NEW YORK CITY — CMT on Tour is usually a pretty reliable barometer for which way the wind is blowing in country music, and this year’s iteration is no exception.
When CMT on Tour: Brett Eldredge & Thomas Rhett — Suits & Boots kicked off Thursday night (Oct. 29) at Terminal 5 in New York City, not only did it indicate where country’s heading at the moment, it underscored the fact that it’s moving in more than just one direction.
The 19-year-old opener, Danielle Bradbery, whose latest single, “Friend Zone,” suggests what might happen if Gwen Stefani were to cut a record in Nashville, has a genre-jumping penchant that set up the rest of the bill perfectly.
Rhett began his recording career just as the move toward incorporating R&B and hip-hop influences in country was really picking up steam. Now, with two well-performing albums and an EP to his credit, he’s pretty much become the avatar for that particular movement.
Rhett’s set showed just how far country has come on that front. For instance, not only is “Tangled,” a track from his new album, Tangled Up, a straight-up R&B/dance tune that feels more like a lost Bell Biv DeVoe track than anything else, Rhett segued it seamlessly into the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit, “Uptown Funk.”
Another track from the new album, “Vacation,” co-penned by Rhett and an elite crew of hip-hop producer/writers, found the Georgia boy rapping over a groove pitched somewhere between ‘70s funk heroes War (who Rhett actually credited on the tune just on general principles) and Maroon 5.
Rhett’s got a softer side, too, though. He slowed things down for his latest hit single, “Die a Happy Man,” a laid-back love song written for his wife, which he dedicated to “all the lovers in the house.” And when it came time for the power ballad “Playing With Fire,” which was cut as a duet with pop songbird Jordin Sparks on Tangled Up, he was joined onstage by Bradbery.
Rhett closed his set with another recent single, the percolating, platinum-selling “Crash and Burn,” as infectious a tune as anything to appear on the country or pop charts in 2015.
Though the production on Brett Eldredge’s new album, Illinois, includes some nods to R&B, hearing him perform the music live underscores that he’s of a different breed than Rhett. Whether he was tearing into Illinois’ opening cut, “Fire,” or delivering a blistering, considerably amped-up version of “Tell Me Where to Park” from his debut album, complete with a guitar rave-up ending, it was clear that Eldredge is a rocker at heart, with a debt to heartland-rock heroes like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, et al.
There’s room for some soul in Eldredge’s sound, too, which was made apparent on the steady-rolling, good-time tune “Time Well Spent.” He’s got a way with a ballad, as well, and on another Illinois cut, “Wanna Be That Song,” Eldredge displayed a lower-register croon capable of an impressive degree of tenderness.
He was, however, accompanied by Rhett. And the two turned out to have an easy rapport as they engaged in some tongue-in-cheek banter based around the topic of Eldredge’s romantic ups and downs, illustrated by snatches of an eclectic batch of cover songs, including Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” the standard “The Way You Look Tonight,” Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” One Direction’s “Drag Me Down” and Tim McGraw’s “Real Good Man.”
Once they’d gotten all that out of their systems, though, the pair reprised their duet from Illinois, “You Can’t Stop Me,” briefly returning to the upbeat, funky R&B vibe of Rhett’s set and sending the audience out on an up note.