Gretchen Wilson Closes the CMA Music Festival

Big & Rich, Sawyer Brown, Diamond Rio Put Emphasis on Bands at Sunday Night Concert

Worried about the future of country music? Afraid it’s going to spin out of control and become some nebulous pop concoction devoid of the qualities that made country so great to begin with?

By all indications, Gretchen Wilson isn’t going to let that happen anytime soon.

Closing out the final concert of the 2005 CMA Music Festival on Sunday night (June 12) in Nashville, Wilson once again proved herself worthy of the commercial success and critical accolades that have come her way since the release of her debut single, “Redneck Woman,” just 15 months ago. Now well past the potential danger of the introductory single casting her as a one-hit novelty act, Wilson seems well on her way to becoming one of the most important country artists to emerge during the past decade.

Not that she’s ever appeared timid in front of crowds, but Wilson’s live performances just keep getting better. She made her seven-song performance look virtually effortless during the show at the Coliseum, but that’s a quality she shares with the finest performers of all musical genres.

Opening with “Homewrecker,” she moved even deeper into a traditional country sound with the shuffle, “When It Rains,” and the soulful “When I Think About Cheatin’.” Introducing two songs from her upcoming album — “Man With a Skoal Ring” and the title track, “All Jacked Up” — she completed her concert segment with “Redneck Woman” and “Here for the Party.”

Sunday’s concert also featured Wilson’s MuzikMafia pals, Big & Rich, along with Sawyer Brown, Chris Cagle, Andy Griggs, Diamond Rio and Jeff Bates.

Bates should be applauded — and he was Sunday night — for offering the late Conway Twitty’s “I’d Love to Lay You Down” as one of the four songs he chose as he opened the concert. For whatever reason, Twitty hasn’t received nearly the respect and attention deserved by someone who scored no less than 40 No. 1 country singles, but Bates seems committed to carrying on the style. His voice is at its most distinctive when he’s singing in the lower registers, and he used the gift to full effect on “Long Slow Kisses.”

Diamond Rio opened their set with the up-tempo “How Your Love Makes Me Feel” but slowed things down by following it up with one of the band’s biggest hits, “One More Day,” featuring a delicate mandolin solo by Gene Johnson. They introduced two new songs — the humorous “Redneck Love Gone Bad” and the patriotic “In God We Still Trust.” Lead vocalist Marty Roe announced the latter could be their next single. With more than one flag being waved in the audience, the crowd agreed the song would be an excellent choice.

Griggs set up a mechanism for an automatic audience response by opening with “Hillbilly Band,” which includes lyrics about, well, a crowd of fans screaming. All five songs Griggs performed were from his latest album, This I Gotta See, including the hit single, “If Heaven.”

It was hard to tell if the pre-recorded audio leading up to Cagle’s entrance was part of his show or just some random sounds to pass the time while a technical problem was being solved. Let’s hope for the latter. The snippets of classic rock songs — including John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” and the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” — had nothing to do with Cagle’s performance and failed to support his opener, “Laredo.”

In any event, Cagle won over the crowd — just as he always does. After experiencing some throat problems last year that forced him into an extended voice rest, Cagle was ecstatic to be on the big stage again. Following two of his hits, “My Love Goes On and On” and “I Breathe In, I Breathe Out,” he began to get teary-eyed when the fans began singing along to “What a Beautiful Day.” Well known for emotional displays that often lead to crying, Cagle wiped away tears as he told the crowd, “I know I’m not headlining this show tonight, but you guys make me feel like I am.” He closed with “Chicks Dig It.”

Sawyer Brown roared onstage with their cover versions of two country classics — “Six Days on the Road” and “The Race Is On” — before introducing their new single, “They Don’t Understand.” Lead vocalist Mark Miller was as energetic as ever on another recent single, “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand,” and a cover of the Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” However, they got their biggest crowd response when they closed with their 1992 smash, “Some Girls Do.”

From clubs and ballrooms to arenas and amphitheaters — and Sunday night at a stadium — Big & Rich have the personality to make any venue seem almost intimate. Sidekicks Cowboy Troy, Two Foot Fred and painter Rachel Kice were there, as usual, although the 35-minute set prevented them from presenting a typical MuzikMafia show with other Mafioso and special guests. In many respects, their performance benefited from the tighter focus.

Big & Rich already had the crowd moving when rapper Cowboy Troy walked onstage for a well-received performance of his debut single, “I Play Chicken With the Train.” There were no huge surprises during Big & Rich’s set, however, even when John Rich tipped his hat to the Who and Pete Townshend by smashing his guitar on the floor after closing their performance. The crowd was attentive when the duo offered quieter material, such as “Live This Life,” but the fans’ favorite remains “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).”

It’s still hard to say whether Big & Rich and the entire MuzikMafia concept will have commercial staying power, but the diehard country fans attending Sunday’s concert seem to be adopting the duo’s “country music without prejudice” motto. And every time Big & Rich get in front of a crowd, they win over new fans.

Winning over new fans through live performances is a tried-and-true technique for cultivating a fan base and ultimately building a career. As much as has been made of Big & Rich’s unorthodox approach to country music, building that long-term career may be the most subversive thing they’ll do to scare the hell out of a few Nashville record label executives who never saw them coming.