LAS VEGAS -- As a precursor to Tuesday's (May 17) Academy of Country Music Awards, the five nominees for the new artist prize provided a musical tornado here at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.
The opening roar came from Gretchen Wilson and the final force from her MuzikMafia comrades, Big & Rich. In the eye of the tornado, a place where things tend to be relatively calm, were Julie Roberts and two newcomers named Josh -- Gracin and Turner. That's not to say Turner, Gracin and Roberts lack talent or stage presence, but Monday night's concert once again demonstrated the MuzikMafia's undeniable power over an audience.
Big & Rich's set was the exception, but all other acts performed five songs each. In Wilson's case, the five songs didn't even include one of her biggest hits, "When I Think About Cheatin'." Opening with "All Jacked Up," the title track of her upcoming album, Wilson has the distinct advantage of opening plenty of shows in huge venues during Kenny Chesney's current tour. Perhaps the most natural entertainer of the bunch, she has made the transition from clubs, and it's only a matter of time before she's headlining her own tour of arenas and amphitheaters.
At the new artist show, Wilson offered another new song, "Politically Uncorrect," which she'll sing with Merle Haggard on her new album. The other three songs she performed were immediately identifiable for everyone in the room -- "Homewrecker," "Redneck Woman" and "Here for the Party." If anybody in Las Vegas is betting -- and they probably are -- on the winner of the ACM's new artist of the year, the odds have to be in Wilson's favor. She's a star.
Turner hit the stage next, opening with "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way." It's certainly commendable to pay tribute to Waylon Jennings, but it's questionable if an artist who has released just one album should be delivering the message contained in that particular song. On the other hand, Turner did write "Long Black Train," a song Jennings would have probably liked immensely. Between the craftsmanship of the song and his rich baritone, Turner electrified Monday night's crowd, especially when he reached into the lower register of his vocal range.
Roberts established her fan base with "Break Down Here," a crowd favorite at Mandalay Bay as she took the show's third slot. However, she was at her best during her interpretation of Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," one of Patsy Cline's biggest hits. Roberts captures the essence of traditional country while still adding her own touches to keep the music vibrant.
It should be duly noted that Gracin turned in a muscular performance, jumping into the crowd at one point and not missing a note with his vocals. Up until fairly recently, Gracin has been busy serving in the U.S. Marines, so he hasn't had nearly as many opportunities to perform in front of crowds. But he's making up for lost time and is already a contender. Wilson and Big & Rich fuel their shows with backing from exceptional bands. Gracin is only going to get better when his band adds more musical punch, but he and his musicians excelled during the live version of his first No. 1 hit, "Nothin' to Lose."
Like 'em or not, Big & Rich can rivet a crowd, and the demographic doesn't seem to matter much. While Monday's audience appeared to be predominantly aged 35 and under, there were several senior citizens -- somebody's grandmothers, probably -- who were swaying and clapping their hands to "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)." They gained a national audience through videos and TV appearances, but Big & Rich excel with their live performances. They have a unique knack for creating a feel-good atmosphere, and who doesn't want that? Their cohort, Cowboy Troy, was well received when he made a guest appearance to perform his debut single, "I Play Chicken With the Train."
The new artist award is just one of several categories to be announced during the 40th annual ACM Awards show that airs at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Although illness has forced George Strait to cancel his appearance, the show will feature performances by Chesney, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Lee Ann Womack, Keith Urban, Brooks & Dunn and many others.