When Garth Brooks went into semi-retirement a few years ago, Kenny Chesney quietly emerged as the hardest-working person in country music. There was nothing quiet, however, about the payoff Chesney received Saturday (July 8) from almost 48,000 fans who gathered at the newly-renamed LP Field in downtown Nashville.
Along with Keith Urban and Uncle Kracker, who made surprise appearances during Chesney’s set, the stadium show also featured Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town. While the additional star power didn’t hurt ticket sales, Chesney must have felt some degree of gratification and vindication in headlining a stadium show just across the Cumberland River from the small bars he played while attempting to launch his career. Even when he played the stadium in 2000 during George Strait’s festival, Chesney was one of the middle acts on a bill that included Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Mark Chesnutt, Lee Ann Womack and Asleep at the Wheel.
Like Brooks, Chesney has built his career on hard work, tenacity, relentless touring and, to a great degree, keeping ticket prices low enough to consistently sell out major venues. In doing so, he has cultivated an ever-growing grassroots following while selling millions of CDs that now provide the soundtrack for his fans’ lives.
With all eyes on the main stage, Chesney caught the crowd off guard Saturday when he made his entrance on a much smaller pedestal located behind the sound board in the middle of the football field. After opening with “Summertime,” he was escorted to the larger stage where he made good use of the side ramps and catwalks.
Chesney’s ability to work the crowd and his knack for choosing great songs are without question. Having made a slow, natural progression from clubs and honky-tonks to arenas and amphitheaters, he’s now totally confident and at ease on the stadium stage. As for the songs, the audience sings along with all of them, and there were more than a few grown men getting misty-eyed over “There Goes My Life.”
The headliner’s set included several guest performers, including songwriter Mac McAnally, who helped him sing “Back Where I Come From,” a track from Chesney’s 1996 album, Me and You. Uncle Kracker’s visit wasn’t all that unexpected, and he and Chesney ran through a quick series of songs that included “When the Sun Goes Down” and a take on Kid Rock’s “Cowboy.”
Making his first concert appearance since his marriage to actress Nicole Kidman, Urban got some vocal assistance from Chesney on “Somebody Like You.” Urban’s guitar solos could have enjoyed more prominence in the sound mix, but he and Chesney made it through the song and walked off the stage with their arms around each other. The most dynamic pairing came earlier in the night, though, when Wilson returned to the stage to join Chesney on John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good.”
For her own portion of the show, Wilson opened with her hit, “Here for the Party.” Could there be a better calling card for a stadium filled with people hellbent on having a good time? For the most part, it was Wilson’s typical set — meaning that she delivered the hits, sounded terrific and looked like a superstar.
However, a stadium is not the place for subtlety, and Wilson probably realized that around the time her band collected their acoustic instruments for the sultry torch ballad, “Good Morning Heartache.” Wilson and the musicians turned in a fine performance of the jazz standard — or, at least, they seemed to. It was hard to hear it over the conversations of people chatting with their friends as they scarfed down funnel cakes and knocked back frozen margaritas and daiquiris. Things improved somewhat with the bluegrass rhythms of “Working on a Building.” Following the song, Wilson commented, “Now, that’s some country music right there.” The audience applauded, but it was hard to tell if they agreed or were just happy to see the band picking up their electric instruments again.
Wilson easily rebounded from the lull by singing “Skoal Ring,” “When I Think About Cheatin'” and “California Girls” before roaring into Heart’s “Barracuda” and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and then ending her set with the double whammy of “All Jacked Up” and “Redneck Woman.”
Witnessing Big & Rich at the stadium during last year’s CMA Music Festival and again Saturday night, it’s clear that Big Kenny and John Rich feel as though they were born to play to massive crowds. Going out of their way to make their performance a communal, interactive experience, their show took on an evangelistic tone as they encouraged audience members to introduce themselves to those sitting around them. Following up “Comin’ to Your City” and the psychedelic “Blow My Mind” with the stronger country tone of “Holy Water” and “Big Time,” they moved to “8th of November,” a song inspired by a battle during the war in Vietnam. Then, in a totally unexpected move, Big Kenny stopped everything to engage the crowd in the pledge of allegiance. Cowboy Troy made a guest appearance to perform “I Play Chicken With the Train,” and Two Foot Fred helped Big & Rich close out the show with “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).”
Bentley’s 45-minute set underscored the fact that his career has come a long way in a short period of time. Having released just two albums, the Arizona native has already racked up enough hits to hold his ground with some of country music’s veteran acts. Hitting the stage with “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do,” he reeled off a series of songs that included “How Am I Doin’,” “Settle for a Slowdown,” “So So Long” and “What Was I Thinkin’.” Even in the stadium atmosphere, Bentley’s delivery of “Come a Little Closer” provoked the same kind of response from female fans that Conway Twitty used to get when he sang “Don’t Take It Away.” Maybe it’s because Bentley performed before the audience’s blood alcohol level started rising, but he fared well in his acoustic performance of “My Last Name,” following it with a quick snippet of “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.”
A few minutes before the scheduled 4:30 p.m. start time, Little Big Town began the concert with “Good as Gone.” The quartet had the thankless task of performing while less than half of the audience had even showed up, but their harmonies were spectacular as they breezed through a 30-minute set highlighted by the hits “Boondocks” and “Bring It on Home.”