Reba McEntire made a triumphant return to the CMA Music Festival Thursday (June 7), closing out the first of four nightly all-star concerts at Nashville’s canyonesque LP Field.
The show — which also featured Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Trace Adkins, Dierks Bentley, the Wreckers and Jason Michael Carroll — was an annoyingly stop-and-go affair because of set changes that collectively ate up more than an hour of the four-hour production.
But McEntire was worth the wait. In her first appearance in 11 years at the CMA Music Festival — or Fan Fair, as it was previously called — the ageless redhead so thoroughly engaged the crowd that it almost seemed part of her band. The fans sang and clapped along with her through “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” (her opener), “I’m a Survivor” (her TV theme), “Does He Love You,” “Is There Life Out There” and “Fancy.”
Kelly Clarkson joined McEntire for a diva demolition derby rendering of “Does He Love You” and stayed on for “Because of You,” which she has recorded for McEntire’s forthcoming album of duets.
“Ah, it’s good to hear that,” McEntire beamed when the first wave of applause rolled over her. Wearing jeans and a long-sleeved, form-fitting purple shirt, she marched back and forth across the stage with all the commanding presence she exhibited when she was the queen bee of country music during the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s. Her voice had lost none of its power and color.
Jackson charmed the adoring listeners with a ramble through his older hits — “Gone Country,” “Little Bitty,” “Remember When,” “Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Chattahoochie” and “Where I Come From.” But he did include his current chart entry, “A Woman’s Love.”
During “Little Bitty,” the giant TV screens that flanked the stage showed a little girl in the crowd clapping to the song. When she saw herself, she grinned with delight and frantically nudged the lady beside her to take notice. It was one of the visual highlights of the evening.
Higher up in the stands, where there were no peering TV cameras, five twenty-something guys, who were seated together and drinking beer, stood up, put their arms around each other and swayed dreamily while Jackson crooned “Remember When.” What made the sight remarkable was that the five seemed utterly serious in their response.
Brooks & Dunn succeeded in turning the sound-bouncing stadium into a raucous Texas roadhouse — starting with “Red Dirt Road” and then rocking on with “Hillbilly Deluxe,” “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” “She Likes to Get Out of Town” and “Play Something Country.” Their one concession to contemplation was “Proud of the House We Built,” their new single. The duo kept the fans on their feet by pumping out high-volume, ego-pleasing music and indulging themselves in a minimum of stage patter.
Most of the crowd on the field leaped out of their seats when Bentley strode onstage. He greeted them with “Every Mile a Memory” and then drafted them to sing segments of “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.” From there, he segued smoothly into “Settle for a Slowdown” and “Long Trip Alone.” He wrapped up his set by going out into the audience to sing “Free and Easy Down the Road I Go.”
Even though the master of ceremonies, CMT’s Lance Smith, teased the crowd before introducing Bentley by noting that he saw “a lot of little white tank tops out there,” Bentley didn’t sing “What Was I Thinking,” his breakthrough hit that made much of the aforesaid seductive garment. Nor did he sing his reliable girl-pleaser, “Come a Little Closer.”
Despite an admirably valiant effort, the Wreckers never quite captured the crowd. That may have been because the two women’s voices seemed too delicate for the mammoth surroundings. To those who paid close attention, however, their songs — “My, Oh My,” “Tennessee,” “Only Crazy People” and “Leave the Pieces” — were certainly rewarding to hear.
Adkin’s voice-of-God delivery shook the stadium and everyone in it. He handled the audience like he was a camp meeting preacher, although it would have been a strange divine indeed who opened his sermon with “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” as Adkins did.
“This is the best group we’ll play in front of all year long,” said Adkins, after stoking up the fans with “Swing” and “Hot Mama.” He then took time out for his one “serious” song, “I Wanna Feel Something,” before returning to the party anthems, “Rough and Ready” and “Ladies Love Country Boys.” Hurling his hat into the audience, he yelled “Enjoy yourself!” and then walked off stage.
Backed by two acoustic guitarists, Carroll formally opened the show with his first hit, “Alyssa Lies,” and then capped his brief set with “Livin’ Our Love Song.” Jennifer Hanson, who has moved from Capitol to Universal South Records, preceded Carroll’s performance by singing the national anthem.
In recent years, the Country Music Association has used two alternating stages to keep the stadium show moving briskly. By the time an act had finished on one stage, the other was set up and read to go. While that setup served the fans well in the past, it apparently didn’t suit the purposes of this year’s television producers who were filming the event for a July 23 special.
Thus the fans have to suffer through a series of set changes that both cuts down on the number of performances they can hear and delays their departure from the stadium. Surely, they must find it ironic — and insulting — to be told repeatedly that they’re the “greatest fans in the world” while they are simultaneously being reduced to the role of scenery and background noise.
Tony Conway, who oversees the festival, announced that this year’s attendance is the largest in the event’s 36-year history. The size of the stadium crowd appeared to bear this out. The field of the stadium was full, as were most of the lower tiers of seats. There were even clusters of ticket holders spotted throughout the top tiers.