Country

Country, Baseball and the Natural Link Between Two All-American Traditions

Donovan Carter, Brian Kelley
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Donovan Carter celebrates with Brian Kelley during the All-Star and Legends Celebrity Softball Game at Nationals Park on July 15, 2018 in Washington, DC.

When Major League Baseball's finest batters dig in at home plate during the annual All-Star Game tonight (July 13), they'll be looking to bang out a hit.

It's a goal that ballplayers share with country singers — what artist doesn't want a hit single? — but it's merely the starting point in country music's deep commonality with the nation's pastime. Both entertainment forms originated in America, maintain a strong connection with the heartland, are well-suited for beer and have their stars performing in front of thousands at the top of their game.

Baseball and country have additional reinforcement this year. St. Louis Cardinals fan Joe Nichols is working a single titled "Home Run," Old Dominion will launch a Live at the Ballpark tour of minor-league facilities on July 17, and a bundle of country acts — including Kane Brown, Eric Church and Darius Rucker — are among the music industry advisors for an ownership group hoping to bring Major League Baseball to Music City.

"The entertainer's mindset isn't too far from an athlete," says Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley, who pitched for the Belmont Bruins during his college years. "There's a lot of hurdles. There's a lot of no's along the way. There's a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, a lot of blood, sweat and tears put into your craft. And so I think there's a lot of respect between entertainers and athletes."

Plenty of country figures have notable roots in ball-diamond dirt, led by the late Charley Pride, a former Negro League player who pitched in the mid-1950s against future Baseball Hall of Fame members Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays. Roy Acuff became a Grand Ole Opry icon only after four bouts with sunstroke derailed his baseball aspirations. The Cardinals signed Jim Reeves, but a leg injury cut his career short. Bill Anderson played first base on an Avondale High ball club that won the Class A state championship in Georgia. Brett Young hit .444 his senior year in high school, then blew out his arm on the mound.

"I think I topped out at 95 [mph], but pitched at like 91," he recalls. "Then my freshman year in college, I hit 97 and then the next thing I knew, I had elbow surgery."

That concentrated focus on one body part to do their job is another aspect that country singers share with baseball's pitchers. Vocal surgery is as much a risk for a frontman on a series of one-nighters as Tommy John surgery is for a strikeout artist.

But their goals with that effort are different. A successful singer creates unity in an audience, inspiring the crowd to sing along together on the chorus. The pitcher's job is to send the batter back to the bench, maybe even humiliate his opponent.

"I was a pitcher, and I [liked] the rock/paper/scissors element of baseball and that I get to embarrass you in front of whoever you invited to come see you play," says Big Loud artist ERNEST, an all-state player with Nashville's Lipscomb High School in 2011. He had a won/loss record of 11-2 that year and was on the mound when the team won the AA state championship.

"I could embarrass you in front of scouts. I liked the competitive nature of pitching, of the mind game, even to the point where I would [tip off] the batter — I would do the glove motion for a curve ball and throw a curve ball, and he still couldn't hit it. It was just demeaning. I loved it. I loved to talk shit and back it up."

Though he talks tough, ERNEST harbors a soft spot for the game, illustrated in his latest track, "American Rust," released June 4. It opens with the image of a classic playground backstop, then references Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, John Deere, grandma and — in a tip of the hat to country music — Deana Carter's "Strawberry Wine."

"My dad was born in 1951, and in our backyard, there used to be a backstop," notes ERNEST. "We bought the house my grandfather built, and when [my grandfather] bought this house, he bought an extra lot in the backyard and built the backstop back there where my dad and all of his friends would play baseball growing up. The backstop is not there anymore, but that's kind of a head nod to that backstop in 'American Rust.'"

The landscaping is part of the charm in baseball. The green of the grass, the symmetry of the bases and the ritual of chalking the batters box lend an orderliness to the event. The smell of hot dogs and popcorn, the crack of the bat and the sound of an umpire belting, "Stee-rike three," are all classic Americana enhancements, which makes the Old Dominion ballpark tour an ideal match.

"I like the pace of it, I like the sound of it — I don't even care about who's playing," the band's Matthew Ramsey says of baseball. "The tone of the announcer's voice and the murmured white noise of the crowd — it's like a meditation app. If it's just on [TV], it's relaxing to me. It means there's nothing super pressing happening, but at the same time, it can be one of the most tense games ever when it gets down to October. Then you start watching, and you see just how nerve-wracking every pitch is."

That's one of the deceptive parts of the game. Critics deride baseball for being too slow, but the moments between each pitch allow the players and the managers to reevaluate every next subtle move. Once the pitch gets delivered, every fielder needs to be on the balls of his feet, and the batter has a split second to decide whether to swing. Like a concert, there's a lot of waiting around before the actual entertainment plays out, and the participants have to be ready for unpredictable changes to the plan in an instant.

"Think about a pitch coming 100 miles an hour," says Young. "What they're able to do on that field is mind-blowing to me. So I'm in love with baseball, always will be."

Reacting in the moment — whether it's to a stolen-base attempt on the ballfield or to a broken drumstick on the concert stage — is typically the result of developing a natural skill through long, arduous hours of practice.

