“Normal” Yearwood Gives Spectacular Show; Sonya Isaacs Dazzles

“She’s such a normal girl,” said the fan to her friend following Trisha Yearwood ’s Sunday night concert (Oct. 14) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

“That’s what makes her so special,” the friend replied.

Now most normal girls do not possess Yearwood’s rafter-shattering voice nor her mousetrap wit, but the singer did indeed exhibit all the ingratiating traits of a hometown favorite. She was comfortable, conversational, amusingly self-deprecating and very much one of the folks. Better still, she was fabulous.

Dressed in billowy red trousers, red flowing ankle-length jacket and a white T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag, Yearwood opened her two-hour show by leading the audience in an a cappella version of the national anthem. “Ever since Sept. 11,” she explained, “we’ve been opening our shows this way. … OK, now we can get loud.”

Looking trim and in-charge, Yearwood paced back and forth across the stage as she barreled through such early hits “She’s in Love With the Boy,” “XXX’s & OOO’s (An American Girl)” and “Thinkin’ About You.” She reminded the audience that this was her 10th year as a recording artist and used that fact as a jumping off point to contrast the “then” and “now” aspects of her career throughout the performance.

Yearwood’s casual tone inspired the audience to barrage her with requests and compliments. “Thank you for requesting songs I’ve actually recorded,” she quipped at one point. “Yes, we know ‘Free Bird,’ but we’re not going to do it.”

Introducing “Where Are You Now,” Yearwood said, “This song was written by two other classy blondes [Kim Richey and Mary Chapin Carpenter ]. You don’t usually hear those two words together. … I can say that because I’m a blonde.” Then gesturing toward her color-enhanced hair, she added, “I’m not this blonde.” Rolling on, she noted, “This is a really depressing song — but it’s up-tempo.” The crowd virtually levitated her with applause when she finished the song.

Yearwood spoke of her early days as a demo singer, working with just a guitarist and a microphone for an audience. She said it was during this phase that she established relationships with songwriters that still serve her well. “I’m often asked why I think I’ve stayed around this long,” Yearwood said, “and I don’t know what to say except that it’s the songwriters. They gave me their best songs, and they trusted me with them.” These remarks led her into Hugh Prestwood’s “The Song Remembers When.”

“I really do thank anyone here who came to see me in 1991,” Yearwood said. “I sucked.” As an opening act in those days, she said she did only 20-minute sets: “But when you have no hits, that’s a really long time. I had ‘She’s in Love With the Boy,’ which maybe three or four people had heard, so I closed with that.”

Bowing to a request, Yearwood departed from her set list to sing “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners,” from her current album, Inside Out. The performance earned her her first standing ovation. “If I’d known you’d like that one that much,” she said, “I would have done it later.”

As the crowd continued to call out for particular songs, Yearwood joked, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” Lining up her next number, “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway,” she said, “Here’s something I’ll pretend I heard yelled out.” She turned serious, however, before beginning the song, explaining that she and her band were on the West Coast when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place. She said they canceled a few shows and boarded the bus for Nashville. When she got back into town, she said she was heartened by the widespread display of American flags and the news that so many Nashvillians were wanting to give blood that there was a four-hour wait.

While acknowledging that “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway” might seem peripheral to the great national tragedy, Yearwood explained that it resonated with her because of its implict message to live to the fullest.

Yearwood chose Keith Whitley ’s “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain” to launch several minutes of vocal fireworks. She ended the song by trading improvisational licks and filigrees with backup singers Vicki Hampton, Robert Bailey and Kim Fleming, the trio that usually tours with Wynonna Judd . Seeking to establish a proper mood, Yearwood volunteered to “channel Wynonna” and straightaway dropped her voice into a viciously accurate impression of Judd’s bluesy growl. “I don’t know why I did that,” said the clearly unchastened singer. “It’s never too early to work up your Vegas act,” she added.

Yearwood closed the show — prematurely, as it turned out — with “How Do I Live Without You.” The crowd would have none of it. It stood, stomped, screamed and whistled until she returned a few moments later. “This whole encore thing is embarrassing,” Yearwood lamented. “We go over there and stand on the side of the stage, and you know we’re going to come back.”

Her exit may have been fraudulent, but her encore choices were pure gold. Weaving melody lines and riffs with the trio, she sang “Midnight Train to Georgia” as if it were the absolute summation of all loneliness and longing. Then, with long-time bandsman Johnny Garcia accompanying her on acoustic guitar, she capped the evening with Stevie Nicks’ wistful “Landslide.”

In all, Yearwood and her five-piece band did 18 songs, the others being “Love Alone,” “Walkaway Joe,” “Like We Never Had a Broken Heart,” “For Awhile,” “Perfect Love,” “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)” and “Wrong Side of Memphis.”

If Yearwood’s national anthem was the theatrical high point of the evening, then Sonya Isaacs ’ duet with her husband, Tim Surrett, was surely the musical pinnacle. With only Surrett’s acoustic guitar backing them, the two sang an ethereally beautiful version of the old gospel tune, “The Prettiest Flowers.” For the duration of the song, the audience seemed transfixed and stayed totally silent.

Issacs and her eight-piece band did a 45-minute opening set of 10 songs. The Lyric Street artist demonstrated from the outset that her vocal prowess is on a par with Yearwood’s. Poised and accompanying herself on a mandolin, Isaacs sang selections from her debut album, including “Let’s Not Lose Each Other Anymore,” “How Can I Forget” and “Barefoot in the Grass.” However, it was her complete overhaul of the criminally overdone “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” that demonstrated her flair for making a song her own. Her voice captured the song’s infinite forlornness, while her relentless mandolin chops amplified its sense of angry desperation. All Isaacs needs to become a star is more exposure. Everything else is in place.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.