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Blackberry Smoke, Sonia Leigh showcase country's expanding reach

Sonia Leigh plays at the Sayville Yacht Club

Sonia Leigh plays at the Sayville Yacht Club on Aug. 10, 2014. Credit: Josh Stewart

Barbara Mandrell may have been country when country wasn't cool, but when country is cool, what else is there?

Nashville's return to New York from exile thanks to MyCountry 96.1 on Eastern Long Island and NASH 94.7 FM in Gotham has been a perfect storm. Fans pick up one station on the LIE around the time the other starts to fade, and that inundation has spread to live events.

It’s not just Rascal Flatts at MSG anymore. Shows are everywhere, from Islip MacArthur flying in Rodney Atkins to play at the airport to the Town of Oyster Bay bringing in Lonestar and Danielle Bradbury as part of its free summer outdoor concert series.

Those seeds of country success have made the ground fertile enough here to support acts that aren’t CMA award-night staples.

The proof came earlier this month when Blackberry Smoke and Sonia Leigh rocked out The Paramount in Huntington, followed by Leigh’s intimate solo show a few days later at the Sayville Yacht Club.

The Atlanta-rooted Smoke’s long locks and ’70s set decor scream Skynyrd revival. But these Southern rock road warriors manage to play up to 250 dates a year that feature a little more groove and a hair less grit.

Simple times by the lake needing little more than “Two six packs of Shiner, 99 cent butane lighter” are remembered in songs like “Good One Comin’ On.”

Nashville’s Leigh brings up Janice Joplin and Melissa Etheridge when asked her influences, but her voice is less raspy and her catalogue more disparate.

“Put It in Your Pocket” is the kind of happy, find-the-eccentric-in-the-ordinary tune that Jennifer Nettles turned into gold with Sugarland. “Bar” is an unrepentant all-nighter anthem in the spirit of a defiant Miranda Lambert offering -- but even more old-school. It’s as if Leigh has been transported back to Ernest Tubb’s midnight Music Row record storm jam from “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”     

Both acts have ties to the Zac Brown Band: Blackberry Smoke released its 2012 album “Whippoorwill” on Brown’s Southern Ground Label.

Leigh co-wrote Zac Brown Band’s “Sweet Annie,” and saved her version of the song for the yacht club show. Attendees uninitiated with her music were wowed both by her soulful rendition and the realization they were rubbing elbows with someone on the brink of stardom.

It’s a lesson on what to do when someone invites you to a country show and you ask, “Who is that?”

Immediately buy a ticket. 

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