Chesney Legitimately in the Saddle at RCA Show

The Fan Fair crowd liked all the new acts on RCA Label Group’s Wednesday night (June 14) show, but they went wild over Kenny Chesney. Lonestar, Andy Griggs and Sara Evans also came in for high marks. Comedian Bill Engvall hosted the event and prudently used the exposure to flack his own upcoming album.

Tracy Byrd, who was scheduled to play, opted instead to perform at a Wal-Mart stockholders meeting. The nine remaining acts sang a total of 36 songs in a showcase that lasted two hours and 40 minutes.

Warming up the crowd was former Lonestar vocalist John Rich and newcomers Coley McCabe and 3 of Hearts. With only two songs in his set, Rich had little chance to display his stylistic chops. But his voice was smooth and pleasantly engaging on the ballads “I Pray for You” and “Underneath the Same Moon.” The latter song, he said, is the title cut of his forthcoming album.

Neither of McCabe’s two songs matched the drive and infectiousness of “Grow Young With You,” her duet with Andy Griggs for the soundtrack of Where the Heart Is. (Oddly enough, the two did not sing this song on the show.) Again, the brevity of stage time probably had something to do with it, but McCabe seemed more successful in involving the audience in her personality than in her music.

McCabe asked if anyone had seen Eddie Montgomery (of Montgomery Gentry) take off his coat and throw it to the crowd during Monday night’s Sony show. Assured that many in the audience had, the tank-top and jeans clad singer teased, “I just started thinking I’ve probably got something on I could throw out.” After a suitably dramatic pause, she snatched off her red shoes and tossed them one by one into the audience. When she did her second song, “Be a Man,” she pulled a man from the audience to sing and vamp to. All this, the crowd loved.

What can be said of 3 Of Hearts that Vladimir Nabokov hasn’t already covered? Dressed in denim cutoffs and abbreviated tops, this trio of nymphets skipped onto the stage as if in search of a pep rally. Their voices blended well and sassily on “Just Might Change Your Life,” the one song allotted them. But they were so busy (and successful) being cute that they eclipsed their own lyrics. On the up side, 3 Of Hearts may have created a viable subgenre of music-cheerleader country.

Jennifer Day was the first to earn a sustained response from the crowd, even though her demeanor was subdued almost to the point of shyness. She began breezily with “The Fun of Your Love,” then pulled the audience in with the more intense “What If It’s Me” and “Gone by Dawn.” Day wrapped up her segment with a version of Brenda Lee’s 1960 hit, “I’m Sorry,” that turned it from an abject lament into a surge of ironic power.

The crowd roared its approval the instant Engvall announced Andy Griggs’ name, and the line of fans herding by the stage to take pictures swelled accordingly. With five songs budgeted him, Griggs was able to demonstrate considerable versatility, from the crooning tenderness of “She’s More” and “You Won’t Ever Be Lonely” to the snap and bluster of “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.” After singing “Waitin’ on Sundown,” Griggs said he wanted the song to make the statement that “It’s time for domestic violence to stop.” Throughout the grandstand and on the floor, clusters of enthusiasts stood, swayed and sang all the time Griggs was on stage. It was clear they would have been glad to see him stay longer.

Sunny Sara Evans reminded her audience that she was almost ready to have her baby when she stood before them at last Fan Fair. Gesturing toward her now trim figure, she said she hoped the people would notice the difference.

For reasons avowedly commercial, Evans has been moving away from the hardcore country of her “Three Chords and the Truth” days. That move was evident here. “No Place That Far” was about as country as she got. Her focus was on her upcoming third album, from which she sang the euphoric “Born to Fly” (her next single), “Lookin’ for Something More” and a new Diane Warren tune, “I Could Not Ask for More.” She said she risked crying every time she sang Warren’s song of contentment. “Ever since I became a mommy,” she explained, “all the sad songs and all the happy songs are about my child.”

Evans brought in the Warren Brothers to help her sing “That’s the Beat of a Heart,” which is also on the Where The Heart Is soundtrack.

By now, it was Kenny Chesney’s turn to rule. And he did, bringing most of the crowd to its feet with “She’s Got It All” and keeping the folks springing up for the next half hour. There was nothing gimmicky about his performance. No between-songs chatter. No jokes. No histrionics. Just solid and animated singing. Much of the time he was bending over or kneeling to touch the moving thicket of hands thrust up at him from the edge of the stage.

It would have been easy — even forgivable — for Chesney to riff on his recent run-in with the cops for riding away on a horse not his own. After all, the widely publicized incident earned him an appearance on Jay Leno. But there was nothing in his attitude or scant remarks that even conjured up the subject. The one exception occurred near the end of his set when someone in the audience tossed him a long balloon, one end of which had been twisted to resemble a horse’s head. He straddled the balloon, “galloped” a few steps, then tossed it aside and resumed singing.

By such economies, he was also able to deliver “Fall in Love,” “What I Need to Do,” “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy,” “How Forever Feels” and a four-song medley of his other hits.

Lonestar closed the proceedings, buoyed by an audience that knew the group’s songs and was eager to sing along. Fan Fairgoers are not night owls, however. So at the end of Lonestar’s fourth song, “Smile,” the crowd began melting away in globs of three or four people. Lead singer Rich McDonald worked the crowd near the stage brilliantly, even as sweat and lights threatened to blind him. Now and again a fan would toss McDonald a garment on which to wipe his brow. This he would do and then Elvis it back into the darkness.

By the time Lonestar grooved into its 7th and final song, “Amazed,” the crowd was pouring out of the stands. But a resolute few hundred remained, mouthing the familiar words until the stage lights dimmed.

For those who feel the repetition like nails driven into the forehead, let it hereby be recorded that on this night the crowd was asked 14 times “How you doin’?” or “Are you havin’ a good time?,” instructed four times to “Put your hands together” and urged twice to “give it up.”

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