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On the Fast Track
Strait Country Music Festival off to a Great Start in Charlotte
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rain can bring a NASCAR race to a screeching halt, but it couldn't stop the country music Saturday (April 29) at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte. More than 55,000 country music fans stood in the pouring rain to see their favorite performers at the "Nokia Presents the George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival."

The rain didn't start falling until midway through the day during Kenny Chesney's set. Prior to that, festival goers had been treated to performances by Asleep at the Wheel, Mark Chesnutt and Lee Ann Womack on the speedway stage and Lace, Jerry Kilgore and Clay Davidson on the Lynchburg Live Stage in Straitland.

Straitland, located just outside the speedway, was billed as "the largest festival area ever associated with a music tour." It included food vendors, T-shirt stands, a few carnival games and numerous product exhibits by the event sponsors. Some people expressed mild disappointment with Straitland's lack of offerings, but Kathy Mitchell of Youngsville, N.C., said she "liked all the free stuff."

Much like a NASCAR event, sponsorship was integrated into every aspect of the festival. Even the official name of the event has two sponsors in it. In between performances, commercials for sponsors would blare through the sound system.

The connection between "Nokia" and country music might not be obvious, but perhaps it's a sign of the times -- on numerous occasions throughout the festival people held cell phones toward the stage to share a favorite song with someone who couldn't be there.

Black-cloth arches over the main stage gave a large, cavernous effect. The speaker columns on both sides of the stage were covered by tremendous banners displaying mountain scenes. Behind the performers was a giant video screen.

Even in less-than-ideal conditions, the stage crew was able to switch sets efficiently. Each performance started within five minutes of the scheduled start time. The well-oiled tour will play a total of 10 dates between now and June. Tickets remain for all concerts on the tour except Houston, which is nearly a sell-out.

The Performances

Lee Ann Womack got her biggest crowd response when she sang songs like "The Fool," featuring her trademark classic country sound. She also thrilled the audience with an emotional rendition of her latest single, "I Hope You Dance."

Kenny Chesney -- the little man with the big hat -- had no problem bringing the crowd to its feet with up-tempo songs like "She's Got It All" and "How Forever Feels." Midway through his set it started to pour. But Chesney kept the audience's attention, even teasing them with a few bars of "I'm No Stranger to the Rain."

Martina McBride emerged on a raised platform at the back of the stage as she sang "Valentine." Her floral-print dress seemed oddly conservative at first, but, on second look, it was just transparent enough to be edgy. She could have been wearing a muumuu and it wouldn't have mattered. It was her voice that held the audience captive.

McBride has the ability to sound comfortable at almost any range or volume. Whether singing in a whisper or soaring to vocal heights, her voice shows no sign of weakness. Her rendition of "Broken Wing" went above and beyond the recorded version of the song, leaving the audience stunned. "I didn't know she could sing like that," said Donna Bradbury of Harlem, Ga. "She's a strong woman with a strong voice to match."

The rain had completely subsided by the time McBride finished, leaving a muddy festival lawn, cool temperatures and soggy fans.

While Tim McGraw may not have the vocal arsenal of McBride, he put on a high-energy performance that connected with the crowd. "I've seen him six times," said Allison Lackey of Lake Norman, N.C., "but I've never seen him run around and flirt with the audience like that before."

Wearing black leather pants and a black cowboy hat, McGraw began by pacing the stage in a slow, comfortable way. Every once in a while he'd flash a smile that would make all the girls scream. By the end of the set he was running across the stage and doing kicks in the air.

McGraw played most of his hits and even debuted "I Remember," a song that hasn't been recorded yet. For an encore, McGraw played the very timely "Give It to Me Strait," then whipped the crowd into a frenzy with "Indian Outlaw."

Excellent musicians could be heard throughout the day, but McGraw was the only performer to let his backing musicians really show what they could do. Lead guitarist Daran Smith displayed some versatile licks along with a warm, smooth tone that demanded the audience's attention. Bassist John Marcus thumped and popped his bass strings in an aggressive style that is usually reserved for funk music, adding a nice touch to McGraw's progressive country sound.

Before McGraw took the stage, the announcer told the crowd that "a pretty blonde woman who was recently seen in Pepsi commercials is hanging out backstage." Faith Hill never made an appearance on stage, but McGraw did dedicate "My Best Friend" to her.

George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band hit the stage shortly after 8:30 p.m., opening with "The Fireman." With an amazing light show swirling around them, they played a diverse set that included Strait's very first hit, "Unwound," as well as his latest, "The Best Day." Strait even did some impressive yodeling on Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues."

Wearing jeans, a jacket, a white cowboy hat and a perpetual grin, he performed with a relaxed, gentleman-like demeanor. Part of his appeal is that he doesn't seem like an unapproachable superstar -- he's the kind of guy you'd love to have as a neighbor. Strait didn't hesitate to autograph a hat for a fan during the middle of a song.

The Ace in the Hole Band, comprised of seasoned Texas and Oklahoma musicians, seems as suited for an old honky tonk as it does for big tours. Their throwback sound -- rich with fiddle, steel guitar and twangy Telecasters -- is perfectly tailored to Strait's traditional country style.

The audience cheered with approval when he introduced his new song "Murder on Music Row." They also sang every word to songs like "Amarillo by Morning" and "Heartland." Couples held each other and swayed in rhythm to the heartfelt ballad "Lead On." By the end of the set, fans were moving closer to the stage. The mud just didn't seem to matter.

For an encore, Strait performed "Lovebug," followed by a spirited rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues." He finished with "The Cowboy Rides Away," the perfect song for departing the stage. But he didn't -- Strait stuck around and signed about 40 more cowboy hats before finally throwing his own hat into the crowd and saying goodnight.



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