COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Tim McGraw isn’t officially on tour, but he did find the time in his now not-so-busy schedule to headline the Big State Festival on Sunday night (Oct. 14). The two-day event began Saturday at the Texas World Speedway near College Station, Texas.
After announcing that he’s taken a few months off, McGraw told the audience, “I’m taking the girls to school, and then going home and sitting in a chair. I’m picking up the girls from school and then sitting in the chair again. I’m watching football” — and this is where the Texas Aggies crowd screamed like crazy — “and I’m eating ice cream.”
Although the inaugural Big State Festival set its sights high with big-name talent, the stages weren’t equipped for the cutting-edge stage equipment featured on McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul2Soul 2007 tour. Instead, the fans at the festival pretty much just got McGraw, his Dancehall Doctors band and an hour-plus worth of hits. Without the flashing lights and special effects, he relied on his music. Luckily, he has built up an arsenal of quality material throughout his career, with songs like as “Something Like That,” “Everywhere,” “For a Little While,” “The Cowboy in Me,” “When the Stars Go Blue” and more.
McGraw also told the crowd that he’s back in the studio working on a new album and hopes to have a single in early 2008 — and it will probably be “Southern Voice,” inspired by Southern people who have left their mark on the world. However, his current hit received the most attention of the night. With minimal accompaniment, the simple message and melody of “If You’re Reading This” drove the point home. He sent the crowd into the occasionally rainy night with a concert staple, “I Like It, I Love It.”
From green light to checkered flag, not once did I hear someone trashing Nashville and how Texas music is superior. Considering the lineup, both sides had enough ammunition to have forced an eventual draw. Plus, when you bring barbecue and beer, common interests suddenly become far greater than any differences we might have.
So, who should take a victory lap? Kelly Willis, naturally. She blended music from her terrific new album with several crowd favorites, like “Wrapped,” the George Strait hit. Her husband, Bruce Robison, wrote it and sang it again later that day with his brother, Charlie Robison. To make it even better, all three shared the stage for “Angry All the Time.” Another cool thing: I walked up to Billy Joe Shaver’s set in time to hear him sing three of my favorite songs in a row — “When Fallen Angels Fly,” “Star in My Heart” and “Live Forever.”
Willie Nelson is always hard to beat, even though I had just seen him three nights earlier at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas. I was in the photo pit at that show, too, and when he noticed me again, he looked genuinely surprised, then grinned really big and waved right at me. I swear, he did! Then I had to scramble over to see Trace Adkins, who was across the speedway doing tunes from his first album. Those are my favorite songs in his repertoire, so I can see why people would want to stick around, but I was thinking, “Come on, folks! Willie Nelson is RIGHT OVER THERE!”
I enjoyed hearing Jack Ingram, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett telling stories about when they used to play the bars in College Station. (Keen and Lovett were college roommates at Texas A&M University.) I heard a great song by Colin Gilmore, and if I could sing a note, I’d cut it as my first single — “What Did You Do With the You That I Knew.” That tune was rolling around in my head for hours, even when Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing so loud I couldn’t hear anything else. Also, I finally “get” Kevin Fowler. His albums never really hit me like, say, Reckless Kelly’s, but hearing Fowler in front of his feel-good fans was a big “a-ha!” moment. I’d like to see that show again.
I also realized how much I’ll miss the Wreckers when they move on to solo projects later this year. I was about to wander to another stage when I heard them wonder aloud, “Do we have any Judds fans in the house?” Pivot and reverse. So many country artists cover Guns N’ Roses or Def Leppard or AC/DC these days, and it drives me crazy, so hearing “Love Is Alive” was refreshing. One other thing that country concerts are doing wrong these days, in my opinion, is playing about five minutes of “pump-you-up” music, while the solo artist’s band just stands there.
That said, I have to give credit to Gary Allan, who knows how to make an entrance. Late in his set, he also offered a new song, “She’s So California,” which he wrote with Jamie Hanna, the former Hanna-McEuen member who’s now his guitarist. Dierks Bentley’s music always stands tall at a festival, and this was no exception. Also, Miranda Lambert must have sold a lot of merchandise on Saturday night because I saw several women wearing her T-shirts on Sunday. She told the crowd how humbled she was to play the festival, sharing the roster with so many of her Texas musical inspirations. Rising Texas talent, like the Ginn Sisters and Sunny Sweeney, kept that tradition alive on the acoustic stage in the far corner of the speedway, next to all the stockcars which raced the track twice each day. You could see the oval best on a balcony above the line of RVs belonging to the barbecue competitors. The break also offered a nice opportunity to check out the vendors selling everything from hot sauce to headbands.
For those who’d rather watch Texas football, Stubb’s BBQ sponsored a barn in the middle of the speedway with several rows of chairs, plentiful cold drinks and a big TV screen. Throw in some ice cream, and maybe Tim McGraw himself would approve.