Although the other stars worked just as hard for their cheers, it took Rascal Flatts to bring the fans to their feet and keep them there at the CMA Music Festival’s opening show Thursday night (June 10) at Nashville’s Coliseum. The show was taped for an upcoming CBS-TV special, a fact that necessitated Rascal Flatts and Terri Clark each singing one of their songs twice.
Kenny Chesney, who was expected to show up as a surprise guest for Uncle Kracker’s segment, was instead sidelined on the West Coast with vocal problems. The remaining performers on the bill were Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap, rhythm and blues group Naturally Seven, Ronnie Milsap, the Charlie Daniels Band, Sara Evans, Buddy Jewell, Vince Gill, LeAnn Rimes and Rachel Proctor, who harmonized on one song with Uncle Kracker.
As expected, Clark debuted her new single, the droll and sometimes leering, “Girls Lie Too.” Gill amused the crowd with “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” the first single from the upcoming band album, The Notorious Cherry Bombs. Dunlap, Milsap and Gill all paid tribute to music legend Ray Charles, who had died earlier that day.
Most of the songs on the show were “country” by history and radio format, but their delivery tended to be rock, regardless of which act was in the spotlight. Aggressive drumming seemed to be the dominant sound, and there was a lot of instrumental showing off — long riffs and longer endings — that had little to do with the mood or theme of the lyrics involved. There were also some ill-timed vocal pyrotechnics that sounded more like auditions than interpretations. Almost without exception, the performers attempted to whip up enthusiasm by asking the audience — again and again and again — “How are ya doin’?” and “Are you having a good time?” The responses got lamer as the evening droned on. The weather was a bit muggy in the open-air arena but not oppressively so.
The event began about 10 minutes later than scheduled when a four-man color guard from the U.S. Marines marched onto center stage with Dunlap accompanying them. Before singing the national anthem, Dunlap told the crowd, “Ray Charles has gone on to be with the Lord.” Just as her song ended, four jets in diamond formation roared low over the stadium. “Let’s hear it for the Moonlighters from Beaufort, South Carolina,” said Country Music Association executive director Ed Benson, gesturing toward the sky. Before he could continue his welcoming remarks, the planes flew back over, momentarily drowning him out. “I didn’t know that South Carolina was that way,” he quipped. Tony Conway, who heads the CMA Music Festival committee, reminded fans the show was being shot for the special and warned them there might be some re-shoots.
Milsap, who was part of the pre-show warmup, sang “America the Beautiful” — a song that became a Ray Charles standard — and shouted at the end of his performance, “God bless you, everybody. God bless Ray Charles, and God bless America.”
Singer Lorrie Morgan hosted the main show, although she did not perform on it. Her introductions of each act were warm, enthusiastic, fact-filled and mercifully brief. As has been the case since the event began using the Coliseum for its major shows, acts alternated on two stages to minimize down time between sets. However, a glitch kept the audience waiting for more than 10 minutes before Rascal Flatts, the closing act, came on.
Daniels kicked the evening into high gear with a romp through his 1986 hit, “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye.” “Do we have any NASCAR fans out there?” he shouted as he introduced the band’s next single, “The Intimidator,” a high-spirited, high-energy toast to the late Dale Earnhardt. He then moved on to the reliable crowd-pleaser, “Orange Blossom Special,” on which he traded out fiddle bows for different effects. The piece ended with a “duel” between the fiddler and the drummer. Daniels concluded his set with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
“I feel pretty good for [being] six months pregnant,” crowed Evans as she pranced about the stage with a vigor that belied her condition. Her songs — she did six of them — tended to have interminably long endings. But she never lost the audience. The most engaging spot came when she announced, “I’m about to do a song for you that I’ve never done in my life. I decided I’m going to make this old Loretta Lynn song my anthem.” Thereupon she began belting out Lynn’s 1971 affectionately weary depiction of motherhood existing and impending, “One’s on the Way,” as she patted her stomach. “Isn’t that my song?” she asked rhetorically when she finished. Then she sang a snatch of Lee Ann Womack’s 1997 lament, “Never Again, Again.”
Jewell, whose last year’s Fan Fair exposure was a short set on the International Fan Club Organization’s show at the Ryman Auditorium, looked quite at home on the Coliseum stage now that he has a gold album among his credentials. He made his bow with “I Wanna Thank Everyone,” a lyrical dig at all the people who turned him down on his way up. While the crowd applauded the more familiar “Sweet Southern Comfort” and his breakthrough hit, “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song),” it clearly hadn’t done its Buddy Jewell homework. When he asked, “Can you help me out?” and thrust his microphone toward the crowd during the chorus of “Rain,” the silence was awkward and, one may hope, instructive. Jewell took back the crowd, however, with his closing number, a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s goofy “Gimme Three Steps.”
