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Why is Seattle so crazy about country?

Country star Kenny Chesney headlines one of the biggest concerts of the year in Seattle Saturday night at Century Link Field. (AP image)

If someone asked me to name the biggest drawing stars in music, I’d probably reel off the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga or the Rolling Stones. But it turns out Kenny Chesney tops them all when it comes to selling concert tickets.

Admittedly, I know very little about country music. But seeing that Chesney – who headlines Century Link Field Saturday with his No Shoes Nation Tour – was just named the highest selling artist in the past decade, I am duly intrigued.

Music industry website Pollstar reports Chesney sold 9.8 million tickets, grossing $608.6 million over the last 10 years.

By comparison, Springsteen sold 5.5 million tickets and grossed $460.5 million.

So what’s the appeal? While the 60,000 people that pack Century Link Field this weekend would say the answer is obvious, I had to ask.

“If you go see Kenny Chesney’s show it has as much or more theatrics and energy that rival the biggest rock shows out there,” says country music broadcasting executive Scott Mahalick.

Mahalick, who guided the successful launch of Seattle country station “The Wolf”, joins Seattle Sounds this week to offer his “idiots’s guide to country” for the uninitiated like me.

Being immersed in rock, indy music and even a little hip-hop, I was surprised to learn just how broad country music’s appeal is in our area.

“Country in Seattle combined is the largest group of listeners for any [radio] format,” he says.

Mahalick, the director of programming for Alpha Broadcasting in Portland these days, says unlike other formats, country artists continue selling more music than any other format as well.

“That’s why partly the format is so healthy. And there’s so many new and up and coming artists attracted to the format.”

Today’s country is a lot more rocking and mainstream sounding than the old twang of the Grand Ole Opry. Mahalick says somebody like John Cougar could easily pass for country these days.

“A lot of the sounds are merging closer and closer together and that’s also helping its mass appeal,” he says.

There’s no shortage of artists who’ve crossed over. There’s Blake Shelton on “The Voice” singing with Usher, The Taylor Swift show I saw with my daughter at the Tacoma Dome was as much a pop spectacle as Madonna at her most extravagant, and Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks fame is going pure play rock with a new album featuring her cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother”.

But at the same time, many other artists are “crossing in” to country from pop music, Mahalick says. Among them, Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish fame.

“He has the most traditional song on the radio currently called Wagon Wheel and yet it came from a very unexpected guy.”

Since I admittedly wouldn’t know Chesney from Shelton, Mahalick’s recommended playlist includes those two superstars Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church, The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum.

“These are all artists I would listen to,” he says. And after checking some of them out, I have to admit even this dyed in the wool rock fan has found a place in my music rotation for a number of them (although I still prefer my twang with with a decidedly indie-rock influence, along the lines of Sarah Watkins of Nickel Creek fame or The Maldives.) And don’t be surprised to see me kicking up my heels at a country show soon. Now if I can just figure out which way to wear the hat.

You can catch our interview with Scott Mahalick with his crash course on country on Seattle Sounds with Shawn Stewart and me Sunday at 5 p.m. on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM or anytime online at KIRO

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