Urban Kicks Off Nightly Concerts at CMA Fest

Womack, Parton, Sugarland Lend Strong Female Voices

It seems like at every awards show over the last year or so, Keith Urban has been introduced as country music’s next superstar. But judging from the immediate and overwhelming fan response Thursday night (June 9) at the CMA Music Festival, the time has finally come — Urban is officially country’s newest superstar.

With a big grin on his face and sweat soaking though his T-shirt, he looked like he’d just run a marathon. But the fans were the ones in it for the long haul, sitting through three hours of music at the Coliseum in downtown Nashville before Urban finally took the stage around 10:45 p.m.

Urban launched his set with “Days Go By,” and even the fans in the cheap seats jumped to their feet. He was also the only entertainer of the night to acknowledge the folks in the rafters. But like every other artist, he appeared to be having the time of his life. With that much talent and charisma in one package, country music is surely lucky to have him.

The bold, rhythmic bass line, which has become somewhat of a signature sound for him, kept the show moving briskly through “Better Life,” “Making Memories of Us” (currently spending its fourth week atop the country singles chart), “You’re My Better Half,” “You’ll Think of Me,” “Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Me” and “Somebody Like You.” He’s already won the major male vocalist trophies in country music this year; it probably won’t be long until he carries the entertainer ones as well.

Three of country music’s most recognizable female voices brought some sparkle to the evening as well. Lee Ann Womack slowed things down long enough for “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago,” but it was “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” that the fans sang along with. Vivacious as ever, Dolly Parton teamed with the Grascals for robust versions of “Train Train,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Rocky Top.” And if anybody wonders why Sugarland caught on so quickly, the answer is clear: Nobody in country music is having as much fun as lead singer Jennifer Nettles, although bandmates Kristian Bush and Kristen Hall come really, really close.

Cover songs popped up throughout the night. Dierks Bentley opened his set with “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” the Rodney Crowell song Waylon Jennings turned into a classic, and Julie Roberts’ selection included “When Will I Be Loved,” the Everly Brothers’ hit later popularized by Linda Ronstadt. In fact, even Urban dabbled in U2 for a few seconds. Still, neither Bentley nor Roberts has anything to be ashamed of when it comes to their own tunes. Bentley might have his biggest hit yet with “Come a Little Closer,” a slightly racy love song that recalls Conway Twitty. (Perhaps Dierks didn’t have as much leavin’ to do as he once thought.) Roberts didn’t preview anything new — she’s working on her next album — but people seemed happy to hear “Break Down Here.”

Phil Vassar brought out American Idol Carrie Underwood for a duet of “We Were April Fools,” one of his earliest compositions. (Luckily, his writing has improved vastly over the years.) Underwood stuck around to wail on “Inside Your Heaven.” With this much talent and a huge fan base already, country music should have no trouble making room for her. After a welcome from Martin Truex (of NASCAR) and Jeff Jarrett (a TNA wrestler), Trick Pony energized the crowd with their hits as a dependable choice to get the party started.

Prior to the concerts, one of Curb Records new acts, the all-female Cowboy Crush, sang a new military-themed song, “He’s Coming Home,” that has all the makings of a hit. To emphasize the point, four planes from the U.S. Marines Flight Attack Squadron 312 soared over the stadium. In addition, Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs joined a group of kids for a bluegrass breakdown, and Jamie O’Neal offered a fine rendition of the national anthem.

At the end of the night, one thought came to mind: This is the kind of show that could be taken to New York City — where the CMAs will be held in November — without hesitation. And for anybody who thinks we’re backwards in Music City, these are the artists that could prove just how adventurous and diverse a genre of music can be.