Country music scene of Iowa City highlights community engagement

Through steel guitars, banjos, and fiddles, the country music scene of Iowa City dwells in its heart. With a multitude of performance venues, country makes its mark as a staple genre of music downtown.


Emily Nyberg

Country singer Justin Moore performs during his “You, Me, & Whiskey” tour at Xtream Arena in Coralville on Saturday, April 22, 2023. The tour promotes Moore’s newest album, “Stray Dog,” which will be released May 5.

Zhenya Loughney, Arts Reporter

Iowa City is an arts beacon sandwiched between miles of corn fields and pig farms — seemingly the perfect location for country music.

Live performances dwell at the heart of Iowa City. Some upcoming local country music performances include Adam Whitehead at Elray’s Live & Dive on June 3, Lyle Lovett at Hancher Auditorium on June 25, Chayce Beckham with Jaden Decker at Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon on July 27, and more. Just a drive up the interstate, country legend Willie Nelson will perform at McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids on May 17.

In Northside Iowa City, a painted raccoon mural accompanies an illuminated pink sign advertising The James Theater, a local theater promoting all kinds of genres. Production Manager Grace Merritt spoke of the myriad of musical dynamics that members of the community enjoy.

“We’re interested in putting on a little bit of everything,” Merritt said. “The intention of the theater is to be a place where artists can come and feel celebrated and supported by a community since it’s such a small space.”

Merritt said community support and engagement for country music in Iowa City is particularly strong.

“We see a different audience that comes in when we see a different genre. I think that there are different pockets of music listeners in the community, and a lot of them do cross over,” Merritt said. “There are some very large supporters of country music in the area.”

From Newcastle, Oklahoma, Kylie Morgan is touring her latest EP “P.S.” with a coming-of-age theme present in her lyrics. Morgan performed at Elray’s on April 22 and noted her positive experience with Iowa City fans in an email to The Daily Iowan.

“Iowa City was the first city I had ever performed in where the fans knew every single word. I will never forget the kindness and support they gave me,” Morgan wrote. “Country fans in Iowa are so special, and I’m so excited to continue to build my fan base there, especially with it being my husband’s home state.”

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Larger country acts such as Justin Moore from Poyen, Arkansas, frequent the local Xtream Arena in Coralville. Moore is a 2014 Academy of Country Music Awards New Artist of The Year recipient and is currently touring his latest studio album “Stray Dogs.” Director of Marketing for Xtream Rori Carlo listed some of the acts in an email to the DI. Carlo wrote that country music is Xtream Arena’s best-selling genre.

“Justin Moore will be our fourth country concert since we opened in September of 2020, we’ve also had Toby Keith, Cody Johnson, and Parker McCollum,” Carlo wrote. “Our country shows have been the better-selling genre we’ve had at the arena, including our sold-out Cody Johnson show in March of 2022.”

Carlo also noted the cultural importance of country music felt by the community at large.

“Country is of big importance to us as it’s one of the most popular genres in the area and the number of country artists touring allows us to bring in a variety of shows. We also look at many other genres to bring in as well,” Carlo wrote.

Country music isn’t the only type of live show buzzing downtown, but it is a way for locals to connect and be a part of the community through popular artists and frequent country performances.

Other live country-adjacent performances coming up in Iowa City are Eli Winter, a guitar composer, at Trumpet Blossom Cafe on May 5 and indie band Flamingos in a Tree at Gabe’s on July 5.

Iowa City allows every music genre to shine. From metal, indie pop, and classical compositions to EDM, jazz, and rap, being in a musically diverse city affords residents more community engagement with the arts through frequent cross-sectional appreciation for all genres, including the twang of country music.

Iowa as a state historically produced many great country music performers. Here’s where you can see a rising country music star in Iowa:

  • William Elliott Whitmore will perform at Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa on May 13.
  • Maddie Poppe will perform at The Iowa Speedway in Newton on July 23.
  • Tyler Richton & The High Bank Boy will perform at the First Avenue Club in Iowa City on May 5.
  • Lorrie Morgan will perform at First Avenue Club on June 16.
  • Cody Canada will perform with Gary & Mickey Braun at First Avenue Club on June 17
  • Garrett Spear will perform at Elray’s Live & Dive on April 27.
  • Brett Westgrove will perform at Elray’s Live & Dive on May 4.