(CMT Offstage keeps a 24/7 watch on everything that’s happening with country music artists behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.)
Thirty seven. People ask me all the time, “How many concerts do you see?” Which can either come off sounding vaguely disapproving (as if covering concerts is not real work) or genuinely interested in this gig of mine. Anyway, this year, my tally was 37. I’m a lucky, lucky girl. Even more so because I didn’t just stay in one place to see them. I caught a few in Las Vegas, a bunch in Chicago and even a couple in Nashville. It’s damn near impossible to narrow them down to a Top 10 list, but if you had a gun to my head, these would be the ones I’d choose.
1. Dierks Bentley (Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, April): The fans who wanted front row access to this show had to be standing in about two feet of water. That’s love. Plus, he played all his best songs, plus a couple of George Strait‘s (“Ocean Front Property” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”)
2. Carrie Underwood (Ravinia Festival, Chicago, September): She had a full band plus a full orchestra backing her, and as if that was not spectacular enough, Underwood was self-deprecating, loquacious and cheerful all night long. I highly recommend this special show if she does it again this summer.
3. Keith Urban (Municipal Auditorium , Nashville, June): Technically, this was not a concert. It was a rehearsal. But Urban was playing guitar and singing , so to me, that constitutes a show. He did some a cappella on “Put You in a Song,” an acoustic “Making Memories of Us” and then on a smaller stage about three inches from my face, “You’ll Think of Me” and “Days Go By.” Then he talked about how much Waylon Jennings‘ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” resonates so deep with him. That resonated deep with me.
4. LeAnn Rimes (Joe’s Bar, Chicago, August): She spent the bulk of the night absolutely nailing old-school country music , which she described as a lost art. So Merle Haggard‘s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Waylon and Willie‘s “Good Hearted Woman” and even her old “Blue” sounded fabulous. Plus, Rosie O’Donnell was there. Which was cool.
5. Taylor Swift (Allstate Arena, Chicago, August): It’s almost belittling to call this a concert. It’s more like a Broadway spectacular than anything. That said, when Swift sat down alone with her ukulele and charmingly strummed her way through “Fearless,” everyone seemed to remember that, “Oh, yeah. This is country music.”
6. The Band Perry (Hard Rock Café, Nashville, June): When I love an album, there’s nothing I love more than hearing it live for the first time. So this tiny show was the perfect way to really revel in all The Band Perry’s songs. And I loved what Kimberly Perry had to say about their journey to the top. “There’s a saying in Nashville that one song can change your life,” she said. “I didn’t know if that was true until the last 12 months, when a three-and-a-half-minute piece of music we wrote in our basement made it.” The song, “If I Die Young,” kind of changed mine, too.
7. Tim McGraw (First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, Chicago, July): Broken foot? What broken foot? McGraw’s show-must-go-on attitude made this two-hour show one of the best concerts of his I’ve seen. And I’m not ashamed to say, I’ve seen a lot of them.
8. Eric Church (Joe’s Bar, Chicago, November): There were six of everything — songwriters, guitars, stools and microphones. Church was one of those songwriters, and the other five were the fine folks who’d helped him write the tracks on his latest album, Chief. Songwriters are the reason I love country music, so to have so many greats on one stage took my breath away.
9. Bob Seger (Allstate Arena, Chicago, May): I left my notebook at home for this one, so all I have is my memories of the nonstop hits that made up his two-hour concert and from the indelible mark every one of his songs left on the teenaged me. The show made me feel like I was in a cornfield in a Chevy in 1962 trying to lose my awkward teenage blues.
10. Miranda Lambert and Pistol Annies (Joe’s Bar, Chicago, June): This was the first time I’d seen Lambert’s new all-girl trio, the Pistol Annies, with their vintage country sound and storytelling songs. And what a first it was. “Better Days,” “One’s Drinking, One’s Smoking, One’s Taking Pills” and “Boys From the South” topped my list of new favorites from the night. And it was nice to see Lambert back on the stage where, as she said, “They booked me when I was nobody.”