Country Stars Put the Sizzle in Vegas

LAS VEGAS — The ninth annual Sizzlin’ Country concert achieved its basic goal of raising money ($308,000, to be exact) in the fight against cystic fibrosis, but the Tuesday night (May 20) event also served to demonstrate the wide range of mainstream country music in 2003.

Hosted by Sara Evans, the fundraiser at the House of Blues included performances by Lonestar, Darryl Worley, Deana Carter, Diamond Rio, Tracy Byrd, the Warren Brothers and the new Lyric Street Records band, Rushlow. Along the way, Kenny Chesney and Montgomery Gentry’s Troy Gentry made surprise appearances.

Evans wasn’t among those singing Tuesday, having experienced voice problems recently following the birth of her second child. She joked that the small blister on her vocal cord was caused by screaming while she was in labor. “I don’t remember it hurting that bad,” she laughed. Later in the evening, Evans noted, “I had to be on voice rest for five days. No talking at all. My husband was in heaven.”

The Doo-Wah Riders, a six-piece band which continues to serve as the house band for the Sizzlin’ Country concerts, opened the show with three original songs before returning to back several of the performers, including Worley and Byrd.

With all of the acts performing no more than three songs each, it was interesting to hear the choices made for a crowd that included fans and music industry executives in town for Wednesday’s (May 21) Academy of Country Music Awards.

Lonestar chose three of the new recordings on its upcoming greatest hits album, although two of the songs are already familiar. The band opened with “Walkin’ in Memphis” (the Marc Cohn pop hit from the ’80s) and closed with the current single, “My Front Porch Looking In.” Sandwiched between was “I Pray.” Lonestar has frequently performed “Walkin’ in Memphis” during its concerts, and the song’s rolling cadence is a perfect fit for lead vocalist Richie McDonald’s ample talents.

In introducing their current single, “Hey Mr. President,” Brad Warren of the Warren Brothers told the crowd, “Even if it’s not a big hit, start cheering like it is — like a Kenny Chesney song.” While no one in the audience realized it at the time, the reference was a tease for Chesney’s unannounced guest appearance on the humorous anthem for bar musicians, “I Don’t Sell a Lot of Records (But I Sell a Lot of Beer).” Chesney and Tim McGraw sing background vocals on the recorded version of the song that will appear on the Warrens’ upcoming album that McGraw produced. During Brett Warren’s guitar solo, Chesney yelled, “Richie Sambora,” a reference to Bon Jovi’s lead guitarist.

Chewing gum and popping at least one bubble onstage, Carter was accompanied by an acoustic guitarist and drummer on her three songs that included “There’s No Limit” (her single) and “You and Tequila” (an album track she co-wrote with Matraca Berg). Carter’s live version of her career song, “Strawberry Wine,” had the crowd singing along on the chorus. As is generally the case at such times, nobody else seemed to sing the song better than the artist. We should all remember this and refrain from joining in — unless the person onstage is encouraging it.

The evening also served to introduce Rushlow, a new band led by Tim Rushlow, the former lead vocalist for Little Texas. Rushlow — the singer-songwriter — has written some memorable songs. Having embarked on a solo career after Little Texas disbanded, he’s now in the unique and unenviable position of having his new band compared to a group that turned out some major country hits in the early ’90s. As long as the comparisons are going to be made, Rushlow — the band — appears to be going for a more acoustic, less aggressive approach. The group’s Sizzlin’ Country set included “I Can’t Be Your Friend,” one of the tracks on the upcoming debut CD.

Worley’s wife and mother were both in the house to hear him open with “I Miss My Friend.” In his comments leading up to the lighthearted “I Need a Breather,” Worley said the song was inspired by the hardworking U.S. troops he met in Afghanistan. He explained that it was a less serious response to international tensions, but the crowd was clearly in his corner for Worley’s more serious commentary, “Have You Forgotten?”

In playing three of their biggest hits from the past three years, Diamond Rio proved that its music has gained a greater degree of sophistication when compared to early tracks such as “Meet in the Middle.” Much of the band’s time onstage was devoted to an auction of a leather-racing jacket donated by NASCAR Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart. To increase the bidding, they called Stewart out to sign it. By the time bidding ended, the package, including the jacket, signed CDs and a photograph with the celebrities, raised $6,800 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

To close out the evening, Byrd turned the House of Blues stage into a honky-tonk by opening with his current single, “The Truth About Men.” When the last chorus came around, Gentry rushed onstage to offer some vocal assistance. Moving into a Latin mood with “Just Let Me Be in Love,” Byrd returned to the honky-tonk frame of mind with a spirited version of a previous hit, “Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo.”

Prior to the Sizzlin’ Country concert, Craig Morgan performed a brief set during a VIP cocktail party and silent auction.

Set List:

Doo-Wah Riders
“A Girl Like You”
“She’s All Cried Out”
“These Hands”

“Walkin’ in Memphis”
“I Pray”
“My Front Porch Looking In”

Warren Brothers
“Hey Mr. President”
“I Don’t Sell a Lot of Records (But I Sell a Lot of Beer)”

Deana Carter
“There’s No Limit”
“You and Tequila”
“Strawberry Wine”

“I Can’t Be Your Friend”
“Sweet Summer Rain”
“God Only Knows”

Darryl Worley
“I Miss My Friend”
“I Need a Breather”
“Have You Forgotten?”

Diamond Rio
“One More Day”
“Beautiful Mess”
“I Believe”

Tracy Byrd
“The Truth About Men”
“Just Let Me Be in Love”
“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo”

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.