Country's big show - in the Big Apple

Why it shouldn't be surprising that New York will host country music's biggest award gala.

Who says New York isn't country?

After all, two-stepping is big at Saturday-night dances in Queens. And black cowboys ride the streets in Brooklyn. The Bronx even had an annual rodeo kicking up dust - that is, until it was banned after complaints from animal rights activists.

That's right, New York, the so-called Capital of the World, is also making a case as the new King of Country.

Especially Tuesday night. For the first time ever, the Country Music Association Awards will be broadcast not from Nashville, where they've always been held, but from Madison Square Garden.

For many in New York, it seems only natural that the "Crown Jewel of Country" will finally take its place in the "World's Most Famous Arena," as the Garden likes to tout itself. Yet for some, there's a debate: Has country music, which has become the new mainstream pop of America, grown up enough to come to New York? Or, has New York mellowed enough to become part of the rest of the country?

"Actually, country's always been here," says Kelly Cacaci, who was raised in Queens to the crooning of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and is now treasurer of the New York Metropolitan Country Music Association. "New York is one of the top three cities in terms of sales of country music."

That wasn't lost on the Country Music Association, or CMA. One of its goals in moving the event is to "illustrate the breadth and depth of the music and how it is woven into the fabric of American culture," according to CMA marketing chief Rick Murray - even in the Big, Bad Hip-Hop Apple.

For the city, hosting the CMA Awards is part of its ongoing effort to prove that if you've got a world-class mega-event, there's only one place for it: right here in New York. Plus, the awards are expected to generate about $36 million, thanks to the thousands of people who will come to watch Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban vie to become CMA's entertainer of the year.

"[Bringing the show here is] the kind of aggressive and imaginative marketing of our city that has helped bring our economy back, and it's a big factor in why 150,000 more New Yorkers are working today than were just two years ago," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement, when he kicked off a week of country-western events at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill last Wednesday. The events range from country songwriting seminars in the city's schools to a special "Broadway Meets Country" collaboration at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Grand Ole Opry is even celebrating its 80th birthday at one of classical music's top venues, Carnegie Hall, which Monday night was to host such stars as Alison Krauss, Charley Pride, and Ricky Skaggs.

Indeed, this kind of eclectic cultural meshing is what New York does best. The city has long embraced not just, as the Statue of Liberty says, the world's "tired, your poor ... yearning to breathe free," but also its characters. Just look at the resident cowboys. There are the Vampire Cowboys - an avant-garde theater group that specializes in comedy and biting social satire. And the Gay Cowboys, like Buster Marengo from the Bronx, who announced on the Gay Cowboy website that during the next Gay Pride March, he intends to "ride my cow pony down Fifth Avenue ... to honor past and present macho cowboys in the Americas."

And then there's Times Square's own "Naked Cowboy," who can be seen strutting in his spurred cowboy boots around 42nd Street with a guitar slung over his shoulder, his blond hair streaming down his back from under his white cowboy hat - and nothing else but his BVDs.

As for the CMAs coming here, he says, "I could care less. To me, it's just the same old gimmicky commercialism," says Naked Cowboy, who doesn't go by any other name and is originally from Cincinnati. "To me, they're just using New York City to promote themselves, where I'm braving a new frontier by coming here in this age of image-consciousness when nothing is real and being here, a man standing here in his own right."

Hmm. Whoever said New Yorkers were a bit complicated?

But there are also some very serious cowboys, including the 50 or so men who make up the Federation of Black Cowboys. With dreadlocks poking out from under their Stetsons, they ride around the city's housing projects reaching out to kids to offer alternatives to street life and educate them about the African-American role in the nation's emerging West.

And don't overlook the millions of very serious country music fans in the metropolitan area, who are very much hoping that as a result of all the CMA hoopla, the city will finally get something that from their perspective it desperately needs: a country music radio station.

"There are a lot of country music fans here, and maybe the powers that be in radio will be watching this with great interest," says country singer Mary Lamont, who has been dubbed the Queen of Long Island Country. "And then, God willing, we're going to get ourselves a radio station."

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