A little bit of country in NYC


NEW YORK -- They lighted the top of the Empire State Building bronze and white, the colors of the Country Music Association's trophy, and they had middle school pupils from Queens writing country songs.

During "Country Takes NYC" week, they've had Faith Hill at Saks Fifth Avenue, the Charlie Daniels Band on the Food Network and the Grand Ole Opry poised to take the stage at Carnegie Hall. About all they failed to do was get Mayor Michael Bloomberg in cowboy boots, although the city's newly re-elected mayor did quip that they'd "make me look a little bit taller probably."

Tonight, country music's crowning event, the CMA Awards, will be held not in Nashville, Tenn., but in New York City - at Madison Square Garden. It will be the first time they have been held outside Nashville since they began in 1967.

Thus all the promos and street banners and friendly talk about how country and New York make beautiful music and finance together, about how people here bought more than 2 million country CDs last year. But behind the boosterism of the moment is another reality the country music industry hopes to change: The nation's media center does not have a single country music radio station.

Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff compared inviting the CMA Awards to this bastion of urban liberalism to serving as host last year of the Republican National Convention, with both "saying something surprising about New York."

New York officials began wooing the CMA awards in 2003, with a cold call to the association's executive director Ed Benson, who said his response was "never say never to anything. `Let's talk.'"

But making it a reality required diplomacy on his part, because country music has its company town - and it ain't New York. So just hours after announcing a year ago that the 2005 event would be staged at Madison Square Garden, the CMA announced that the awards would return to Nashville in 2006 for their 40th anniversary.

That did not assuage some people in Nashville, however, including a few prominent performers - who threatened to boycott the New York road trip - and The Tennessean newspaper, which invoked Tammy Wynette in an editorial: "That's like telling your wife on your 38th anniversary that you want a one-year D-I-V-O-R-C-E."

But most critics have been won over since then, according to another CMA board member, Lon Helton. At a time of slumping music sales, they see practical payoffs of going to New York, such as how the news conference announcing the year's nominees drew 30 TV crews, far more than ever showed up in Nashville. "People looked at each other and said, `Ah, yeah,'" said Helton, the country music expert for the Radio & Records trade publication and Web site.

Other benefits pitched by the CMA were the proximity to Madison Avenue advertisers and Fortune 500 executives, which helped New York officials sell $3 million in corporate sponsorships, one of which will have the celebrities pull up to the red carpet at Madison Square Garden not in limos, but Chevy trucks.

But the most tangible goal, Benson said, is "to leave here with enough impact that perhaps we can have country music back on the air."

Paul Lieberman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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