Clark came out smoking and then got hotter as she blazed through “Better Things to Do,” “You’re Easy on the Eyes” and “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” (during which she pranced around whacking a cowbell with a drumstick). She told the fans to play close attention to the words of her new single, “Girls Lie Too,” a sarcastic recitation of all the things women tell men to make them feel good, most notably “size doesn’t matter.” As it turned out, she had to sing the song twice. So her point was made.
The usually lighthearted Gill appeared somber during his set, electing to let his guitar do most of the talking. But not all. “Welcome to whatever they call this now,” he said, alluding to the switch in names this year from Fan Fair to the CMA Music Festival. “I’m glad to be here. I’m going to do something no one else has done tonight — a slow song.” He spoke of his regret at Charles’ passing. “Ray could sing a slow song better than anybody who ever lived,” he declared before moving into his own slow and ineffably despairing rendition of “When I Call Your Name.” Explosive instrumental bursts through “Liza Jane” and “Oklahoma Borderline” leavened this mournful element of the show. Then, in a flash of his characteristic wit, Gill explained about the resurrection and evolution of the Cherry Bombs, a band he once played in, into the Notorious Cherry Bombs. “We’re about to take aim at country music,” he proclaimed. “We’re going to be bigger than Elvis.” He warned the crowd that the song he was about to sing, the NCB’s first single, was “so politically incorrect.” Then he demonstrated that fact with his Everyman’s complaint, “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.” Then, mimicking the ingratiating gestures of his predecessors on the show, he yelled, “Sing it with me.” The crowd applauded but declined to join in. Gill took his leave with a string-slaughtering jam of “What the Cowboys Do” on bottleneck slide guitar.
Rimes’ band heralded her coming with a long, rolling dramatic intro rarely heard in country music. Beaming at the fans but speaking little, she steamed through “Big Deal,” “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” and “Life Goes On,” looking glorious in a clingy pink, hip-length top and jeans. Noting it had been four years since she last played this event, she commemorated her return with an ultra-torchy rendering of “Blue,” the song that made her famous. After this, she debuted “Won’t Be Lonely Long,” a selection from her next album. For her finale, she offered an especially intense reading of “How Do I Live.”
The audience roared when Uncle Kracker loped on. His set was brief — only three songs, all of which he sang in a strange, bent-forward position as if might pitch into the photo pit at any moment. During his first song, “Follow Me,” the crowd sang along spontaneously. He moved on to “In a Little While” and closed with “Drift Away” — with RCA Records newcomer Rachel Proctor providing harmony vocals.
When Rascal Flatts emerged — after a delay that elicited a scattering of catcalls — the crowd sprang to its feet and pretty much stayed there until the show ended. The group opened with “Love You Out Loud” and had to repeat it one song later. Lead vocalist Gary LeVox sweated under the hot lights like a Mississippi blues singer as he dabbed and waded his way through “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Mayberry” and a truly majestic interpretation of “I’m Movin’ On.” By this time, however, music-saturated fans were leaving in droves, although hundreds of die-hards stayed on through “These Days” and a new song, “Here’s to You.” The fact that Rascal Flatts didn’t sing “I Melt” suggested they might have been saving it for an encore. It didn’t come. The crowd was just too tired and small. Even the fireworks seemed anticlimactic.
ERICKA DUNLAP (Miss America 2004)
“America the Beautiful”
CHARLIE DANIELS BAND
“Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye”
“Orange Blossom Special”
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
“Backseat of a Greyhound Bus”
“Suds in the Bucket”
“One’s on the Way”
“Born to Fly”
“I Wanna Thank Everyone”
“Abilene on Her Mind”
“One Step at a Time”
“Sweet Southern Comfort”
“Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)
“Gimme Three Steps”
“Better Things to Do”
“You’re Easy on the Eyes”
“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”
“Girls Lie Too” (sung twice)
“I Just Wanna Be Mad”
“I Wanna Do it All”
“When I Call Your Name”
“It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long”
“What the Cowgirls Do”
“One Way Ticket (Because I Can)”
“Life Goes On”
“Won’t Be Lonely Long”
“How Do I Live”
“In a Little While”
“Drift Away” (with Rachel Proctor)
“Love You Out Loud”
“Hit Me With Your Best Shot”
“Love You Out Loud” (repeated)
“I’m Movin’ On”
“Here’s to You”