By Annie Reuter
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in New York City, navigating the subway system here can be tricky. After an abrupt halt at 86th Street, I realize I could have taken an express train several stops back, and my hour-and-a-half journey to Randall’s Island would have been drastically reduced.
I’m on my way to FarmBorough, New York City’s inaugural country music festival, which is taking place June 26-28 on Randall’s Island, a plot of land in the East River between Harlem (on the Manhattan side) and La Guardia Airport (on the Queens side). Just as I’m about to exit the train to find a new route, however, a voice comes over the intercom. “This train is going express to 125th Street.” Even better!
As I settle back into my seat I look to my left. Sitting by herself in the car, I see a young woman with a cowboy hat. “She’s definitely going to FarmBorough,” I think.
I debate sitting next to her and introducing myself, but then I remember I’m on a New York City subway, where approaching strangers is often considered creepy, so I choose to stay put. As we exit the train, though, I realize I have no idea where I am going, so I decide to approach her anyway.
She is, it turns out, heading to FarmBorough. And she’s happy to help me with directions, too.
Throughout my weekend at FarmBorough, I do this a lot. I approach fans to see what initially attracted them to the festival, which artist made them fall in love with country music and whether or not they’d come back next year. Unsurprising to me, having covered country music in New York for the past six years, everyone I meet and speak with is incredibly approachable and willing to share their stories. Take that, New York City stereotypes.
Caitie Hoolihan is a recent college grad from New Jersey who is attending by herself. She’s the woman from the subway, and we start chatting as we navigate our way across the Robert F. Kennedy footbridge onto the grounds of Randall’s Island. She tells me she only started listening to country two years ago, and that once she heard about FarmBorough decided she “had to go.”
Her first country concert was Keith Urban last summer, and she’s quick to explain he’s her favorite artist. “I listened to a lot of songs of his but I never knew that they were his. So, it was cool to actually see him perform them.”
New York may not be often considered a country music hotbed, but Hoolihan says she thinks it’s only going to get bigger here. And she’s convinced that FarmBorough will blow up.
She also wasn’t afraid to attend solo. “I just figured it was a great opportunity to see all my favorite artists. My friend couldn’t get off of work, so I put this big post online saying, ‘Is anyone going to this thing?’ And no one knew what I was talking about. I was like, ‘You know, screw it. I’m just going to go by myself and see how it goes.’ I figured the crowd is going to be nice, and even if I am by myself, it’s a great opportunity to meet new people and listen to all my favorite songs.”
As someone who is also attending by herself, I have to agree.
The fact that I wasn’t overly familiar with Randall’s Island, including where to go after I got off the train, isn’t lost on another person I meet once I arrive: FarmBorough Festival creator Brian O’Connell. In fact, as he tells me during a tour of the grounds, it was one of the biggest hurdles to get over when Live Nation, the company producing FarmBorough, first announced the event.
“It’s like you’re talking about going to Neptune,” he jokes. “What we had to do, especially for a country fan, is explain where this place was. It’s been a tough journey but we’re doing it one fan at a time.”
He adds that his hope is to attract country fans from all over the world–not just over the river. Once they make the trek, they’ll quickly realize that the festival location is like nowhere else in the city, or the East Coast for that matter.
As we walk down a hill, the festival grounds are revealed. Two stages are set up in the back corners of a huge green field. Surrounding them are food stands, rides, mini bars, tiki bars and picnic tables. It doesn’t feel like we’re in New York anymore, but the picturesque view of the skyscrapers in the backdrop serves as a gentle reminder. No, we’re not on Neptune. We’re simply across the river.
“A festival has to look a certain way, it has to smell a certain way, it has to feel a certain way, otherwise it’s not going to work,” O’ Connell asserts. “Otherwise, it’s a bunch of bands on a stage standing. The idea behind FarmBorough is to turn this literally into the sixth borough of New York for three days a year.”
The grounds tour takes us past the two stages—the Next From Nashville stage, which highlights up-and-coming artists like the Cadillac Three, Chris Stapleton and Striking Matches, and the Main Stage, where headliners Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan and Brad Paisley will perform. We then head to the custom-built Malibu Rum House. There, country artist Jon Pardi greets us and shares his excitement to be playing at New York City’s first country festival.
“It’s a good introduction if you didn’t know what a country festival was like,” he tells me. He also adds that it’s not your typical “crazy” festival with six stages, which makes it easy to navigate. “Country is as big as it’s ever been.”
Annie Reuter (@yousingiwrite) June 26, 2015
Dierks Bentley agrees with Pardi. Later in the day he explains that he thinks a country festival could have come to New York a long time ago.
“People are here,” he says of New York’s increasing country music fan base. “There are a lot of [country] bands that headline Madison Square Garden, so I think they were just trying to get it right. The demand is here. I totally trust New York country fans. They’re hardcore. They’re dedicated and appreciative that you’re here.”
Bentley tells me about the first time he played in New York City was in 2003 with Texas bands Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed, and he says those acts have always done well here. While he felt nervous and wondered if people were going to like his set, his performance went over well and he was quickly put at ease.
“I’ve made some really great fans here,” he says with a smile. “I have this one fan who looks a lot like Will Ferrell who comes out to every show I play in the city. He parks his pickup truck on the street, throwing beers out of his cooler at the end of the night. He’ll probably be here tonight. Sometimes he dresses up as a character from a Will Ferrell movie. You feel like you made it when you’re playing up here.”
As the grounds tour comes to a close, the press are ushered to the media tent where we’ll be filing our photos and stories as well as interviewing artists. I settle into a chair across from Ann Mary Rajanayagam, the founder of New York country website NYC Country Music Lovers and someone who I happened to meet at Brett Eldredge’s album release show for Bring You Back in 2013 at New York’s Highline Ballroom. Her story is unique as she’s a Sri Lankan Australian who stumbled into country music three years ago while on a road trip.
