A country convert

Published 3:19 pm Monday, August 11, 2008

It’s part of the package, I suppose, when you marry a girl from middle Tennessee, but country music has become a big part of my leisure life.

I never disliked the genre, but my taste ran to more obscure country artists — like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Todd Snider, Tift Merritt and Lucinda Williams — whose music got little airplay before the advent of satellite radio. As a kid and young adult, I could take or leave mainstream country.

Then along came Rhonda.

During our courtship, we spent a lot of time on the road between east Tennessee, where she was working at the time, and middle Tennessee, where her family lives. It was on those trips that I became a captive audience for country stars like Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley, whose CDs filled her car stereo.

By the time I convinced her to marry me and move to Virginia, I was a country fan, especially of Paisley, who surely rates as one of the most gifted songwriters and musicians of his generation, regardless of genre.

Growing up an hour south of Nashville, Rhonda had easy and regular access to live country music. I figured that those opportunities would be limited in southeast Virginia, but my concerns were unfounded.

Last winter, tennis partner Randy Drake tipped me off to a season pass at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Virginia Beach that covers most of the major country acts. So far this spring and summer, Rhonda and I have seen Chesney, Tim McGraw and Brooks and Dunn, with Paisley, Rascal Flatts and Martina McBride still to come.

The tickets aren’t cheap, and neither is the gasoline to get to Virginia Beach and back, but the entertainment is first-rate. The verdict is out on whether we will splurge again next year with season tickets.

The good news for budget-conscious country fans in the area is the Franklin-Southampton County Fair, which has become something of a nurturing ground for country stars.

Call it foresight or just good fortune, but fair organizers have a knack for booking up-and-comers who achieve stardom. The best example is Paisley, who headlined the fair in 2000 on his way to megastar status.

Rhonda was pleasantly surprised to learn, a few weeks after moving to Franklin last summer, that Rodney Atkins was performing at the local fair.

The fair board books its musical acts up to a year in advance. By the time Atkins took the stage last summer, he’d had three No. 1 hits and was about to embark on a tour with Paisley. The 2006 headliner, Jason Aldean, has seen his popularity soar since his local performance.

In an interesting twist of fate, this year’s “opening act,” Lady Antebellum, has surpassed headliner Bucky Covington in popularity. The Nashville trio, whose twang has a bluesy streak, recently was chosen Top New Group by the Academy of Country Music, and many observers are predicting success similar to that of chart-topper Sugarland.

If you’re looking for affordable entertainment, check out the county fair on Friday night. You don’t need an advance ticket, and there are no assigned seats. Just bring a lawn chair and pay $6 at the gate. There’s no such thing as a bad vantage point, but if you arrive early enough, you can stake out a spot right in front of the stage. Parking is convenient, and there are no traffic jams getting in or out.

Country music’s not your cup of tea? It wasn’t mine either, but it might just grow on you.