All the artists had their shining moments, but the night belonged to Brad Paisley and Martina McBride. These two hitmakers had the crowd up and roaring from the instant they took the stage Saturday evening (June 10) at the CMA Music Festival at Nashville’s LP Field.
Also strutting their stuff were Billy Ray Cyrus, Miranda Lambert, Craig Morgan, Carrie Underwood and Josh Turner. Except for the appearance of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King on Cyrus’s portion of the show, there were no surprise performances.
Probably because it was so tightly organized (as these events have to be), the three and a-half hour show seemed rigid and mechanical. Molded by custom, both the fans and artists knew in advance that there would be no jams, encores or animating exchanges between singers and listeners. There was no time for the really good songs to sink in and ignite the imagination. It was just one tune after another — like a three-dimensional jukebox.
Worse than all these strictures, however, was the fact that the crowd was constantly being hectored to exhibit a level of enthusiasm it didn’t seem to feel at the time. It remains a puzzle why people who have paid good money to be entertained don’t rise up and massacre the manipulators who ask for the umpteenth time, “Are you having fun?” and then insist on hearing a loud and affirmative answer.
Saturday night’s crowd was especially put upon — probably because the evening concerts are being taped for an upcoming ABC-TV special. At one point, the fans were drafted into a scheme to make it appear that Carrie Underwood was introducing Kenny Chesney — even though Chesney had made his appearance the evening before. Another time, the crowd was instructed to shout, “Welcome to CMA Music Festival.”
But enough of this grouching.
Billy Ray Cyrus opened the program with “Wanna Be Your Joe,” the title cut of his new album that’s due out July 18. He followed with the good-humored and obviously self-referential “I Want My Mullet Back,” also from the forthcoming album.
The crowd embraced Cyrus like an old friend, which he is, having appeared at every Fan Fair/CMA Music Festival since 1992. He dedicated his Vietnam-veteran tribute from ’92, “Some Gave All,” to the current American troops. Then he introduced King, who blazed into “Sweet Home Alabama” while Cyrus sang the lead. Although Cyrus didn’t have his mullet, he still had his loved and reviled debut hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” to close his set.
Because of a production glitch, Miranda Lambert came out without being introduced and launched immediately into “What About Georgia.” But everyone knew who she was, and you could see teen girls popping to their feet all over the stadium as she attended their romantic angst with such other lyrical palliatives as “Bring Me Down” and “Kerosene.”
Hobbling to the microphone on crutches from his latest bone-breaking motorcycle mishap, Craig Morgan was beaming just to be there. No pasted-on smile here but a mile-wide grin. He seated himself of a high stool, cradled his blue acoustic guitar and crooned for openers “I Got You” and “That’s What I Love About Sunday.” Then he stood — albeit shakily — and delivered the infectiously peppy “You Bet I Am” from his upcoming album. He wrapped up his segment with “Redneck Yacht Club.”
The crowd began cheering in anticipation of Underwood’s entrance, and she didn’t disappoint when she made it. Dressed in what looked like a modified French maid’s uniform — bare shoulders, white ruffles and black shorts instead of a skirt — the radiant blonde vocalist set the tone with “We’re Young and Beautiful” and straightaway ripped through “Wasted” and the playfully vicious “Before He Cheats.” Her impassioned rendering of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” seemed at odds with the perky and provocative costume, but she assured her listeners, “I could sing it a million times, and it would mean just as much to me.”
Josh Turner made his entrance with the lugubrious “Long Black Train.” Even so, some of his female admirers managed to shimmy their cabooses to it. Because his act is acoustically based, he was the first artist of the evening whose lyrics could be heard distinctly, surely a plus to older fans. The lanky bass singer then boomed through “Way Down South” and “Angels Fall Sometimes.” He ended his show with the steamy “Your Man.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the fans went wild when Martina McBride came on. It was like they had been waiting all evening for something really exciting to happen. Beginning with “This One’s for the Girls,” McBride seemed to be reaching out to every woman in the crowd. Certainly, that’s the way they responded, many thrusting their fists aloft to punctuate her messages of self-empowerment.
On she went through such assertives as “Where Would You Be,” “Wild Angels” and “My Baby Loves Me” while the applause rolled over her in waves. But the most poignant and affecting moment came with her subdued cover of Tammy Wynette’s “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own,” a highlight from McBride’s Timeless album. She turned up the volume again with “A Broken Wing” and “Over the Rainbow” before topping it off with her trademark proclamation, “Independence Day,” a performance that set the stadium reverberating.
Undaunted by what he had to follow, Brad Paisley cruised in with an amped-up version of “Mud on the Tires.” Rather than basking in the thunderous applause that song generated, he and his band steamed on into “Wrapped Around” and “Me Neither.” Picking a variety of electric guitars, Paisley had fun reconfiguring and stretching out these older hits. He illustrated his recent No. 1, “When I Get Where I’m Going,” with on-screen images of such dearly-departed public icons as Johnny Cash and June Carter, Waylon Jennings, Dale Earnhardt, Ronald Reagan, Minnie Pearl, Don Knotts and, finally, Buck Owens. Each new photo occasioned a heightened round of applause.
Paisley left the fans in a party mood by ending his set with the goofy “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishing Song)” and the droll “Alcohol.” There were a lot of beer bottles waving in the air as he took his bow.