Dwight Yoakam sent a tired crowd away happy Sunday night (June 8) at Nashville’s LP Field as he closed the 2008 CMA Music Festival with a powerful infusion of the Bakersfield Sound.
Yoakam was aided in his mission by former labelmate and fellow ’80s idol Randy Travis, whose voice still has the resonance and emotional power of a fine cello. Also making sweet noise for the festival’s finale were Billy Ray Cyrus, Sara Evans, Bucky Covington, James Otto, Chuck Wicks, Phil Stacey and Australian crooner John Stephan.
On the downside, the show started late, ran too long (from 7:55 p.m. to 11:50 p.m.) and was plagued by excruciatingly slow set changes that left fans with little to do but mumble and grumble among themselves.
For those hardy enough to hang on until the end, it quickly became clear that Yoakam should play Nashville more often just to remind the locals of how exciting pure country music can be. With a minimum of talk, the singer led his peerless band through 12 classics in a tight, 28-minute set.
He greeted the crowd with “Under Your Spell Again,” the Buck Owens hit from 1959, and continued to tip his hat to his musical mentor via “Act Naturally” and “Streets of Bakersfield” (his 1988 duet with Owens).
To accelerating cheers, Yoakam soared through a medley of his own hits that embraced “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Ways,” “Little Sister” and “Fast as You.” Then it was on to a full reading of “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.”
Yoakam extended an olive branch to his historic nemesis, Music City, with an affectionate rendering of “Nashville Cats,” then proceeded with a tribute to “Memphis cat” Johnny Cash with “Ring of Fire.”
After a pause to introduce his band (he was the only act to do so) and to thank the Nashville musicians who had backed him on his hits, Yoakam closed with an especially somber version of Owens’ “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” He dedicated this last number to Owens, Cash and Porter Wagoner.
Travis’ set was all too brief — only five songs. But it sparkled with such irresistibles as “Diggin’ Up Bones,” “Deeper Than the Holler” and his 1987 Grammy-winner, “Forever and Ever Amen.” Hundreds — maybe thousands — spontaneously sang along with him on this last tune. Travis also introduced his new single, “Dig Two Graves,” from his Warner Bros. album due out July 15.
Cyrus tapped into the crowd’s more youthful sensibilities, both through his own standards (“Could’ve Been Me,” “I Want My Mullet Back,” “Achy Breaky Heart”) and by several references to his daughter, Miley, of Hannah Montana fame. He brought out another of his daughters, Brandi, to accompany him on “Ready, Set, Don’t Go,” which he said will be in the Hannah Montana movie now being filmed in the Nashville area.
He reminded the crowd that this is his 16th appearance at the Festival, noting, “It will always be ‘Fan Fair’ to me” and announcing that his forthcoming album will be titled Back to Tennessee.
Like Yoakam and Travis, Cyrus has kept his crowd appeal despite increasingly infrequent appearances on the music charts.
Combining superstar sass with girl-next-door cuteness, Evans treated the fans like they were cousins at a family reunion, and they responded accordingly, cheering and swaying to every note she sang.
Evans kicked off her set with “A Real Fine Place to Start” and “Born to Fly.” Then she invited her fiancé, former University of Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, on stage and held his hand while she sang the intro to “Love You With All My Heart.” She capped her set with a cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and exited blowing kisses.
Other noteworthy moments in the evening included Otto’s performance of his first No. 1 hit, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You,” Wicks’ heart-tugging rendition of “Stealing Cinderella,” Covington’s valiant (but less-than-assertive) cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and Stephan’s somewhat more credible take on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
Stacey, who preceded Yoakam on the bill, sang only two songs — “It’s Who You Know,” featured on his debut album, and his self-penned salute to the American flag, “Old Glory.” Strangely, though, he didn’t do his current single, “If You Didn’t Love Me.”
Comedian Killer Beaz hosted the show but failed to keep it lively through the interminable set changes. His best quip came as he was introducing Otto. “He’s 6-foot-5. 6-foot-five! He can see your car from here.”