As the clock ran down for the 2007 CMA Music Festival, enthusiasm seemed to heighten among the large crowd gathered for the final show Sunday night (June 10) at Nashville’s LP Field. The die-hard fans stood longer and yelled louder for a bill that boasted Brad Paisley, Gretchen Wilson, Big & Rich, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, Kellie Pickler, Billy Currington and Rodney Atkins.
Because there were more acts (and consequently more set changes) wedged into the approximately three-and-a-half hour time slot, all the performances were brief. Pickler sang only two songs, and Atkins and Swift each was limited to three.
Even Paisley, who closed the show with his suitably festive “Alcohol,” had to restrict himself to six tunes in a set that ran just 35 minutes.
It’s hard to say which of the eight acts was the crowd’s favorite since each was greeted with a tidal wave of applause. With their circus-y flamboyance, Big & Rich ignited the loudest responses, but Wilson’s and Paisley’s ovations lasted longer.
Atkins and Currington led the most successful singalongs. Pickler commanded near total silence from the audience when she sang the powerful “I Wonder.” Looking like a pre-Raphaelite painting in her diaphanous white dress and long golden hair, Swift garnered the most adoring sighs when she ran onto the stage.
Paisley started his set with “The World” and then introduced the puckish “Cooler Online” from his forthcoming 5th Gear album. Each song became an occasion for him to demonstrate his guitar prowess — but never at the expense of a song’s mood. On the first three songs, he resorted to three different electric guitars.
Grinning like he was having the best time of his life, Paisley plowed through “Mud on the Tires” before slowing down for the affectionately contemplative “She’s Everything.” Then it was party time again with “Ticks” and “Alcohol.” During the former, three girls in the audience held up side-by-side signs that read “Check Us” “For” “Ticks.”
Wilson satisfied everyone’s expectations with such boozy proclamations as “Here for the Party,” “There’s a Place in the Whiskey,” “You Don’t Have to Go Home (But You Can’t Stay Here)” and, inevitably, “Redneck Woman.”
Big & Rich did everything they could to pump up the volume short of actually marching with their band through the crowd. They opened with the cannonading “Comin’ to Your City” and then toned it down a bit with “Radio,” “Lost in This Moment” and the title track from their just-released album, Somewhere Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace.
Cowboy Troy joined the band for a spirited rendering of “Hick Chick,” and Two Foot Fred emerged to sway along with the closing number, “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” With his towering stature, ornate headgear and maniacal grin, Big Kenny was a show — or, at least, a sideshow — in his own right.
“This whole thing started for me at the last CMA Festival at River Stages when no one knew the song ’Tim McGraw,'” Swift told the crowd. Evidently recovered from the vocal ailment that had caused her to cancel shows earlier in the week, the 17-year-old singer began her segment with the stirring “Our Song.”
She said she had just learned that morning that her debut album had “gone platinum” — that is, generated record-store orders of 1 million copies. Next, she sang “Tim McGraw” and asked, near the end of the song, for the fans to hold up their cell phones so she could enjoy the display of lights.
“I want you to know I really do try to be a nice person,” she said by way of introducing her final number, “but if you break my heart or be mean to me, I’m going to write a song about you.” Then she launched into “Picture to Burn.”
Pickler won over the audience with her taunting “Red High Heels,” but it was her current single, “I Wonder,” that hushed the stadium as she sang her own true story about a child abandoned by her mother and of the yearning and confusion that ensued. She was in tears by the time she finished the song.
Lambert clapped her hands above her head as she strode on stage and kicked things off with the galloping “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (which is also the title of her new album). From there, it was on to “Gunpowder & Lead,” “Famous in a Small Town” and the reliably incendiary “Kerosene.” She exited to a standing and sustained ovation.
Wild cheering and whistling greeted Currington, who has learned to make the most of his sexy persona via a tight T-shirt and devilish grin. He opened with “Why, Why, Why” and steamed on through “I Got a Feelin'” and “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” before taking his bow with his latest hit, “Good Directions.” He teased the audience by making sudden and arbitrary stops in his songs and then thrusting out his microphone so the fans could fill in the lyrical gaps.
Dressed as always in tight jeans, short-sleeved shirt and a ball cap with a frayed bill, Atkins appeared determined to ride his good ol’ boy persona as far as it will take him. He started with the instructive “Watching You,” barreled on with “These Are My People” and concluded with “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows).” At the end of his set, he picked up his son Elijah — his music video co-star in “Watching You” — held him close to his chest and then walked off the stage to thunderous applause.
To fans with long memories, the show offered a partial answer to country music’s persistent question: Who’s gonna fill their shoes?
Paisley is a latter-day Roger Miller. He has the same skewed wit and the same genius for spinning out insanely memorable lyrics. “Cooler Online” and so many of Paisley’s other self-deprecating ditties — such as “Me Neither” and “Celebrity” — are lineal descendants of Miller’s “Kansas City Star.”
Lambert’s perkiness, usually mixed with serious intent, brings to mind Barbara Mandrell at her best. Wilson, with her bristling backwoods sass and chip on the shoulder, conjures up Loretta Lynn as she might have been had she struggled with cable TV and a drinking problem.
Whether Pickler is an artistic heir of Dolly Parton, as some have said, remains to be demonstrated. But she does seem to possess Parton’s gift for transforming a sentimental moment into an eternal truth.
So stay tuned. Country’s prognosis is good.