What would summer be without hearing “Chattahoochee” ? Jackson kicked off his set with that modern classic, as well as “Little Bitty” and “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” Then he slowed things way down for his new ballad, “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore.” Although it’s a despondent look at ill-fated love, the crowd gave it an enthusiastic response. At the end of the tune, Jackson remarked, “That’s what country music is.”
With the show at a football stadium, Jackson knew he couldn’t stay on the slow side, so he wrapped things up with the perky “Good Time” and the brand-new “Dixie Highway.” The latter is a feisty duet with Zac Brown on Jackson’s new album Thirty Miles West, although Brown wasn’t at this show. Nor was Jimmy Buffett for “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” But when Jackson asked, “What would Jimmy Buffett do?” the nimble crowd happily sang along with his part.
Like Jackson, McBride emphasized her gratitude to loyal country fans for making the trip to Nashville. After telling the audience she’s wanted to sing since she was 4 years old, and never had a backup plan, she noted, “I couldn’t do it, not like this, without you guys.”
Somehow the audience seemed fresh and loud after four days of mostly hot weather, giving McBride a chance to shine as the night’s final performer. She opened with “Love’s the Only House,” mashed up with “Blessed.” Then she delivered two tracks from her latest album, Eleven. “Whatcha Gonna Do” offered a sassy side of the singer while “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” exhibited her compassion and her talent for finding topical songs.
And with a snap of her fingers, she launched into a surprising cover of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” an upbeat tune that served as a way to introduce her band members. All the girls around me leapt to their feet for “This One’s For the Girls” followed by the rest of the crowd after a dynamic delivery of “A Broken Wing.” McBride sings with her whole body, always leaning in or raring back, giving her a stage presence much larger than her tiny frame suggests.
Although she is highly regarded for those epic high notes, her lower register is also particularly supple and expressive. To conclude the night she offered “Sweet Dreams” — the Eurhythmics hit, not Patsy Cline’s — as well as her enduring signature song, “Independence Day.” Of course, that was followed by explosive fireworks and the conclusion of another year at the CMA Music Festival.
All in all, the Sunday night crowd was treated to some of contemporary country music’s most durable artists. Along with Jackson and McBride, Rascal Flatts have been around for well over a decade and are still able to bring a rowdy response with hits like “Why Wait” and “Me and My Gang.”
They introduced their latest single from Changed, the sweeping “Can’t Wake Me Up,” then plucked everybody’s attention with “Banjo.” Over the course of the whole night, the biggest reaction might have come from their one-two punch of the dramatic “What Hurts the Most” and the driving “Life Is a Highway.”
Over the course of nine years, Bentley has seen his share of ups and downs on the charts, yet he’s riding a wave of popularity now that made him a natural fit for the big stage of LP Field. “Country and Cold Cans” is a fun tune and clearly relatable for this crowd, in particular. Meanwhile “Am I the Only One” and from his new Home album practically promise a wild night.
Bentley brought out Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild for the simmering “When You Gonna Come Around,” then followed it with the riveting “Up on the Ridge.” After paying homage to our collective ancestors and forefathers, Bentley dedicated the set-closing “Home” to members of the military returning to the U.S. He didn’t sing the tune that brought him to the dance, “What Was I Thinkin’,” but he did point out some little white tank tops in the rafters. That guy must have excellent eyesight!
The first hour of the night was kind of strange since it started with the Mavericks, then moved into two songs by Bill Anderson and finally segued into McCreery. All three sets were appealing in their own way. For example, there’s hardly a more festive band than the Mavericks on a breezy night in an outdoor venue. Anderson has an infectious smile that transcends generations. And McCreery, who just graduated from high school a few days ago, has the platform to go far with country’s new audience.
With the exception of Steel Magnolia, who acoustically performed “Last Night Again” and “Keep On Lovin’ You” near the end of the night, and national anthem singer Sarah Darling, McCreery was the only artist on the lineup who has not yet won a CMA Award. “Walk in the Country” served as a fun way to kick off his set while “I Love You This Big” and “The Trouble With Girls” zeroed in on his laid-back demeanor. The homage to small-town life, “Water Tower Town,” may be just what he needs to break through the ranks of genuine country star.
Of course, if he stuck around all night to watch Jackson, McBride, Bentley and the Flatts guys, he got an education far beyond his newly minted diploma.View photos from Sunday night’s concert at LP Field. Check out complete coverage of the CMA Music Festival.