“The only thing we could get on the radio was country music and gospel music, stuff I’ve never heard of before,” she recalls. “Before you knew it I was singing along. I got back to New York City, and there was no country music in New York. There was no one to go to a show with.”
After going to see Randy Houser by herself in early 2013, she realized she wanted to start a community of country music fans in New York. She began by creating a Facebook page, and soon enough she had people coming up to her at concerts and introducing themselves.
“We have a great time. We show the diversity of country music,” she says of her following. “There’s no one type of country fan anymore. Country fans come in all shapes and sizes. They’re not necessarily from the South of this country. As a minority in the country music business, I’m just happy to say it’s been very welcoming.”
Just as I met Ann Mary at a concert, many of the FarmBorough festivalgoers I interview admit to first meeting the friends they were attending with at a country show. While talking to Renee Glennon and Ashley Wardrip, for instance—who are from Connecticut and Tennessee respectively—I learn that the two friends met last year at Dierks Bentley’s Miles & Music Festival in Nashville. They instantly bonded over their love of Bentley and became fast friends. Wardrip, who was celebrating her birthday, bought tickets forFarmBorough as soon as they went on sale.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday and it’s also my 50th Dierks show, so I threw it all together in one weekend,” she says while wearing a T-shirt of the Hot Country Knights, Bentley’s ‘80s cover band, and a pair of cowboy boots.
Glennon and Wardrip got to Randall’s Island at 10 a.m. Friday morning (June 26) and waited until the doors opened at 2 p.m. to ensure they’d get their spot right at the front of the stage.
“I love this genre of music. [There is] community,” Glennon says. “Everybody just wants to go and have a good time.”
While I speak with many diehard country fans, my chat with sisters Rosie and Lena Aiello and friend Christen Russell shows there are many closeted country fans as well. Lucky for the sisters, they eventually revealed their “dirty little secret” (their words, not mine) to each other a few years back and have been going to shows together ever since.
“We love country,” Rosie says, beaming. “It’s the whole lifestyle, it’s just chill. We love being American. [Country music] is very American.”
Being from Westchester, New York, the sisters say country music makes them happier. They used to be into EDM music, and after seeing a performance from Tate Stevens on the X Factor they began secretly escaping from the house music scene to listen to private country playlists on Spotify.
“Especially when you’re from New York, it’s a nice break from the usual,” Lena adds. “I go to the city all the time. [You’re] free from the buildings and the concrete. You like to think the grass is greener in the countryside. We always say we want to go to Texas, meet the guy in the country song. It’s that whole fantasy thing.”
“It gets you through the winter,” she continues. “There’s sunshine and happiness somewhere in the middle of a New York February.”
They end our talk by telling me that country music is “more relatable” than other formats, and it’s the authenticity and the fact that most of the artists write and perform their own music that keeps them coming back to more country concerts. “There’s actual talent there,” Russell adds.
Later, when I speak with Kip Moore about the festival and the fans here, he says he’s not surprised about the avid support for country music in New York.
“This place has been our hotbed for years now,” he tells me while we’re seated backstage in the artist tent. “It’s one of our most passionate fan bases, and I know it’s that way for other people, too. There’s country fans everywhere. I don’t know why people always sound so shocked when they say there’s lots of fans in New York. They’re just as passionate out here as anywhere else.”
That passion especially showed on Saturday night (June 27). Rain had poured down heavily throughout this second day of FarmBorough, but it obviously wasn’t an issue for the fans, who stuck it out to the very end of Brad Paisley’s headlining set that night. “Whoever said New Yorkers aren’t outdoorsy?” he asked a few songs into his set. “Thanks for staying in the rain with us.”
Singing in the rain. I'm in, if you are, NYC.—
Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) June 27, 2015
Well I don't know if you got the memo but in the rest of the country there's a thing called summer. It's warm. It's dry. @BradPaisley—
Radio.com (@Radiodotcom) June 28, 2015
"What's really nice is I had to be here, you didn't. We're going to stay here as late as we can" @BradPaisley standing on catwalk in rain—
Annie Reuter (@yousingiwrite) June 28, 2015
Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) June 28, 2015
Brandy Clark is another artist who isn’t surprised by the fan enthusiasm she encounters. She tells me that FarmBorough means a lot for country music, but means even more for people on the East Coast to have a country festival in their area. Instead of traveling to Nashville or the West Coast for festivals, we can have our own.
“This is such a great market for country music,” she explains.
The last group of country fans I chat with while walking over the RFK Bridge early Saturday afternoon. Liz Flynn and Jennifer Waller were attending the festival with their two sisters, who all love country music. While this was Flynn’s first country concert, Waller has been attending for decades and tells me about seeing Garth Brooks live in Central Park back in 1997.
“Back in the day we’d have to travel to see a country concert. Garth was the closest in Central Park but if we wanted to see somebody we had to go to Pennsylvania,” the 40-year-old says.
The Bergen County, New Jersey natives say what they love about the country artists are how approachable they are.
“They all really enjoy what they do and appreciate their fans. Where else do you get that? It’s like a whole other world,” Waller says. “I like how more people are embracing it.”
With the weather forecast predicting rain and thunderstorms later that day, Waller and her three sisters decided to make the trek to Randall’s Island regardless.
“We don’t even know if Brad Paisley is going to come on tonight but it doesn’t matter,” she says. “Even next year if there weren’t huge headliners I would still come. All the music’s great.”
So what about her sister, who had never been to a country concert before? Would she attend in 2016 if FarmBorough comes back to Randall’s Island?
Flynn doesn’t hesitate. “I’m definitely coming back next year.”