Country superstars' need for opening acts brings emerging artists up too fast

It’s been a phenomenal summer for the country music touring business. Almost all of the genre’s headliners are on tour, and ticket sales are solid. But with so many major performers on the road, the demand for opening acts is leaving the country music farm team — those midlevel acts destined to become the genre’s next superstars — without a very deep bench.

As a result, openers — usually acts with a hit single or two — are less frequently available for the smaller tours, fairs or festivals that allow them to better develop their craft by performing a full set in their own show. And with a dearth of midrange acts to book, smaller venues are dark, preferring instead to book headliners when they become available.

Agents and managers note that it’s hard for newer acts to ignore an offer to play in front of 15,000-20,000 people.

“It’s a regular conversation we have with our artists,” says CAA’s John Huie. “It’s kind of nuts to turn down playing in front of 20,000 people.”

Little Big Town has chosen to open for top draws such as Martina McBride and Alan Jackson. “They are selling at least 2,000 of those 20,000 seats,” says Huie.

Execs note the genre’s superstar acts, like Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, are among the big guns dominating the year’s touring schedule. In the first half of 2006, of the top 50 tours, country artists claimed 11 spots and grossed an impressive $179 million.

But in order to build that larger base of superstar talent, execs agree that the farm team needs to be able to more frequently take the field.

“The tours out there doing the big business are the acts that have been around for 10, 15, 20 years. We’re having a great run,” says Tony Conway, president of Buddy Lee Attractions.

But the wealth of big shows also is impacting the smaller tours that artists use to develop a live show and build a following.

“They have cut out using level-B or level-C acts,” Conway notes. “That’s something we’re working on: putting together strong packages for an amphitheater run.”

Miranda Lambert, a promising newcomer whose album “Kerosene” has been on the charts for more than a year, has opted to open for big names like George Strait and Dierks Bentley.

And Sugarland often considers whether it’s better to headline or support. The band has opened for Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn as well as tried some solo outings. While opening for Brooks & Dunn, Sugarland occasionally played smaller venues when there was a break in the tour.

“If we played with Brooks & Dunn for four days, on the fifth day we would sometimes go into a theater and do our own show,” says Huie, who reps Sugarland. “But next year we might say, ‘Do we go out on our own or take the Kenny Chesney tour?’ It’s hard to go back to 3,000 seats when you’ve played in front of 20,000 people.”

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