"You're hitting a hundred balls a day, trying to just hope that that one time you can act [on the play] in one of the games this weekend in the tournament," says songwriter Ashley Gorley, a co-writer of Nichols' "Home Run." The dedication "really is a good correlation, I think, because to be successful [in music], you're writing hundreds and listening to hundreds of songs, and trying to find the one that connects. And a little bit of magic has to happen."

That connection with the fan is part of it. The applause means something at the end of the song, but so do the cheers for a grand slam or for a diving catch in the outfield.

"I still remember walking into [Omaha's] Rosenblatt [Stadium] for opening ceremony," says Adam Doleac, who hit a double and a single in his only at-bats for Southern Mississippi during the 2009 College World Series. "I remember it like it was yesterday. That feeling of 30,000 people screaming at you is not something you forget very easily, you know? And that's kind of the same thing that I'm riding right now, walking out onstage. It's that same kind of feeling. I'm just chasing it with a guitar instead of a bat."

Both jobs require creativity and dedication for success, and the guys who stand on the mound get comfortable with taking a leadership role under a spotlight.

"You're the controller of the tempo and the pace as a pitcher," says Kelley. "You're setting, you're throwing it, and when you get the ball back, you can walk around, fix your hat, do your thing, whatever you want to do."

Doleac wrote the theme for the 2019 College World Series, "Key to the City," and it returned in that role this year. But it is not his only connection to the diamond in 2021. He also played softball on Monday nights with the Recoupables, a Nashville team that took its name from the industry term for expenses that record companies charge against an artist's royalties.

The Recoupables were No. 1 in the standings, whether or not the individual players took that slot in the charts, with HARDY, Jordan Davis, Chris Lane, Jameson Rodgers and Jimmie Allen also on the championship squad.

It carried on a sort of Music City tradition — artists such as Vince Gill, Carrie Underwood, Terri Clark, Clay Walker, Barbara Mandrell and Phil Vassar have participated in charity softball games through the years. And the studio musicians who were nicknamed the A-Team in the late 1950s and 1960s used to play in a beer league after doing back-to-back sessions during the day. A profane Patsy Cline was known to show up and cheer them on when she was in town.

The sounds fans usually hear from country artists at the ballpark, though, are typically the music itself.

"I can't count how many country music songs I hear watching the Braves game," says songwriter Dallas Davidson, who co-wrote Nichols' "Home Run." "Either the Braves guy or an opposing team, their walkup song is 'Boys 'Round Here.'"

John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" has been a seventh-inning Baltimore Orioles tradition for most of the last 50 years. Alabama's "The Cheap Seats," Kenny Rogers' "The Greatest" and Trace Adkins' "Swing, Batter, Swing" dropped the game into three-minute country songs that receive various levels of ballpark play. And plenty of country stars — including Luke Bryan, Sara Evans, Josh Turner and LeAnn Rimes — have delivered the national anthem or "God Bless America" during the All-Star Game.

It's a pressure-filled moment, notes Nichols, remembering that he caught flak in 2014 after doing an acoustic version of "God Bless America" during the seventh inning after Idina Menzel blew out the anthem. Cardinals legends Bob Gibson and Lou Brock "looked at me like, 'Oh boy, we don't want to be in your shoes right now — top that,'" he says.

Social media was, not surprisingly, unkind.

"There's some tweets like 'God will now refuse to bless America for three days' — and some of these tweets are funny, by the way; you can't get mad at them," says Nichols. "But the girls on The View, they were really nice to me. Whoopie [Goldberg] said, 'Nah, I think he sang it like a country singer sings it, wasn't nothing wrong.' I hope everybody feels that way."

For a number of years, Garth Brooks put himself through razzing at spring training, playing with the San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals. One executive "recommended Shania Twain over Brooks," zinged Baseball America reporter Peter Gammons in 1999.

But other artists have been involved at the ownership level. Gene Autry controlled the Los Angeles Angels from their 1960 inception until 1995. Pride was part of the investment team when the Texas Rangers changed hands in 2010, Glen Campbell had a minority stake in the Arizona Diamondbacks, Roy Clark bought into the AA Tulsa Drillers in 1977, and the aptly named Nashville Sounds counted Conway Twitty, Larry Gatlin, Jerry Reed, Cal Smith and The Oak Ridge Boys' Richard Sterban among their owners during several stretches following their 1978 founding.

This year, owning a Major League team has become a realistic possibility for Music City, which — if it should be rewarded a franchise — is angling to call the club the Nashville Stars, honoring the name of a former Negro League team. There is no timeline on the plan, which requires the existing owners' approval, but it's the best bet the city has had.

"There's a lot of moving pieces, but there's a couple of teams that are looking to relocate, and there's a couple of cities that are looking for a team," says ERNEST. "If you're looking at the rate of which Nashville's been growing and continuing to grow, I think Nashville makes a good case to have a pro-ball team."

The DNA in the city's best-known industry makes it a natural fit, too.

"My mom always tells this story about how she knew that I wanted to be in entertainment in some way," says Old Dominion's Ramsey, whose natural position was second base. "Because when I was playing baseball as a kid, just a little kid, they asked me what my favorite part about it was. And I said, 'When I run across home plate and everyone yells, 'Yay!'"

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.