It’s a common theory that most award ceremonies are no longer a relevant way to measure the greatness of an artist. It’s definitely been the case for the the Grammys which only recently decided to acknowledge the power of genres like hip-hop and dance music that have been going strong for decades. But when it comes to showcasing a local scene like SoCal country, it’s about more than just album sales, star power or major label promotion. It’s about the work that goes on in the trenches every single day of the year by unsigned local artists who often never get recognized for contributing to a scene that’s become more diverse and formidable than most people realize.
“Lately I’ve felt the pulse of Southern California country music get stronger and stronger and there’s been so many more festivals, and venues doing country night and an influx of bands,” says OC-based country singer Daniel Bonte, organizer of the inaugural California Country Awards at the Gaslamp in Long Beach Dec. 16. “The one thing that’s really shined through is the country family keeps growing and growing.”
Bringing together multiple tribes of country musicians from San Diego to Bakersfield, Bonte’s grassroots attempt at an award showcase and ceremony honors those who’ve worked hard in their fields with minimal accolades despite the quality of their music that often changes drastically from city to city.
While OC is known for its own mix of modern/ pop country and Americana, scenes in LA, San Diego and Bakersfield all have their own pedigree when it comes to sun dried outlaw grit that conjures the ghosts of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. The need to bridge the gap and strengthen relationships among artists is the main motive behind what Bonte’s creating. In the past he’s cultivated OC’s country scene through regular live music nights at Big’s Bar in Fullerton and the Wayfarer in Costa Mesa, though he says the regular shows weren’t always sustainable in the past.
“I realized that now there are enough bands to do an awards show. Two years ago? No,” he says. “But now there’s enough bands who are contributing to the scene that are working together that we can do something where we can recognize the hard work and the sweat going into it.”
It’s bittersweet that he should finally get a chance to make this show happen in the wake of the horrific Las Vegas massacre at the Harvest Route 91 Festival that took the lives of 58 people and injured 489. Bonte, actually attended the festival with a group of friends and wound up trapped in the middle of the chaos, doing what he could to save lives, including that of Sonny Melton man from Tennessee who was shot and killed while shielding his wife from the gunman’s hail of bullets. After Melton was shot, Bonte performed CPR and dragged his body to a truck that took him to the hospital and stayed with his wife after her husband was pronounced dead. Though Melton’s death made national headlines, it was the celebration of his life during his funeral which Bonte attended and sang at, that made him feel so inspired to strengthen his own community.
“It was a very humble moment for me when I got to go to his [Sonny’s] funeral in Tennessee,” Bonte says. “Even though it was extremely tragic and one of those things I’ll just never ever forget, being in that gymnasium with an entire town celebrating someone’s life and as crazy and much hate as there was in the moment that took his life, that moment during his memorial just overshadowed everything.”
The amount of love surging through the country community seemed to extend to California Country’s freshman awards voting as well once word got out about it. Bonte and his team received over 1,100 nomination ballots from local country fans for various categories like Best Video, Best Venue, Best Musician and Best Song.
A consortium of respected names from country radio and SoCal music scene were tapped to be judges in the event. Unlike other genres that rely less and less on radio every year, Bonte says country fans remain very loyal to the airwaves and personalities like Graham and Dave from the morning show on Go Country 105 FM who are on the panel as well as Heather Froglear and Pepper from K-Frog 95.1 and 92.9 FM, OC promoter and president of Sweet Relief Musicians Fund Bill Bennett, Weekly writer Heidi Darby among others.
Some of the noted locals nominated for the awards include Alice Wallace, Stephen Wesley, the Morgan Lee Band and Redwood Black as well as Gethen Jenkins and Honey County, who are also one of the headlining performers during the event.
For Dani Rose, Honey County’s lead singer, garnering nominations in three categories [for Best Band, Song and Video] is an amazing way to wrap up a whirlwind year for the LA based trio which is gaining a stunning amount of attention from Nashville despite their desire to stay firmly rooted in California.
“We were so honored and grateful to be included in a lineup with our peers and friends because you never know how the community views you,” Rose says. “As an artist you work so hard to prove your worth to have some recognition of that within our own community it’s really rewarding.”
With any new event, especially one that claims country as its audience, will take time to build. And though Gaslamp in Long Beach might not be as big as the Grammy’s home at Madison Square Garden, it’s the intentions behind it that really resonate with this market of country music that’s managed to succeed far away from the powerhouse Nashville scene. For an outlaw country artist like Long Beach's Gethen Jenkins who lives the culture every day of his life, the idea that our local country scene is finally starting to communicate and acknowledge each other far outweighs the value of the award statues.
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“Whether you’re playing pop country, folk or rock-n-roll, if you’re playing original music, you know the struggle that we all go through trying to get people to come to our shows and pay our musicians,” Jenkins says while on the phone at Eagles Nest Motorcycle Shop in Alhambra. “So if we can focus on that, the things we have in common, we like to make music that makes people move and feel happy and we can all relate to.”
Whether or not the first show is a huge success, Jenkins and other artists in the genre seem to feel Bonte’s intentions for the California Country coming from a good place. For proof, look no further than the fact that Bonte, who’s had a pretty impressive year himself with the release of new videos, music and national touring, refused to nominate his own band in this award ceremony. But hopefully next year when he hands it off to a new coordinator and solidify all the bylaws to make it legit, he says all bets are off.
“Just being the architect of it, I really like that aspect,” Bonte says. “So I made myself not eligible this year, but next year I’m gonna wipe the floor..I’m, coming in hot.”
The 2017 California Country Awards take place on Dec. 16 at the Gaslamp in Long Beach at 4 p.m. For full details and tickets, click here.