Updated at: 05/09/2013 1:35 PM
By DAVID BAUDER
(AP) NEW YORK - Even though a cowboy hat sighting on Fifth Avenue is still pretty rare, country music has made an important move into New York City.
Country has its own radio station in the nation’s largest market for the first time in 17 years. WNSH-FM, which calls itself "NASH 94.7," began broadcasting in January and its operators say it has established itself more quickly than expected during its first few months on the air.
For country musicians, the news gets a big yee-haw.
"I feel proud for country music," said Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum. "It shows that you cannot deny where country music is in today’s overall music world."
While no one considers New York to be Nashville North, it was a curious absence. Country went off the air in 1996 when WYNY switched formats. Before that, the fabled WHN and Lone Star Cafe were the capitals of country in the big city from 1973 to 1987.
Satellite radio filled the void for some fans, but its reach is limited.
There wasn’t a bias against country, said Lew Dickey, CEO of the radio chain Cumulus, which bought the religious station WFME and switched the format to country. There’s a limited amount of signal space available for radio stations in New York and the ones that exist do so well financially they have little incentive to change formats, he said.
"What really changed in the intervening 17 years is that country has become very much mainstream," Dickey said. "The time was right to give the tri-state area (with New Jersey and Connecticut) a full-serviced country radio station that was really tailored to New York."
Singer Miranda Lambert attended the station’s first sponsored concert with husband Blake Shelton and both were surprised to see a packed house of people singing along to their songs.
"How do they hear it if they don’t have radio in New York?" she asked. "It’s funny to me because I’ve learned this on the road. There’s rednecks everywhere. For every town and every city, you’ve just all got to find each other and you’ll be happier."
The New York station is "going to be like Taylor Swift of the radio stations. It’s going to blow up," she said.
The station’s initial ratings are about what experts expected _ half as much as established stations in Boston and Philadelphia but not bad for a new format, said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Research. Dickey said the launch has exceeded expectations.
The stakes are high for the artists. New York is the nation’s largest market for country music, as it is for just about every format given its sheer size. So far this year, 2.8 percent of the 12.6 million country albums sold were bought in the New York area, according to Nielsen Entertainment. It was slightly lower at 2.6 percent of albums sold at this time last year.
Country’s wide appeal across different generations made the format switch timely, Ross said. "It would have been hard to deny," he said.
"I don’t know why it ever left," said singer Luke Bryan. "Whoever is opening (the new station) is fixing to make a lot of money because I’ve been to Long Island _ I sold out where the Islanders play (Nassau Coliseum) a few weeks ago."
The wide appeal can make for a challenge, too. NASH is hoping that its format can satisfy both young Swift fans and older Hank Williams devotees. Cumulus is using the New York station as a test case, hoping that NASH can establish itself as a go-to brand for a magazine, concerts and other ventures.
The station last month had a concert series at a barbecue joint in Manhattan (yes, they exist!) that brought in The Band Perry and Brad Paisley.
Cumulus owns 85 country radio stations nationally. New York’s NASH has its own flavor, but will still play about 80 percent of the same songs as a station in Texas, for example. Texas might play local favorites like the Randy Rogers Band or Casey Donahew Band that wouldn’t make it onto the air in New York.
"Not only are we serving the country music fans of New York City, but we’re making the format more accessible to a broader audience," Dickey said. "That’s going to sell more music."
Associated Press Music Writer Chris Talbott in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder. His work can be found at http:bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)