Nashville, Tenn. When country music acts started noticing more Hispanic fans at their concerts, it didn't take long for Music Row to start dreaming of its Next Big Audience.
After all, many Hispanics in the U.S., especially Mexicans, already love norteno, a traditional Mexican sound based in the rural experience of cowboy boots and pickup trucks.
But could these norteno fans also be interested in the fiddles and steel guitars of country music? Right now no one knows the answer.
The Country Music Assn. in Nashville says there are no good studies to show how many Hispanics listen to country already, so the industry group recently formed a task force to investigate.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Spanish speakers are not a large part of the country music audience. The phrase "country music" doesn't even have a translation in Spanish.
"If they know it at all, they'll call it 'musica country,"' said Eddie Wright-Rios, a Vanderbilt University professor who specializes in the cultural history of modern Mexico.
Maria Pena owns Las Americas Music in Nashville and carries music in Spanish almost exclusively. No one ever comes into her store looking for country music, said the Chihuahua, Mexico native, adding that she doubted her customers were familiar with the genre.
But Pena's employee Camelia Wissar, also of Chihuahua, said she listens to country and her friends do too. Asked who she likes, she listed Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks. "I listened to it in Mexico, too," she said in Spanish.
Country music enjoyed a 17.7 percent increase in album sales in the first half of this year - the largest percentage jump of any genre - but overall U.S. album sales are down, and music executives are always interested in an untapped market.
Hispanics are the youngest, fastest-growing segment of the American population. They were 14 percent of the population in 2004, but made up nearly half the nation's growth so far this decade.
Country music has tried in recent years to broaden its audience beyond white people in rural, red-state America - an effort symbolized by the CMA holding its annual awards ceremony in New York, instead of Nashville, last year.
Eva Melo, of Tennessee-based Latin Market Communications, said the CMA has requested a Hispanic market study, but she is skeptical her fellow Hispanics will take to the genre.
"A lot of people confuse regional Mexican music with country because it comes from the ranches and farms, but if you translate a country song into Spanish, it wouldn't sound like regional Mexican music," she said.
"I don't know if Hispanics will relate to country music because it doesn't come out of Mexico. It comes out of Nashville."
Also, the Hispanic audience is not monolithic. Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. Hispanics are Mexican, but Spanish-speakers from other countries have diverse musical tastes.
"In different areas of the country, they listen to different music," she said. "In Miami it's more salsa, merengue and cumbia. California is more Spanglish, hybrid, fusion."
Rick Rodriguez, who manages the Latin division of Nashville-based Songs for the Planet and works as a song plugger for the same, has been trying to encourage Music Row to mix with Hispanic artists and music.
"I'm a Mexican from South Texas," he said. "I grew up listening to people like Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez. If we can get old-school country music, like back in the day what was coming from Hispanic cats, I think it would be big."