Independent Label Shows Add Spice to Fan Fair

As fans neared country music overload Thursday (June 15) at Fan Fair, they got a welcome change of pace in the form of showcases by several independent record labels including Audium Entertainment, Rounder Records and Step One Records. Artists from each of the companies performed under a churning sky, but only once did the clouds open up to allow a little cooling relief.

“Are you ready to hear some real country music?” Grand Ole Opry General Manager Pete Fisher called out, sounding like a carnival barker as he hosted a segment featuring Audium’s Daryle Singletary, Ricky Van Shelton and crowd pleaser Loretta Lynn.

Singletary opened his set with “Amen Kind of Love” and performed past hits including “The Note,” “I Let Her Lie” and the rollicking “Too Much Fun,” which got everybody on their feet. He also sang his current single “I Knew I Loved You” from a forthcoming album, Now and Again. The audience filed past in the photograph line like well-mannered sheep. Four days of smoldering heat and humidity were evidently taking their toll.

The excitement crackled a bit when Ricky Van Shelton took the stage and kicked off a seven-song singalong which included “Backroads,” “I’ve Cried My Last Tear for You” and “I Am a Simple Man.” His edgy tenor, with a slight vibrato, was equally effective on uptempo numbers and ballads. His most poignant moment came when he performed “The Decision,” a song about teenage pregnancy: “Nobody told her/One and one makes three,” he sang empathetically. He treated his fans to two songs from a new album, Fried Green Tomatoes — “Call Me Crazy” and “I Think I Like It Here,” using “cheat sheets” to remember the words.

When the irrepressible Loretta Lynn hit the stage, there was no stopping the throngs of fans clamoring to snap her picture or gaze upon the legend. Dressed in a simple white shirt and blue jeans with knee-high buckskin boots, she went like gangbusters through a career retrospective of hits. “Hey Loretta,” “They Don’t Make `Em Like My Daddy,” “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” had the audience hanging on her every word. In mid-set she sang her single, “Country in My Genes,” from her future album, Still Country.

Although she was a little ahead of the beat at times and forgot the first words to “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” the fans didn’t seem to care. “It don’t make no difference at all if I miss the words, they’re having fun!” quipped Lynn.

WSM radio’s Eddie Stubbs emceed the Rounder Records show, which included two of the label’s premier talents, Wylie & the Wild West and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Montana native Wylie Gustafson yipped and yodeled through a half-hour set of western songs, including numbers from his current album Ridin’ the Hi-Line. “We’re a band tryin’ to make sure western music survives in the country format,” he told the sparse but appreciative audience. The only chilling moment in the entire afternoon came when he covered the lonely ballad “Cattle Call.” Uptempo songs “Devil Woman,” with its Latin rhythm, “Give Me a Pinto Pal,” “Hey Maria,” and a rockabilly “Buffalo Gals” got folks tapping their feet, while “Jitterbug Boogie” inspired a few to dance. Joni Harms made a guest appearance on “Ridin’ the Hi-Line.”

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage played an inspired set in support of her recent return to bluegrass, Home Again. A Missouri native, Vincent is a compelling singer who has recorded both country and bluegrass albums in a career that began when she was 5 years old. She has sung background vocals on several of Dolly Parton’s albums including her celebrated bluegrass album, The Grass Is Blue. Vincent’s cover of Parton’s “Jolene,” though, has a bit more fire than Parton’s, propelled by her driving mandolin playing. Despite a few technical problems early on, her crack band was in fine form. In particular, 19-year-old Mike Cleveland wowed the audience with his nimble fiddling. “Passing of the Train,” “When I Close My Eyes” and Jimmy Martin’s “Hit Parade of Love” were particular standouts.

Step One Records stepped up to the plate with two acts. Austin, Texas-based Sammy Allred and Dewayne Smith, a.k.a. the Geezinslaw Brothers, had the audience rolling with laughter during their song and comedy routine which included deft picking and bawdy jokes. They did a countrified version of the Righteous Brothers’ classic, “Unchained Melody,” which lasted, they said, “One minute and 59 seconds as opposed to the standard four minutes, 59 seconds.” “Five Dollar Fine for Whining,” “Bad Rock and Roll” and “I’ll Give You a Big Banana (If You’ll Let Me Be Your Monkey Man)” lightened the oppressive heat of the afternoon.

Fellow Texan Gene Watson captivated the fans with hits including “Paper Rosie,” “Farewell Party,” “Memories to Burn” and “Pick the Wildwood Flower,” among others. Smooth-voiced yet powerful, the crooner connected with the few dozen fans gathered in front of the stage, singing along. Unfortunately, his set began at 5 p.m. and just a few hundred people were in the grandstands. Watson won the Male Golden Voice award earlier in the week at the Golden Voice Awards, an honor conferred upon him by his musical peers.

The International Show, hosted by Robert Reynolds of the Mavericks, featured performances by Adam Couldwell of England and three Australians, Jane Saunders, Troy Cassar-Daley and Kasey Chambers. Couldwell opened the show, and his rock-inspired set had the curious effect of nearly clearing the grandstands; Saunders had the misfortune to follow. Cassar-Daley was asked to return for a second year and was the most traditional-sounding of the three artists. Chambers has a major label release on Asylum, The Captain, slated for a September release. Her hard, nasal country delivery seemed to connect with the audience.