Rascal Flatts Surprise, Cyrus Scores at CMA Music Festival

Rimes, McBride, Turner, Messina and Hacker Also Grab Attention at Saturday Night Concert

The big news from the CMA Music Festival show Saturday night (June 8) at Nashville’s LP Field wasn’t that Rascal Flatts wreaked pandemonium with its surprise appearance or that Martina McBride hit notes high enough to bounce off satellites. Rather, it was the demonstration of just how popular Billy Ray Cyrus remains with country fans after his long foray into acting.

Also meritorious were LeAnn Rimes’ tight white short shorts, to which we will return later. Josh Turner, Jo Dee Messina and Nashville Star winner Angela Hacker rounded out the evening’s bill.

Cyrus arrived third in a talent lineup that stretched from 7:50-11:35 p.m. Clad in jeans and a fancy long-tailed shirt and wearing a rakish fedora over his long locks, he pranced on stage to a standing crowd and volcanic applause. He opened with “Could’ve Been Me,” his 1992 hit.

After plugging Hannah Montana, the Disney Channel series on which he and his daughter, Miley, star, Cyrus sang the clearly autobiographical “Ready, Set, Don’t Go,” which he said will be the first single from his forthcoming album.

He thanked the crowd for supporting him during his recent turn on Dancing With the Stars, then added wryly, “I’ll never do that again.” By the time he swung into “Brown Eyed Girl,” he had established an almost magical intimacy with the huge audience.

Waxing nostalgic, he said he missed his band, his tour bus and the chance to meet fans and sign autographs as in days past. “That Hollywood thing ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be,” he lamented.

As is common in his shows, Cyrus praised both America and its soldiers, capping his patriotic pitch with “Some Gave All.” To what appeared to be universal joy, he closed with “Achy Breaky Heart,” his first and only No. 1 Billboard single, also from 1992. The crowd was there with him on every word, every dance step and every stripper gesture he made as feinted at dropping his shirt and baring his muscles.

If the crowd hadn’t already been conditioned by these rigidly scheduled extravaganzas at the CMA Music Festival never to demand or expect encores, this assemblage would surely have kept Cyrus on longer.

For sheer volume of applause, though, Rascal Flatts, who followed Cyrus after a 15-minute set change, took the prize. The trio’s appearance wasn’t announced in the original festival schedule, although the list did allude to a “surprise guest.”

Rascal Flatts’ lead singer Gary LeVox didn’t have Cyrus’ moves, but he did display all of the older man’s stage confidence and ease. With most of the audience on its feet throughout the set, the group breezed through “Fast Cars and Freedom,” “Stand” and “My Wish.” Then, taking a breather, LeVox announced, almost exactly at 9:25 p.m., that Flatts’ next album will be released on 9/25 — that is, on Sept. 25.

Rascal Flatts resumed the music with “What Hurts the Most” and wrapped up the segment with “Life Is a Highway.” Although the group’s pop leanings have put its country credentials in dispute, it certainly wasn’t a musical distinction that bothered the crowd, which rewarded these critically-besieged troubadours with rapturous applause.

For a large portion of the audience — that is to say, all the men — LeAnn Rimes’ entrance obliterated any lingering memories of Rascal Flatts. With her hair pulled into a ponytail and her nicely toned body encased in white short shorts and a shoulder-baring top, Rimes looked like a cheerleader who would soon be getting dark scowls from the coach’s wife. That she was also wearing high heels further complicated an image that country fans are seldom called on to deal with.

Of course, the image came with music. Rimes set the tone with her manifesto of feminine discontent, “Something’s Gotta Give,” and cruised on with “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” and the mournful “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way.”

She told the crowd her next album will be released Aug. 28, which, she noted, will be her 25th birthday, as well. From the album, she sang her current single, “Nothin’ Better to Do,” a song she co-wrote with her husband, Dean Sheremet, and Darrell Brown. Rimes ended her portion of the program with an evangelistic rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s hit from the ’60s, “Somebody to Love.”

LP Field is not an acoustically friendly venue, but Josh Turner’s bass-borne lyrics cut through the loudspeakers’ sonic sludge like a foghorn. Beginning with his home-boy anthem, “Way Down South,” he transitioned to “Long Black Train,” the self-penned song that launched his career. Many in the throng sang along with him.

As a reward to the women who screamed each time his manly voice bottomed out, Turner offered “Would You Go With Me” and then took his leave with the ingratiating “Your Man.”

McBride seized the crowd instantly by opening with “Independence Day” but then relieved the dramatic tension with the comically overwrought “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues.” A Kansas native herself, she dedicated “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the recent tornado victims of Greensburg, Kan.

Near the end of her segment, she walked into the wings of the stage to introduce Tracy and Chance Little, residents of Greensburg, who had lost everything in the Category F-5 storm. After explaining their plight, she presented them a new Chevrolet Silverado truck which had been parked in front of the stage and shrouded in blue plastic.

Following the presentation, McBride returned to center stage to stir things up with “This One’s for the Girls” and “A Broken Wing,” the latter of which earned the most sustained applause of the evening. She bowed out with “Anyway,” and, for a time, it seemed that the fans might forego tradition and insist she stay on for another song or two. But any such impulse was drowned out by the fireworks which routinely mark an end to the evening.

For those who have loved McBride’s pro-women themes and been thrilled at her formidable voice, it was comforting to see that she is becoming more nuanced in her interpretations. She still hurls notes into the stratosphere and still does a lot of finger pointing at the sky to punctuate her readings, but she is now more moderate in the use of her extraordinary power, and her music is better for it.

It was good to see Messina back in the game. Her flamboyant voice and personality have been little in evidence lately. But she reminded fans what they had been missing during her brief but sassy set that included “My Give a Damn’s Busted,” “I’m Done,” “Bye Bye” and her new single, “Biker Chick.” She aimed most of her remarks at the women in the audience and clearly had them on her side with her lyrical tales of disappointment, deception and disgust.

Backed by an acoustic guitarist who doubled as her background vocalist, Angela Hacker sang two songs, including her Nashville Star gem, “Total Loss.” Now signed to Warner Bros., she has a voice and demeanor somewhat reminiscent of the young Tammy Wynette. The crowd obviously liked the samples they heard.

The 2007 CMA Music Festival concludes Sunday night (June 10) at LP Field with a concert featuring Rodney Atkins, Big & Rich, Billy Currington, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Kellie Pickler, Taylor Swift and Gretchen Wilson.