Listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” 10 years after it first rolled across the world, one realizes that the song has transcended every joke and snub it ever inspired. Too historically significant to ignore, too infectious to resist, it has achieved the status of one of nature’s abiding sounds, like thunder and surf. Billy Ray Cyrus closed Sony Music’s Fan Fair show with this durable ditty Friday night (June 14) and brought down the house — Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum.
Cyrus’s 20-minute set ended an evening of uniformly fine music, most of it festive and high-spirited. The show ran just under four hours and spotlighted 11 acts. If there was cause for complaint, it was that the artists were brought on and ushered off so expeditiously that it left little time to savor individual performances. Still, this approach was much better than the interminable stage changes that used to afflict such large productions. The Wal-Mart size stage, with its two spacious performance areas, gave everyone an excellent view of everything going on.
Adding to the delights of the evening was the impeccable weather. Even before the sun set, it was cool and breezy in the stands. Looking up, one could see just the hint of clouds and a circling airplane that trailed the banner “Got Fans? Billy does! BillyGillman [sic]Fans.Com.” Gilman’s appearance was a high point on the Sony stage at last year’s Fan Fair.
Cyrus worked the crowd like he was still young and hungry, dancing and prancing in a black, pulled-out shirt and tight leather pants. He came on wearing a white cowboy hat, which he perched on a mike stand after his first two numbers. Fans had flooded the strictly regimented photo area in front of the stage by the time he steamrolled through a version of “Honky Tonk Women” the Rolling Stones would have loved. As he neared the end of “Achy Breaky Heart,” he jumped off the stage and ran to the straining crowd barriers to touch hands with his adorers. “Thank you for giving us 10 great years of Fan Fairs together,” he shouted as he retreated into the wings.
Pam Tillis opened the show with four numbers from her upcoming cover album of country hits written by her father, Mel . She started with a throbbing, striding version of the Webb Pierce classic, “I Ain’t Never,” and moved on to a suitably bluesy take of “So Wrong,” which Patsy Cline made famous. Tillis closed with her own hit from 1994, “Mi Vida Loca.”
Like every other act on the bill, Tillis felt impelled to ask the crowd if it was having a good time. (Alternative gambit: “Hello, Nashville.”) That the fans were not moved to homicide by these never-ending and never-rousing cliches was a testimony to their innate civility. They were also forced to suffer the added indignity of soap opera stars coming out and introducing artists whose work and history they barely knew.
The Derailers, who followed Tillis, jogged the crowd’s collective memory of how country music used to sound, earning respectable applause for such gems as “More of Your Love” and the current single, “Bar Exam.” The band’s cover of Charlie Rich ’s “Mohair Sam” was surprisingly lame. But at least they knew who Charlie Rich was.
It remains a mystery why Ty Herndon hasn’t been elevated to the throne Garth Brooks abdicated. He is simply one of the most riveting stage performers alive. Cocky, confident, mischievous and always looking you — just you — right in the eye, he presented his set as a medley, sometimes singing only a few familiar phrases before leaping into something else. He even squeezed in a yearning a cappella burst of “America the Beautiful,” which had the crowd on its feet by “spacious skies.” With a black hat as his prop, Herndon closed with the sultry, bawdy, stripper-inspired “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” investing it with professional-quality bumps and grinds.
Looking like a young James Dean, newcomer Brad Martin seemed undaunted at having to follow Herndon. Limited to four songs, he made his bid for attention with the rowdy “Damn the Whiskey” and wrapped with his current single, “Before I Knew Better.”
BlackHawk relied on its catalog of hits for most of its segment, launching with “Every Once in a While.” Before ending the set with “Big Guitar,” the group performed “Spirit Dancer,” the title cut from its upcoming album. Lead singer Henry Paul dedicated the song to the late Van Stephenson, one of BlackHawk’s founding members.
Mark Chesnutt made his Fan Fair bow as a Sony artist by ripping into his 1996 hit, “It’s a Little Too Late,” and rolling on with “Bubba Shot the Jukebox.” He had some fun with “Too Cold at Home,” the ultra-serious lament that became his first hit, by showing just how long and how high he could sustain the phrase “It’s so easy,” and when someone misplaced his instrument he complained in mock despair, “I’m in Nashville, Tennesee, and I can’t find a guitar.” Chesnutt introduced his new single, “She Was,” by declaring, “Thank God for Columbia Records” [his new home label at Sony]. He said “She Was” is proof that a great song can still get one a recording contract. To cap his set, Chesnutt called out Tracy Lawrence and Joe Diffie , his current touring partners, for a barn-burning romp through “Gonna Rock the Roadhouse Down.”
(Chesnutt was one of several artists throughout the evening who thanked Sony for taking them in after they had ended their stays at other labels. It was almost like they were endorsing a shelter for the homeless. Tillis and BlackHawk are emigres from Arista, Chesnutt from MCA and Cyrus from Mercury.)
Diffie, one of the best and most reliable vocalists around, stayed on stage after Chesnutt and Lawrence departed to do four of his hits, including the most recent, “In Another World.” He dedicated “Ships That Don’t Come In” to American troops now in combat.
If the crowd’s reaction to Little Big Town taking the stage is a reliable indicator, the group can look forward to a long and prosperous run. Enlivened by the reception, the group worked the stage like veterans and offered the fans profuse thanks between songs. Before they came on, the show’s producers played a promotional video the group is involved in for the “Love Your Country. Vote” campaign. Little Big Town, made up of two men and two women, paraded glorious vocal harmonies and some memorably thoughtful lyrics.
Although still a relative newcomer, Tammy Cochran and the crowd interacted like old friends. She made her entrance with the steely “So What” and proceeded on to the sweetly serene “Life Happened,” a song that has all the earmarks of becoming another “I Hope You Dance.” When the time arrived to end her set, Cochran introduced her hit “Angels In Waiting” by saying, “If it’s all right with you on this gorgeous Fan Fair night, I’m going to do this song for my [late] brothers, Alan and Shawn.”
And then came Cyrus.