 retail buyers attended, or about 2,000 more than last year.

Country America, a monthly magazine published by the Meredith Corp. and TNN, reached a circulation of 1 million in just three years. “Part of our tremendous success is because we combined country life and country music,” says editor Danita Allen. Indeed, the magazine covers crafts and travel, runs personality profiles and reviews of country-music stars, and dishes up recipes from the country kitchen.

And in decidedly northern Syracuse, N.Y., WTKW is enjoying the popularity of “America’s music.” The independent FM radio station went on the air last November with a country-music format and was “pleasantly surprised at the almost overnight awareness and acceptance,” says General Manager Mike Healy. The Syracuse area had been without an FM country station (it has one AM country station) since the last one switched to an easy-listening format four- years ago. “We did no elaborate research,” says Healy of the decision to go country. “It was a pretty obvious choice.”

Though the station will not get the results of listener surveys until the end of March, Healy believes it is making inroads in the Syracuse market. “Listener awareness is there. We are getting a lot of crossover from the adult contemporary station. A lot of workplaces are playing us in the background, which means they are putting us on and keeping us on.”

WTKW is one of the few new signals to go on the air with a country format, but existing stations are converting to country by the dozens, according to Lon Helton, Nashville bureau chief for the trade publication Radio and Records. Many of these stations are promoting a “hot country” format, focusing on the rising young stars and catering to younger listeners. These stations’ strongest growth is in the 25-to-34 age group, and Helton forecasts that those listeners will make country radio a lifelong habit.

The unique aspect of country music, everyone in the business agrees, is its appeal to all ages. In suburban Washington, D.C., customers from 21 to 70 years of age crowd onto the dance floor at Blackie’s of Springfield. The popular Northern Virginia nightspot opened in 1988 with a restaurant, featuring prime rib, and an adjacent Top 40 nightclub.

Blackie’s tried a one-time “country night” about a year ago. “The place was packed, and it has stayed packed ever since,” says Gary Namm, retail marketing director for owner Auger Enterprises. One month after its experimental country night, Blackie’s started a country music and dance program seven nights a week. It remodeled to accommodate a 1,700-square-foot dance floor and a stage for country bands.

“We increased the number of people that come through our doors on a weekly basis from 5,000 pre-country to 8,000 now,” says Namm. “People who haven’t danced for years are coming out.”

This time around, many say, country music has found a permanent foothold. “I don’t see any end to it,” says Boyd of the Academy of Country Music. “No music can succeed without good writers, and country music is blessed with the best lyric and music writers in the business. I don’t think it has peaked–it just keeps getting bigger”

The country-music boom is about more than a change in America’s listening habits. People are internalizing the downhome message of country music and longing for a simpler, more bucolic time. For the thousands of new cowboys out there, this is about life.

For More Information

The Country Music Association represents 7,100 professionals–singers, song-writers, broadcasters, merchandisers–in promoting country music and developing domestic and international markets. The organization, which has helped make companies aware of the demographics of the country audience, can be contacted at One Music Circle South, Nashville, Tenn. 37203; (615) 244-2840.

The Western & English Manufacturer’s Association, at 451 E. 58th Ave., No. 4750, Denver, Colo. 80216, (303) 295-2001, promotes country-and-Western fashions for its members.

The Western & English Sales Association, a separate organization, also in Denver, (303) 295-1040, sponsors the twice-yearly International Western Apparel and Equipment Show for buyers and sellers.

COPYRIGHT 1993 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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