Nashville in the Nutmeg State
Country music has a new following in Connecticut
A few decades ago, the word “country” didn’t enter into many Connecticut music conversations. When it was uttered here, it would no doubt be followed by the word “club.” But now, country music has crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. You no longer need to drive a pickup – or a tractor – to jump on this bandwagon.
Country music fans regularly pack concerts at Mohegan Sun. One of the newest eateries in Stamford is called Rascal Flatts, after the famous country trio that also started a restaurant chain. It’s a musical genre that is fast becoming the soundtrack for mainstream America. There’s even a crossover style called “bro-country” infused with hip-hop and rock elements.
How did a genre with its heart firmly planted in the South develop a following in our neck of the woods? The answer is a surprising connection between homegrown talent and the Music City of Nashville, Tennessee.
John “Cadillac” Saville has seen a massive increase in demand for country music throughout his radio career. He started spinning country records with an AM radio station in Hamden in the early 1980s.
Cashing in on the Urban Cowboy trend of that era, the small station called its market “Suburban Country Radio.” He broadcast a lot of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and other established stars. Saville certainly heard pushback from rock and pop fans at the time. He persevered, though, and his voice would later grace the airwaves at WWYZ Country 92.5.
“I remember when we switched to country at 12 noon in 1988. It was a whole culture shock,” he says of changes at WWYZ. “When they heard about the new format, people said, ‘This is Connecticut, country music will never make it.’” Of course, it’s now one of the top three radio stations statewide. It’s still the only FM country music station serving Hartford and New Haven.
Saville left the station last summer and continues to DJ events, including weddings and parties. He sees a strong future in modern country as it becomes more hybridized with hip-hop.
“There’s been a lot of hip-hop influence lately,” Saville says. “Modern country musicians are influenced by the music they grew up listening to, which was old-school hiphop on MTV in the ‘90s. They fused the music together, opening it to a whole new generation of fans.”
Connecticut native Rich Redmond moved to Nashville in the late 1990s, where he met a country singer named Jason Aldean. The singer would later ascend to national fame with a slew of hits in the 2000s.
Redmond – voted “Best Country Drummer” by Modern Drummer magazine in 2016 – is now a touring drummer, with major arenas booked around the world. He’s traveled many miles from a humble start on his blue sparkle snare drum, hoping to someday play in the rock band KISS.
“You’d have to look pretty hard to find country music in Connecticut at that time,” Redmond says of his early days in Milford. For the rock protégé, it was all about listening to Boston and Foreigner back then. “It was when I transcribed the drum parts from Van Halen’s ‘1984’ and ‘Synchronicity’ by the Police that I really caught the bug.”
His parents eventually moved the family to Texas. Redmond says he was blessed because Texas has a great music education program where he was slightly ahead of the percussive pack, having already taken lessons in Connecticut. Redmond would later study at University of North Texas, which is known for producing top drummers.
After graduation, it was all about breaking into the music business. “I put in my 10,000 hours and honed my skill set,” Redmond says. “I had a high-sodium diet: Ramen noodles are very salty! I maxed out my credit cards, drove old jalopies, and worked odd jobs when I had to.”
Redmond is continually impressed by the growth of country music today. “Classic rock is in a creative slump,” he says. “With country, you still have the storytelling with CHANGE OF SCENE: A Norwich native, Redmond has acclimated well to Southern living in the “Music City.” big drums and big guitars. The lyrics are relatable to people, and country music has hummable melodies.”
He continues to appreciate all musical styles, but he’s acquired a special fondness for the genre, and spends hours listening to country acts including Gene Watson, Tammy Wynette, and Vince Gill.
Although Redmond tours globally with Aldean, some of his favorite venues are back in his old stomping grounds. “My roots are in Connecticut,” he says. “It will always have a homey feel to me. I love playing Mohegan whenever we can, which is usually once or twice a year.”
Few venues in Connecticut are more emblematic of country music than Cadillac Ranch in Southington. It’s essentially a country music and line dancing hotspot: a Western-style saloon featuring a mechanical bull and pub food.
Graham Nicholson and his wife, Bonnie, realized in the early ‘90s that it was their dream to open a country bar. The couple found a 5,000-square-foot property in Plainville that was unused for years. Their goal wasn’t to turn a profit, but just to pay the rent. The business became so successful, they moved to their current digs in Southington in 1997 – tripling in size.
“We’ve booked 185 major countryacts,” Nicholson says. “Some names that you might recognize include Alabama, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert, and Brad Paisley. We’re now the largest country dance club on the East Coast of the United States. Why did it happen here? I really can’t explain it.”
Part of that success came from a change in country’s musical direction. Groups like Alabama shifted the music from traditional to contemporary, by adding heavy electric bass sounds and moving it toward the domain of classic rock.
He vividly recalls a moment when Alabama played a gig at Cadillac Ranch and the guitarist blasted out a Metallica riff, right in the middle of a country set. People stood up on their chairs, screaming. Not because they hated the reference, but because they loved it. Everyone in the audience immediately recognized the nod to heavy metal. Cadillac Ranch features a full slate of major country acts year-round. In April, it celebrates its 25th anniversary with a to-be-determined marquee performance. Nicholson hints that the headliner could be The Marshall Tucker Band or Travis Tritt, but he’s still ironing out the details.
“We have a big parking lot, and we’re right off 84,” he says of the Ranch. “And it’s safe. We’ve never had any kind of problems with country fans. People are just so into the music.”
Jay Wood’s drum studio called The Woodshed is located, appropriately, near the Danny’s Little Taste of Texas restaurant in South Windsor. Tucked inside the sleepy façade
of the building is a multi-room music facility. Half a dozen drum sets are typically set up for lessons, which can quickly be cleared away to create space when big-name country
drummers come to town.
Cadillac Ranch is “now the largest country dance club on the East Coast of the United States. Why did it happen here? I really can’t explain it.”
– Graham Nicholson
Seasons Magazines • SPRING 2018 13 Wood hosts drumming workshops for people like Rascal Flatts drummer Jim Riley, and Sean Fuller of Florida Georgia Line. Others notables include Kent Slucher, who backs country singer Luke Bryan.
“Country music is definitely becoming more popular here in Connecticut,” Wood says. “The music has changed. People still associate this music only with Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers. Because of that, I’ve had people come up and tell me they don’t like country music, but they like what our band is doing. That’s because country is now more rock-based.”
Wood lays down the groove with the band Roughstock, which is fronted by Colchester native Frankie Justin. They started playing together when the singer was just 12. Justin frequently travels to Nashville these days, playing in country music showcases. Now age 18, the singer recently scored a recording deal.
Justin is essentially a Connecticut cowboy, having grown up around horses locally and in Kentucky. He may have spent his early years in the Nutmeg State, but he speaks and sings with a country twang. Local
fans can catch his group again when it plays Infinity Music Hall in Hartford in April.
Wood says interesting narratives and authentic sounds are why Connecticut loves country music. “The thing is, country music lyrics tell really nice stories,” he says. “I’ve also noticed in a lot of music on the radio, there’s no signature riffs and licks in rock and pop anymore. It’s all loops and sequences. These are really just vocal-based melodic lines trying to carry the whole song. Country still has live drums; some of the best drum sounds out there right now.”
He continues, “The country music scene is growing. People in Connecticut are getting excited about this kind of music. It’s taking the place of what rock used to be.”
Mike Briotta is a writer from Western Massachusetts. He didn’t grow up as a country music fan, but will admit to getting a bit emotional about the