Throwdown In Yo Town

Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman tries his hand at Country music

Kevin Lyman has seen the future of Country music, and he’s bringing it to an amphitheater near you.

He’s organized the Country Throwdown Tour, which on several levels embodies the new world he expects the Country music industry and its artists to face in the not-distant future.

To begin with, the tour offers something new as the first traveling, all-day, multistage festival in mainstream Country. On another level, Country Throwdown represents the future of Country with a bill dominated by the scene’s rising stars.

The most established act performing is Montgomery Gentry, who’s joined on the main stage by Jamey Johnson, Little Big Town (pictured) and Jack Ingram.

The two side stages include a variety of emerging acts, including Ryan Bingham (who recently won an Oscar for co-writing “The Weary Kind,” the theme song from the movie Crazy Heart) and Eric Church (who has considerable momentum behind his career at the moment). Others playing on the side stages include the Eli Young Band, Lost Trailers, Heidi Newfield, Jonathan Singleton & The Grove and Emily West.

“You’ve got that established artist like Montgomery Gentry, who’s kind of taken a step back and said, ‘I want to be part of something and bring (along) some of the best young talent,’ ” Lyman says, describing some of the artists on the bill. “It’s giving Emily West a great platform for this new record (she has) coming out. It was nice to be able to book someone like Ryan Bingham back in October before Crazy Heart and all of that, because I believe he is a voice that is the future of Country in many ways. And then you go see Eric Church’s band, and his band could be Bad Religion.”

The Country Throwdown also includes the Bluebird Cafe Tent, named after the famous Nashville club where a host of Country stars have played some of their first shows. Each day the tent will feature nine newcomers performing acoustically “in the round” in three groups of three.

This group of performers includes artists that have written hits for others or are releasing albums they hope will put them on the music map. For an artist like Walker Hayes, who has a first single going to radio in July and the release of his debut album on Capitol Records to follow, Country Throwdown offers the kind of exposure artists just starting their careers rarely receive.

“I definitely don’t feel like I deserve to be on such an amazing roster,” Hayes says. “At this point in my career, I just finished an album. I’m a brand new artist on Capitol Records. I really don’t have a lot of credibility. I’m just a singer/songwriter kind of doing my thing. … I think it’s a great platform for me to begin on, especially at this stage.”

Beyond the fact that Country Throwdown is focused on emerging talent, it also might well represent a model for the future in how to market Country tours and its artists.

Lyman, who founded the Warped Tour for Punk and Alternative Rock acts as well as the Mayhem Festival (a summer Heavy Metal tour) and the Taste of Chaos tour (featuring Hard Rock bands), has seen sales for Rock acts fall drastically because of illegal downloading. Radio, too, has lost some of its power to generate sales for Rock acts.

In Country music, Lyman notes, downloading has yet to significantly cut into CD sales, and record labels can still look to radio as a primary way to break new acts. But he says it’s only a matter of time before that marketing model changes and Country will have to look beyond radio for other ways to build audiences for its artists.

A festival tour like Country Throwdown will be one way to put newer artists in front of large crowds to help expose them to new fans. And with the event’s first year featuring many acts that have yet to get much Country radio play, Lyman has borrowed a page from his Rock tours in marketing this year’s tour.

“With Warped Tour, you’ve always had to have an alternative way to reach the fans,” Lyman says. “(Country record companies) are lucky they still have radio. They still are selling CDs. But the writing is somewhat on the wall. The world is changing. And I felt maybe I can help them to embrace some of these other avenues.

“Our company has gone to the street, has gone to all the little avenues we’ve done on our other tours, really actively embracing the Facebooks and the Myspaces and the Twitters and all that kind of stuff.”

Lyman started thinking about putting together some sort of Country tour nine years ago after heading up the “O Brother, Where Art Thou: Down From the Mountain” package tour and says he thinks the Country audience is changing. Traditionally Country has drawn fans over the age of 35, but that hasn’t held true at the Stagecoach Festival, a multi-day Country/Roots fest held near Los Angeles at the same site as the Coachella Festival.

“We were doing the campgrounds out at Stagecoach, our company, three years ago now,” Lyman says. “I was watching the fan that was coming to Stagecoach, and I was like, ‘40 percent of these people could be at one of my other tours.’ ”

Country Throwdown is a new concept for a Country tour, and Lyman is cautiously optimistic about its success in the first year, saying he hopes to average about 8,000 fans per date.

“It feels like 1996 for me all over again … the first time I put the Warped Tour out,” he says. “You’re educating a whole new fanbase, a whole new group of people, to what Throwdown actually is. We are spending a lot of our time explaining to people that this is an all-day festival.

“We really jumped in with both feet. We opened an office in Nashville. I have four people there. We’re committed to this project.”

THE COUNTRY THROWDOWN TOUR hits Riverbend Friday featuring Montgomery Gentry, Jamey Johnson, Little Big Town, Jack Ingram, Eric Church, Lost Trailers, Ryan Bingham and many others. Music starts at 1 p.m. Buy tickets and get venue details here.

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