Urban Helps Fan Fair End on High Note

After doing everything right during the final evening of Fan Fair, maybe it’s time to make Keith Urban the poster boy for country music in 2003.

It could be that Urban has too much rock ’n’ roll in his approach to please some traditionalists, but let’s remember that country music’s pioneers always pulled from diverse influences to arrive at a unique style that moves the music forward. Many current acts in mainstream country seem content to merely make records and tour, but Urban is clearly exhilarated by the process of creating art. And there is a difference between making records and creating art.

Urban writes memorable songs, he has an identifiable voice and his guitar skills are second to none. And while that should be good enough to ensure success, women also seem to find him attractive … in that thin, fit, blond, Australian sort of way.

Given his Sunday night (June 8) performance, Urban also proved that he possesses the energy and charisma to dominate a stadium while still managing to make it seem like an intimate atmosphere. He achieved the latter during a solo acoustic performance of his hit, “Your Everything.” In a well-paced set, Urban provided inspired electric versions of other hits, including “But for the Grace of God,” “Somebody Like You” and his latest, “Raining on Sunday.”

But Urban was just one of the nine acts appearing at the Coliseum during a concert that lasted almost four hours. Also on the bill were Wynonna (with a surprise appearance from her mother, Naomi Judd), Trace Adkins, Jo Dee Messina, Chris Cagle, Trick Pony, Billy Ray Cyrus, Jennifer Hanson and Neal McCoy.

A few years ago, a handful of snide comments were made after McCoy was named entertainer of the year at the now-defunct TNN/Music City News awards show. Those detractors had obviously never seen the guy perform. McCoy is a good singer who thus far has never managed to snag those songs that were capable of pushing his career to the highest levels in country music. However, he’s a natural-born performer who never ever tries to be too hip for the room.

Ironically, one of the biggest crowd responses of his set — and the entire night — came when McCoy introduced one of his guitarists to sing a song. Alluding to Natalie Maines’ recent comments about President Bush, McCoy noted that he, too, often makes controversial comments during his concerts. “When we say it, we don’t get into any trouble,” McCoy joked. “Only 200 or 300 people hear it at our concerts.”

With Maines’ comment in mind, McCoy’s band member then used the melody of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to sing the lyrics: “They oughta take the Dixie out of the Dixie Chicks/Don’t let ’em back in Texas/Their asses should be kicked.” After the crowd roared with approval, McCoy said, “That wasn’t me. I was standing right there.” He added, “Clean living … that don’t get you nowhere. I’m gonna steal a horse. … I’m gonna break in your cars right now.”

Newcomer Hanson won over some new fans with her set that included the new single, “This Far Gone” and other tracks from her debut album. Hanson’s vocal strength was apparent throughout her performance, including her first hit, “Beautiful Goodbye.”

Cyrus’ set was somewhat frustrating as he concentrated on material from his upcoming album, Time Flies, set for release Tuesday (June 10). As such, the songs were mostly unfamiliar. Cyrus did announce that he starts work next week on a contemporary Christian album for Word Records. He then offered a blues arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” The good news was that the crowd had at least heard the lyrics before. The bad news was that they’d probably heard the blues guitar solos before, too. Cyrus finally rewarded fans by delving into his early song catalog to close the show with “Words by Heart” and “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Trick Pony turned in a typically energetic set that opened with the title track from their most recent album, On a Mission. The trio turned in lively performances of their hits, including “Just What I Do” and “Pour Me,” but one of the highlights was “Big River,” which they had recorded with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings on their debut album. Lead vocalist Heidi Newfield delved into the Eagles collection with “Take It to the Limit.”

After a thunderous musical introduction that Elvis would have approved of, Chris Cagle jumped into action with “Laredo” and strutted back and forth on the huge stage to sing his ever-growing list of hits, including “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out” and “What a Beautiful Day.” Continuing the trend of cover tunes, Cagle took the patriotic route with Charlie Daniels’ “In America.”

Jo Dee Messina also opted to perform a patriotic cover song, except her choice was even older — “The Star-Spangled Banner.” She included that toward the end of her set before leaving the stage with an appropriate choice, “Bye Bye.” In between her own hits, she also offered her versions of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” attempting to put a patriotic spin on the latter.

Adkins proved the value of his new Greatest Hits compilation with a hit-packed performance opening with “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing” and roaring through other familiar material, including “Big Time,” “I’m Tryin’,” “Chrome” and his latest single, “Then They Do.” Adkins gets extra points for performing “I Left Something Turned On at Home,” the closest thing to real honky-tonk music of the entire night.

Wynonna got into Elvis mode by opening with “Burnin’ Love.” She introduced songs from her new album, but the highlight for fans came when her mother showed up onstage. Referring to the audience as her “extended” family, Judd and her daughter sang two of their biggest hits as the Judds — “Grandpa, Tell Me ’Bout the Good Old Days” and “Mama He’s Crazy.”

With the Country Music Association revamping Fan Fair and turning next summer’s big event into the CMA Music Festival, Sunday’s show could take on a certain degree of historic significance. The crowd response was overwhelming when Cyrus asked, “How many of you think they took the fans out of Fan Fair?” Noting that this marked his 11th year at the event, Cyrus said, “You put the fans back in Fan Fair and you’ll have a freakin’ party.”

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