All the Pros and One Con of Blake Shelton’s Drive-In Concert

"At the End of the Day, I'm Just a Country Singer," Shelton Said of His Return to the Stage

It has been 170 days since my last concert.

And at that last one — Ryan Hurd, Niko Moon and Joey Hyde at Nashville’s Cannery Ballroom — I didn’t know it would be my last time for a long time. But when the coronavirus pandemic rushed in, it forced all of the live music out. So maybe I’m biased, and no matter what concert I went to on Saturday night (July 25), I’d be singing its praises.

Or maybe this one was just that good.

First of all, it would be hard to beat the line up of Parmalee, Trace Adkins, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton. Second of all, all of the artists did their very best to make it seem like they were coming to us live even though they were doing so from a pre-taped show that was being simulcast to 278 drive in theaters (or makeshift ones) across the U.S. and Canada.

And from the minute Shelton took that stage, with his full band, he shared his thoughts on this new normal. “It feels so good to be back up here with these guys doing what we do,” Shelton said, “because when we’re on stage together, we’re a family. And I’ve missed them. I miss the energy and the fun that we have. I never would’ve dreamed that the first time we would be able to be back on stage again would be in front of a crowd bigger than any crowd we’ve ever played for before.

“I’ve said from day one, no matter where my career takes me, at the end of the day, I’m just a country singer. And that’s all I ever wanted to be. And the fact that we’re able to do this show had kind of reignited all of our energy and reminded us how lucky we are to get to do what we do.” From there, he launched into a long list of his hits from his 20 years as just a country singer, with “Neon Light,” “Honey Bee,” “Every Time I Hear That Song,” “Came Here to Forget,” “A Guy with a Girl,” and “Sure Be Cool If You Did.”

“I know this is crazy and I know it’s weird, but hey, this is 2020 and I guess that’s how we’re gonna roll this year. So reminder: keep your asses six feet away from me. Don’t even look at me,” he joked. Shelton’s sense of humor alone was worth the price of admission, which was about $100 per car.

And the crowd did indeed stay six feet away from him, and from other clusters of fans, and from the screen stretched across the front of 18 stacked-up shipping containers. That was actually a welcome change of pace from the crush of crowds you always find yourself in at concerts. Other ways the show operated with an abundance of caution was that masks and social distancing were mandatory any time you left the designated area in front of your car, and parking attendants were there to seamlessly direct traffic in and then out of the show.

“Well, if you did it like I would do it if I was going to a drive in, I would’ve probably brought a bunch of this,” Shelton said as he held up his drink. “And I don’t know if the drive in that you’re at allows you to bring in an ice chest, but if they did you probably brought one. And if I know my fans, if they don’t allow you to bring in an ice chest, you probably brought one. So let’s do a drinking song,” he said as he led into “Sangria.”

Then he worked his “Mine Would Be You,” “Some Beach” and “God’s Country” into a set that was half music, half conversation. Just like his shows in real life.

“I’ve been making records for a long time now, and every time I record a song, one of the little things I do in my mind is I think about who that songs reminds me of, and what my heroes would think about it. And sometimes I even go so far as to imagine who may have cut this. And I had a song years ago called ’Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’ that I always thought sounded like something Keith Whitley might’ve done. Who knows?

“The reason I even thought of that is because I always thought this next song sounded like it would’ve been something Shenandoah would’ve done. I love this thing,” he said to introduce “I’ll Name the Dogs.”

Then it was time for the country star to bring out another country star. “Ladies and gentlemen, I know you’re in your vehicles, but trust me when I tell you you’re gonna need to put your seat belts on right now,” Shelton said as Trace Adkins joined him on stage and immediately opened with his 2005 smash “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Shelton came back out on stage and together they did their duets, “Hell Right” and “Hillbilly Bone.”

After Adkins left, Shelton told the crowd it was time to reach down in their ice chest so that he wasn’t drinking alone for “Drink On It’.”

When that one was done, Shelton introduced his band — Beau Tackett on lead guitar, Kara Britz on background vocals, Jenee Fleenor on fiddle, Tracy Broussard on drums, Kevin Post on steel guitar, Philip Desteiger on keys, and Rob Byus on bass — and as he reflected on how long his band’s been together, he declared that is was time to play some of that old crap.

“I moved to Nashville in 1994 when I was 17 years old. Two weeks out of high school. And I didn’t know how to pursue country music, all I really knew is I needed to be in Nashville and I wanted to somehow get on the radio. And it only took seven years. But man, once I finally got the opportunity, and I truly think even right now the reasons I’m standing here doing this is because of the very first song I ever had the chance to release. I wanna play that for you,” he shared of his debut single from 2001 “Austin.”

“I need a breather,” he said as he welcomed his girlfriend Gwen Stefani to the stage, who kicked of her part of the show with her 2005 “Hollaback Girl.” Then the two came together for their recent duet “Nobody But You” and their even more recent “Happy Anywhere.”

Then things took a serious turn when Shelton and Stefani sat down on stools, a little closer to the fans, and talked about how they aren’t the polar opposites you might think.

“I thought it would be cool if we had a little moment. People might be surprised to know how much we have in common musically, even though on paper obviously as artists we couldn’t be more different,” the country star admitted of Stefani’s background as a pop/rock/ska artist. Gwen and I are fans of a lot of the same music from 80s rock, 80s pop, 70s pop and rock. At points in our careers, we have covered other people’s music, and at one point I was going out of my way to record one cover song on every album I made.

“For me, when I first moved to Nashville, my first job was I painted Mae Boren Axton’s house. Her son was (singer/actor) Hoyt Axton, and while I was there working he invited me on his tour bus one day to hang out. And he played me this song which I held onto for seven years until I had a chance to record it. And when I had a chance to put it on a record, after I cut it, I found out it had been cut before by Kenny Rogers and George Jones. I feel like in a lot of ways it has become my signature song,” he said of “Ol’ Red.”

The when it was Stefani’s turn to share a cover song, she chose her No Doubt take on Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.”

Shelton closed the show with another string of his hits, “Gonna,” “Boys ’Round Here” and “God Gave Me You.”

So those were all the pros of Shelton’s nearly two hour show.

The only con, if I was forced to find one, is that the concert didn’t last twice as long.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.
@alisonbonaguro