March 25, 2010

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Hard work pays off
New Hampshire wins big at national country convention
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

That there aren’t many maple syrup operations in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is no big surprise.

But for some reason, New England is a hotbed of country music. Once again, a contingency from New Hampshire and Vermont won big at the annual gathering of the North American Country Music Association International earlier this month.

“When other states see our people get up, they are just amazed,” said New Hampshire Country Music Association president Paul Malone, who’s been with the organization for 21 years. “They all say the same thing — how the hell do those people from New Hampshire that don’t know anything about country music get up there and shine and do it so well?”

For the second year in a row, the Black Brook Band won for Traditional Band of the Year. It wasn’t quite as strong a showing as 2009, when the Manchester-based quintet won the top prize for Traditional and New Country, while vocalist Marcus Wright won an individual award in the latter category as well.

New Hampshire still did well in New Country, with a musical family from Ossipee netting two top prizes. On the strength of his harmonica-playing, Mike Jones took home an award for best instrumentalist, and Jones’ daughter Michelle Hall was named best female vocalist in the category.

Twelve-year-old Ashley Miles won a Future Star of Tomorrow trophy in the age 7-12 bracket for her singing.  The youngster actually hails from a small Vermont town a few miles north of Littleton. 

“They don’t have a country music association there, so a lot of people have been coming over,” Malone said. “A lot of the younger kids have nowhere to show their wares … Ashley is just a nice young kid, a little bashful.”

Jonathan Scott, who fronts the popular Blazing Hearts band, won a second-place “Horizon” award for best male entertainer in the New Country category. Third-place “Rising Star” awards were given to new country duo Hall and Grover, and Alexandria Faulkner for female new country vocalist in the age 17-20 bracket.

The NHCMA has competed in the annual Tennessee event for the past 10 years. Prior to that they went to gatherings in Las Vegas and San Bernardino, Calif. When the Las Vegas competition shut down, one of the organizers moved it to the Compass Knight Theater in Pigeon Forge, located a few miles from Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park. 

The awards are judged like a battle of the bands or American Idol, Malone said. “You can do whatever you want in eight minutes to impress the judges … maybe you just get in two songs.”

While there’s a lot of raw talent on display, the New Hampshire organization works hard to prepare its own competitors for their shot in front of the judges’ panel.

The strategy routinely yields results, Malone said.

“We do the same thing every year,” he said. “Some people go down there and represent their state, but they don’t have the background that our people have. We do a lot to get them ready to go down there.” Regular NHMCA jamborees give performers the chance to work in front of audiences, and the annual organization awards banquet is run like the national event. 

“We get them ready to go down there,” Malone said, “and it shines through when they perform.”

What makes New Hampshire such fertile ground for country music? Malone traces it back to a time when rock and roll changed from Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly to a more aggressive sound, alienating a lot of fans. 

“They turned to country music, where you could understand the words,” he said. “Then Garth Brooks came along and brought younger people. Now there are two kids of country music, catering to two different groups of people.”

The NHCMA will hold a Jamboree to celebrate their showing in Pigeon Forge on Sunday, April 11, at 4 p.m. at the Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom. The gathering will feature a variety of association performers and include a headlining appearance by the Black Brook Band.


NHCMA Jamboree
When: Sunday, April 11, at 4 p.m.
Where: Circle 9 Ranch, Windymere Lane in Epsom
Tickets: $5 members, $7 nonmembers
More: www.nhcma.com

Also upcoming:
• Black Brook Band
Saturday, May 1, at 8:30 p.m. at Portsmouth American Legion
Friday, May 28, at 9 p.m. at Corner Pocket in Plaistow

• Jonathan Scott and the Blazing Hearts
Friday, April 9, at 8:30 p.m. at Legends Sports Bar in Raymond
Friday, April 16, at 9 p.m. at Linda’s Sports Bar in Hudson