While New York has always been rock ‘n’ roll, it’s becoming a little bit country, too. The opening of a concert venue and restaurant operated by the Grand Ole Opry in Times Square Friday is a major new development in the city's country scene.
The four-story Opry City Stage at 1604 Broadway stands as the Nashville institution’s first satellite venue and a true sign that something’s happening here for the city’s many country fans.
“It’s a big deal,” said Jason Moore, 40, a Queens resident and country music fan who grew up in South Carolina and Arkansas. “I remember for years there wasn’t anything related to country music in the city.”
The 28,000-square-foot venue, housed in the former home of the Spotlight Live nightclub, has two stages that can each seat 250 people. It has a fully operating restaurant and memorabilia from the Opry’s illustrious 92-year history, including Dolly Parton’s dresses and a Johnny Cash shirt.
The owners seek to recreate the Nashville experience — complete with wooden walls and tables — while mixing in some New York sensibility. The full Southern-style menu is created by the Bromberg brothers of Blue Ribbon Restaurants.
“It’s like a mini Ryman [Auditorium] in the middle of Times Square,” said Lincoln Foley Schofield, Opry City Stage’s booking manager.
Alex Battles, the lead singer of Brooklyn-based country band The Whisky Rebellion, said he’s seen enormous growth in the genre’s popularity since he started performing in 2000.
While New York has long had niche locations and small radio stations — as well as the occasional big concert, such as Garth Brooks in Central Park in 1997 — the industry began focusing more on the city in the 2000s, he said.
Events such as the CMAs at Madison Square Garden in 2005, as well as more concerts featuring up-and-coming stars, have helped grow the scene. A report released in 2011 by Nielsen found that New York City led the nation in the amount of country music albums purchased, though not in percentage of sales relative to market size.
The launch of Nash 94.7 FM in 2013, the first country music station in the city in 17 years, stands as a major turning point, according to Larry Miller, the director of the music business program at NYU Steinhardt.
“Artists would come through New York often to play a show and there was no radio to support it or promote it,” he said.
Maire Mason, a sales manager for Nash 94.3, noted that country music has become more popular in general thanks to artists such as Lady Gaga and Nelly who have dabbled in it, as well as the rise to mainstream superstardom of Blake Shelton and others.
Schofield said Opry City Stage will host big name acts, such as LoCash on New Year’s Eve, and local talent with both free and ticketed performances.
“We want to make this the best location for an undiscovered band,” he said.
Battles and other experts predict that the venue will succeed in that area and help New York City’s country scene evolve into a proving ground for the next generation of great artists.
“They would get a more demanding audience,” he said of New York crowds. “If you can communicate to a base of New Yorkers and not just country fans, you’ll be set.”
With Lisa L. Colangelo