It would be inaccurate to describe myself as a country boy. Born and raised in upstate New York, I had little exposure to country music. My parents listened to Sinatra and Streisand, and my years in Hebrew school did not prepare me for the likes of Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton, so I was a little late to the tailgate party. When I began touring the United States, with nothing but an eight-track to propel me down the dusty back roads of Texas, I turned to the radio. And much to my surprise, my love of the genre was born. Haggard’s “Down every Road” staved off any thoughts of loneliness, as I explored our beautiful nation, and Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” reminded me that rather than focusing on the destination, it’s often the journey that makes the trip worthwhile. Reluctant to let my “sophisticated” pals in southern California (where I spent many years) chide me for embracing my inner redneck, I kept it to myself until resettling here in Sullivan County, where redneck is a badge of honor.
Hooking up with the fabulous folks on Ciliberto and Friends (www.thunder102.com) cemented the deal. The radio station is hugely popular and draws an enormous audience in both New York and Pennsylvania. And being all country, all the time, I found myself able to express my secret love without fear of judgment. It may seem a bit incongruous to see a nice Jewish boy sporting a 10-gallon hat while driving his beat-up pickup along the beautiful country roads of the Upper Delaware River valley, but there you have it. I might have been late to the party, but suffice it to say that I’m here to stay. Imagine me crowing with delight then, when the gates opened for the season at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (www.bethelwoodscenter.org). To be sure, the place offers something for everyone and draws the best of the best in the world of entertainment. In a few short years, Bethel Woods has become synonymous with star power, and one simply has to check out this year’s schedule of concerts to understand how fortunate we are to have a world-class venue right in our own backyard. This season presents The Doobie Brothers, (July 12) Josh Groban (August 23) and James Taylor (July 20) to name just a few, but it’s the country shows on the roster that make my heart sing. Toby Keith, Kenny Rogers and Miranda Lambert are all headed our way as the summer unfolds and last weekend, Bethel Woods was flooded with fans who turned out in droves to catch opening acts Joe Nichols, Billy Currington and the incomparable (IMHO) headliners Lady Antebellum. Unfamiliar with Nichols, I read up a little and learned that he has eight albums under his belt and made Billboard Magazine’s “Hot Country Songs” chart debuting at number 59 with “Yeah,” which has already sold 186,000 copies as of last month. It was clear that I’m a little behind the times, since thousands cheered and sang along with Nichols’ latest hit, which Country Weekly praised as “hinting towards warm-weather goodness that the impending summer holds.” He was durn good.
Billy Currington (“We Are Tonight”) was also in fine form and no stranger to the business, and I was lucky enough to be able to sit in while he chatted with the Thunder crew for a few minutes to express his gratitude to mega-star Luke Bryan for giving him “Good Directions,” written by Bryan and Rachel Thibodeau, which resulted in Currington’s second number-one hit. Prior to the show, he promised to “sing ‘em all,” and he did just that, as the crowd roared with appreciation, which (like most country stars I’ve encountered) he gave right back to the audience with thanks for their support. Both acts were great, but when Lady Antebellum hit the stage, the place (including this nice Jewish boy) went nuts. Opening with their hit “Compass” led the way for a string of sing-along numbers (19 all told) and between their stunning vocals and smashing production values, they proved once again, why the country shows cannot be beat. “Better Off Now,” “Our Kind of Love,” and “It Ain’t Pretty” are tunes that America knows, and they proved it during the picture-perfect concert under the stars that only Bethel Woods can provide, as the fans danced, sang and hooted it up during Antebellum’s 90-minute set, which did not disappoint. Down to earth and genuine to a fault, the trio pretended to remember me when I stopped in for a “meet and greet” and gushed over Sullivan County, the iconic arena that they “felt honored” to play and their appreciation for the fans that show up to support their never-ending love of country. You can bet that I’ll be “On the Road Again” next weekend when superstar Willie Nelson enters the Pavilion (with the amazing Alison Krauss) to kick things into high gear. Maybe I’ll wear chaps and spurs. On second thought… maybe not.