Country music in Iowa is having an epic year
Dallas Clark, native Iowan and former Hawkeye and NFL football player talks about what being able to bring a concert to Kinnick Stadium means to him and just what it takes to make that happen. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
Step inside an Iowa country show and you’ll see flannel shirts, tattered cowboy boots and even the occasional pair of overalls. There will be roaring sing-alongs from fans in T-shirts from Iowa colleges paired with cowboy hats.
Show-goers may also need to plan for long lines, a nod to country music's robust reach among music lovers across Iowa and the Midwest. In the past year, Iowa alone has seen Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean and Dolly Parton appear on our stages.
And on Saturday, it's scheduled to have its biggest single-day show of the year yet: Blake Shelton at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. Organizers estimate roughly 50,000 will attend, providing another notch in the belt of large-scale country events invading the state in 2016.
Coined the Back Porch Revival, the concert boasts headliner Shelton, with support coming from Big & Rich, Thomas Rhett, Tucker Beathard (brother to Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard) and more.
The show could even catch the eye of Nashville country music power brokers, said Gil Cunningham, a Des Moines native who runs Neste Event Marketing, a Nashville-based company that books major country shows across the nation.
“This show is going to put the spotlight on the state of Iowa,” Cunningham said.
Although Back Porch Revival could come close to Kinnick's concert capacity of 56,000, that isn’t even the biggest country show to hit Iowa this year.
Garth Brooks played six consecutive sold-out shows at Wells Fargo Arena between April 29 and May 2, bringing an estimated 90,000 people to downtown Des Moines. Other big events earlier in the year included the Tree Town Music Festival, Guthrie's River Ruckus, Aldean at Wells Fargo Arena and the Iowa State Fair Grandstand shows. Add in scheduled arena shows from Carrie Underwood and Florida Georgia Line, and the audience attending country shows in Iowa this year will number in the hundreds of thousands.
At the forefront of Back Porch is Gary DeWaard, who runs Basis Entertainment, a company that produces country shows across the country, and Dallas Clark, a Super Bowl-winning former NFL tight end and Iowa native.
“Some of it’s surreal … being able to get to know everybody at the university and working with Dallas,” DeWaard said. “If you would’ve (told) me this two years ago, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.”
The proceeds to the show benefit the Native Fund, a nonprofit launched by Clark alongside fellow Iowan Ashton Kutcher, with the purpose of helping veterans, youth and natural disaster-stricken Iowans.
“The love and pride that I have for the state and the people … it’s a natural fit. It was natural to try to do something,” Clark said.
Dallas Clark: Starting a charity organization for Iowans
Dallas Clark, native Iowan and former Hawkeye and NFL football player, explains his idea for the Native Fund and the Back Porch Revival concert at Kinnick Stadium. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
What makes country attractive to such massive crowds in Iowa? According to Cunningham, the surge in success comes from younger people latching on. Nielsen reported country radio as the No. 2 most-consumed format among 18- to 34-year-olds in 2015, behind pop.
According to Statista, a company that provides statistics on numerous industries, there are more than 2,000 country stations in the United States, the most of any format. More than 45 country stations populate Iowa airwaves, while the state boasts about 10 stations dedicated to pop music.
“For the longest time, the country demographic was an old demographic,” Cunningham said. “Country has started to appeal to (younger people): high school kids; college kids — they’ve really embraced that genre.”
Due to an increase in streaming, country took a sales hit — as did most genres — in 2015, dropping 12 percent, according to Billboard. But, Cunningham notes, the touring industry remains strong.
Three of the top 10 grossing tours (four counting Taylor Swift) in 2015 were country, Forbes reported.
Several factors influence why country music has successfully sold thousands of tickets in Iowa, including strong show lineups and making smart decisions to use big-name artists to promote up-and-coming talent in front of a hungry audience, said Chris Connolly, general manager of the Iowa Events Center. One example of this is Aldean, who opened for Rascal Flatts in 2007 before headlining Wells Fargo Arena in 2014 and 2016.
And there's one other factor: The tours are careful on setting prices that aren't too high, Connolly said. Top ticket prices usually stay under $100.
“Country is strong in this market and it has been strong,” Connolly said. “That’s above and beyond Wells Fargo Arena.”
The culture of country
At the Iowa State Fair earlier this month, Billboard-charting country star Dierks Bentley worked a crowd of more than 8,000 through his set of party anthems and simple sing-alongs. He yelled, he laughed, and he sang right along with the crowd, as if the stage were removed and he was standing with the front row, beer in hand.
Bentley said there are two key groups of people bonding at his shows: young Iowans, who may be more attracted to songs about partying, and an older generation attracted to the storytelling that’s been part of the genre for decades.
“It’s that rare kind of music where the kids think it’s cool and the parents like it, too,” Bentley told the Register before his Aug. 15 show. “You get all types out in the audience, and I think that’s (why) it continues to grow. And Iowa? The heartland? Shoot. That’s a big deal to play there.”
The 2016 Tree Town Music Festival, an annual country event in Forest City that was created by DeWaard, attracted people from 29 states and 13 countries to the northern Iowan town. While declining to release exact numbers, DeWaard said the audience size doubled from 2014 to 2015 and increased another 20 percent in 2016. His goal is to attract 30,000 to 40,000 to Tree Town in coming years.
He's brought the likes of Bentley, Tim McGraw, Lambert, Toby Keith and countless others to Tree Town.
DeWaard knew he wanted to bring a festival to Forest City in 2008 after attending the 2008 Country Stampede, a long-standing country festival in Manhattan, Kan. He and his father, Dave DeWaard, worked on the business plan for six years before launching the festival in 2013.
“A big part of Tree Town, when we started it, was having an event in our own area,” DeWaard said. “We used to have to go somewhere else. And we decided, ‘Why can’t we have one in our own town?’ ”
Clark shares his own reasoning as why Iowans love country — it’s part of our DNA, he says — Iowans live the words being sung in country songs.
“You don’t get it unless you’ve lived or experienced it,” Clark said. “I think that’s why country is just a great fit for the state.”
For DeWaard, country music means having fun, which is what he expects people to be doing when the parking lots at Kinnick open at 10 a.m. Saturday.
“I don’t know for sure,” DeWaard said. “But I’m 99 percent sure there will be a massive tailgate going on all day ... I expect it looks like a football game by 11 o'clock.”
If you go to Back Porch Revival
Who: Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett, Big & Rich, Tucker Beathard, Morgan Frazier, David Ray, Hunter Smith Band
When: Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City
How much: $39-$239
More information: thebackporchrevival.com.