Kenny Chesney Closes CMA Music Fest With Post-Midnight Set

Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Miranda Lambert Also Sizzle

With Kenny Chesney‘s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” still ringing in their ears, tens of thousands of fans at Nashville’s LP Field bid a weary farewell Sunday night (June 14) to the 2009 CMA Music Festival .

Chesney, who didn’t take the stage until midnight, topped a bill that also featured Taylor Swift, Sugarland, John Rich, Miranda Lambert, Montgomery Gentry, Heidi Newfield and Jack Ingram.

Unlike most closing nights, there was little crowd erosion as the evening ticked on. Everybody wanted to stay and see Chesney. And he made the wait worthwhile, starting with the inciting “Beer in Mexico” and steaming ahead to such party fare as “Summertime,” “Out Last Night,” “Young” and “Living in Fast Forward.”

He dedicated the nostalgic “I Go Back” to his first producer, Barry Beckett, who died last week, calling him “a very important guy in music [who's] moved to the other side.”

Risking being mauled by frantically outstretched hands, Chesney sat on the lip of the stage to croon the grateful “Don’t Happen Twice.” Then he leaped up, ran to center stage and started his “Tractor.”

Sugarland matched Chesney for crowd appeal. Each of the duo’s songs drew massive shouts of approval — and a great deal of singing along. Lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ dramatic other-woman monolog, “Stay,” proved to be a particular favorite. The audience broke into spontaneous applause at the point where the other woman finally turns the tables on her hit-and-run lover. Sugarland worked up to that high point via “Love,” “Settlin’,” “All I Want to Do” and “Joey.” They signed off with “It Happens.” Nettles was spellbinding.

Listening to Swift’s teen epiphanies on record, it’s hard to imagine her competing as a stadium act. But with this show, she blew away any doubts. Tall, trim, leggy and crowned with that glorious blonde mane, she skipped and strutted around the stage like the world was her personal playground (as it’s turning out to be). She even dared some modest bumps and grinds.

Most of the audience was up on its feet and urging her on by the time she was midway through her opener, “Picture to Burn.” Between numbers — “Our Song,” “You Belong With Me,” “Fifteen” — she shared her observations about life and love. If it sounded a bit scripted, at least it was well-scripted. She then seated herself at a piano to perform the semi-operatic “You’re Not Sorry.” There, she swiveled, slumped, raised her eyes to the heavens and tossed her hair wildly in an apparent effort to ramp up the drama. Swift clearly knows how to work her audience. It will be interesting to see how she shifts — as she inevitably must — when her core fans evolve from adolescent angst to more adult woes.

Rich turned his set into a MuzikMafia outing, albeit without his duet partner, Big Kenny. Making his entrance with the Big & Rich favorite, “Loud,” he wore an ankle-length fur coat over a T-shirt and jeans. (Are we to deduce he has money?) Next, he brought out Mafia buddy Cowboy Troy and accompanied him on the rapping “I Play Chicken With the Train.” He proceeded to speak about the nation’s current hard times by way of setting up his current single, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.”

Then Rich beckoned to the stage a line of veterans he said represented America’s armed conflicts from World War II onward. They stood there uneasily while the crowd chanted “U.S.A., U.S.A.” and Rich sang “The Good Lord and the Man,” a song he wrote to salute his grandfather’s war services. Rich wrapped up his segment with “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” Joining him in that effort were Cowboy Troy and fellow Mafioso, Two Foot Fred. Rich did not allude to Big Kenny or why he was absent from the shindig.

Lambert was toughness personified as she blazed and pranced through “Kerosene,” “Gunpowder & Lead,” “Dead Flowers,” “Famous in a Small Town” and “Guilty in Here.” Like Swift, who would soon follow her, Lambert tossed her head as if trying to rid it of hair.

The crowd roared as soon as Montgomery Gentry’s name was mentioned — and it continued to roar through the brief but solid set of “What Do Ya Think About That,” “Roll With Me,” “One in Every Crowd” and “Gone.” No act gives more affection to its audience than these two Kentuckians. Despite the pugnaciousness of his lyrics, Eddie Montgomery always looks more boyishly mischievous than menacing. And Troy Gentry exudes a sort of dangerous charm, especially with his new and more youthful looking hairdo. MG deserved more time than they got.

Newfield was apparently a last-minute addition to the show. But even singing from the side of the main stage as sets were being changed, she still had the aura of a headliner. Her first of three songs was a hit from her Trick Pony days, “Pour Me,” which she introduced with a bluesy harmonica riff. From there she proceeded to “Cry, Cry (Til the Sun Shines)” and finished with the worshipful “Johnny and June.”

Ingram was the evening’s opening act. He tried hard — a bit too hard, perhaps — to get the crowd going by exhorting it to stand. “It ain’t a festival unless you’re standing up and singing along,” he scolded. Ingram had some success in animating the onlookers by breaking out such festive goodies as “Barbie Doll,” “Barefoot and Crazy” and his euphemistic ace-in-the-hole, “Love You.”

It’s just as well, though, that Ingram didn’t get them too foamed up. They had a long evening ahead.

View photos from Sunday night’s concert.