Sugarland, Joe Nichols and Keith Anderson Close CMA Music Festival

Final Show Features Rimes, Black, Ronnie Milsap, Los Lonely Boys, SHeDAISY -- and Rain

It was rain — not the anticipated Gretchen Wilson — that made a surprise and crowd-moving appearance Sunday night (June 11) during the last concert of the CMA Music Festival in downtown Nashville. The air became noticeably cooler just as the show was getting underway at LP Field, and within an hour or so, lightning was flashing in the distance.

Still, the event rolled on as scheduled through performances by Keith Anderson, SHeDAISY, Ronnie Milsap and Los Lonely Boys, Joe Nichols and LeAnn Rimes. Then, at around 10:05 p.m., when Clint Black was only two songs into his set, the rain came peppering in. While hardly torrential, it was annoyingly wet.

At this point, the master of ceremonies advised fans to seek shelter inside the stadium, but he implored them not to leave, promising the show would continue after the showers had passed through.

Although it took nearly an hour and a-half for that to happen, the mood inside the stadium was congenial and, in some beery spots, absolutely festive. Finally, at 11:25, the crowd was called back to its seats, and the show resumed 10 minutes later. Relatively few had departed during the break.

It is a testimony to Sugarland’s growing appeal that most of the crowd stayed on to see the duo close the show. Some lingered, no doubt, because rumors were running high that Gretchen Wilson was going to drop by. If she was there for the party, she didn’t stay around to sing.

Anderson was the opening act, and the crowd greeted him with a blast of applause and whistles. Grinning like a man completely in charge of the world, the handsome Oklahoman chatted amiably between numbers as he led his hard-driving band through “XXL,” “Every Time I Hear Your Name,” “Three Chord Country and American Rock & Roll” and “Pickin’ Wildflowers,” all selections from his Arista Records debut album.

As with most acts on the show, Anderson exited to very loud but surprisingly short-lived applause. The prolonged cheer, which holds within it the hope of generating an encore, has virtually vanished at the tightly-scheduled festival.

Up next was SHeDAISY. The Osborn sisters were pleasing to watch and hear, even though their songs tended more toward proclamation than observation. Setting the tone with “I’m Taking the Wheel,” they kept it going with such breezy effusions as “Don’t Worry ’Bout a Thing” and “Burn Down This House.” Because Kelsi Osborn is staying home this summer while awaiting the birth of twins, little sister Karli joined Kristyn and Kassidy to complete the trio.

The crowd began applauding vigorously at the mention of Joe Nichols’ name and continued until he walked on stage and launched into “Brokenheartsville.” Always a riveting vocalist, Nichols’ stage presence has improved immeasurably since he scored his first hit, “The Impossible,” four years ago. From the nervous chatter that marred his early shows, he has developed a facial vocabulary that is more eloquent than words.

When Nichols sang the ballad “I’ll Wait for You” — his next single — his closed eyes and furrowed brow helped him command near total silence. But he soon had the fans back romping again with “What’s a Guy Gotta Do” and the set’s party-time clincher, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.” In an evening of fine performances, his was one of the most memorable.

The pairing of Ronnie Milsap with Los Lonely Boys seemed to blunt the best of both acts. Backed by a rock trio, Milsap couldn’t demonstrate his excellence as a ballad singer, and Los Lonely Boys couldn’t display their best rock licks while chained to such Milsap standards as “Stranger in My House” and “Smoky Mountain Rain.” The musicianship was first rate — especially Milsap’s endlessly expressive voice and Henry Garza’s fiery guitar playing.

With the possible exception of Sugarland’s frenetic Jennifer Nettles, LeAnn Rimes was the hardest-working woman in the show. Her dramatic vocals and gestures were reminiscent of Reba McEntire at the height of her power. Rimes started her program with an impassioned, hand-on-heart rendition of “Commitment” and then moved on to the sassy “Big Deal.”

Oddly enough, the crowd seemed almost indifferent to Rimes’ singing of “Blue,” the song that first endeared her to country listeners. Everyone perked up, however, to “Something’s Gotta Give,” her latest single. Rimes pulled out all the stops for “How Do I Live,” and the crowd responded by waving lighters and lights. Still, the applause was tepid. To end her set, Rimes spoke of her many musical influences and singled out Janis Joplin for particular praise. Then she delivered a blistering cover of Joplin’s version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” complete with all of Joplin’s characteristic elisions and ululations. It deserved more than the mild reaction it got.

Looking Buddha benign, Black came on just as the weather began calling attention to itself. By the time he finished his opener, “Killin’ Time,” the rain had started and many in the crowd were moving indoors. With barely a pause, he plowed ahead to “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” substituting the lyrics, “I don’t think Waylon done it this a-way.” He was still wailing away at the song on his harmonica when the announcement came that the show was being suspended. Although the announcer said Black would be back to finish his show, he didn’t, obviously bowing to the rain that showed no sign of ending.

Sugarland’s closing program lasted only 25 minutes. Even before it started, the announcer warned that another storm was on its way and that the plug might have to be pulled. That being the situation, Sugarland wasted not a second. While the applause was still echoing in the air, Nettles pranced into “Something More” and “Down in Mississippi (Up to No Good).” By this time, almost everyone in the audience was standing and swaying to the music.

Nettles slowed things down for a moment with “You Might (Make Me Believe).” After that, she and partner Kristian Bush previewed from their forthcoming album a song whose title was indistinct but whose theme was, “I ain’t settling for anything less than everything.” They topped off the show — and the festival — with “Baby Girl.”

“We’ve got another cell moving in, folks,” the announcer boomed as Sugarland took its leave, “and we’ve got to call it a night.”

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