In spite of a persistent sore throat, Tim McGraw ignited the full house at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium Friday night (May 18) in a fundraising concert for the city's Interfaith Dental Clinic.
Preceding McGraw on the bill were Deana Carter, Mark Wills, the Warren Brothers, country newcomer Lance Miller and the Gospel Music Association's reigning female vocalist of the year, Natalie Grant. In addition to singing, Carter also hosted the two-hour show.
It was a casual, acoustic-based event. Except for McGraw, who performed with his full band, the Dancehall Doctors, the singers either accompanied themselves or worked with one or two supporting musicians. All the performers ambled onto the mostly bare stage when their time came instead of waiting in the wings for the usual dramatic introductions.
Wearing a black hat, tan waist-length leather jacket and jeans, McGraw brought the audience to its feet simply by walking in, and the cheering got louder with each glowing statistic Carter read about his career.
McGraw opened with "Something Like That," his hit from 1999. He apologized for having a sore throat and observed, "I just turned 40. You know what they say: The first thing that goes is your throat." When the crowd began laughing, he assured them, "In my case, it's the throat. I don't need them blue pills yet." (The singer's birthday was May 1.)
Up next was the poignant "I'm Workin'," from McGraw's current album, Let It Go.
"I've been doing this [work] a long time," he remarked. "This summer makes 18 years." Introducing two band members who have been with him from the start, McGraw added, "We're not quite as old as George Strait. I hope I can do this when I'm 55, too."
That McGraw still had a few good years left became apparent when he barreled into one of his early hits, "Down on the Farm." Although the fans appeared to be somewhat older than those who inhabit his regular concerts, they knew the words to the song -- and demonstrated that knowledge every time he thrust his microphone in their direction.
"Live Like You Were Dying" set off a volcanic burst of applause. As the noise settled down, McGraw brandished the throat spray he'd been using all evening. "This stuff works pretty good," he appraised. "But it lasts only about half of the song."
McGraw beckoned the crowd to stand when he kicked off "Real Good Man," and they did, swaying and clapping along until the final note.
When the clamor stopped and the fans were back in their seats, McGraw told them he was on an airplane "about three weeks ago" reading a magazine article about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he and his wife, Faith Hill, had discussed the fact that people are becoming "numb" to the statistics about the number of soldiers being killed.
"No matter what side of the political spectrum you're on," he said, "these are not just numbers." With that thought in mind, he noted, he and the Warren Brothers wrote "If You're Reading This," a song he debuted to much applause at last week's Academy of Country Music Awards show. Written in the voice of a dead soldier, it has the heartbreaking refrain, "If you're reading this, I'm already home."
Some in the crowd dabbed at their eyes as McGraw sang the tribute. When he finished, he thanked the crowd and walked off stage, followed by his band. Although the crowd applauded for an encore, the houselights quickly came on to signify that the show was over.
Grant was the first performer of the evening. In addition to citing her GMA wins, Carter told the audience that Grant had recently given birth to twin daughters. Her rendition of "Another Day" made it clear that she was still in superb voice. Pointing out that these are perilous times for young girls, she followed with her own composition, "Brittany's Song," which she said was inspired by a letter she received from a 17-year-old fan. Grant ended her set with "Amazing Grace."
Miller, a new artist on Warner Bros. Records, came next. Backed by veteran studio musician Steve Fishell on Dobro, Miller commenced his segment with his current single, "She Really Loves Me." His powerful vocals were reminiscent of John Conlee's early hits.
"My friend, Paul McCartney, told me never to drop names," Miller joked. But he said McGraw had told him that his next number, "The Beach," was a Kenny Chesney song. Actually, it was more of an anti-Chesney song in that it poked fun at Chesney's obsession with tropical beaches. "People find their oasis in all different places," the song asserts and then adds, "Waylon never sang about the beach."
"That will definitely not get me on [Chesney's] Flip Flop Summer Tour," Miller cracked. But he will be, he said, on McGraw's tour. He concluded his segment with the mournful "I Can't Get Enough."
Carter introduced the Warren Brothers by reading particularly flowery passages from their press kit. In response, Brad Warren sprawled flat on his back on the stage and strummed his guitar while brother Brett set aside his guitar and moved to the piano to tinkle out appropriate mood music. "Is this going to cut into our set time?" Brad inquired.
When Carter finished, Brad demanded that the crowd give them a standing ovation, in return for which they sang their first song, "Change." They proceeded with "King of Nothing," and then, after instructing the audience how to respond properly, they segued into "Anyway," the Martina McBride hit they co-wrote with her.
"Moderation's never been our strong suit," said Brett as he introduced their final song of the evening, the raucous "Sell a Lot of Beer." (The Warrens' blowout earned them a standing ovation -- this time a real one.)
While Wills and his guitarist walked out, seated themselves on stools and waited patiently, Carter amused the crowd with details of how her "Clydesdale horse teeth" had stunted her self-confidence. Most of the acts had something to say about their dental histories, a theme prompted by the fact that the show opened with a video showing before-and-after pictures of the Interfaith Dental Clinic clients. The clinic provides low-cost, high-tech treatment to patients who don't have insurance or who can't pay regular rates.
Wills began with his current single, "Days of Thunder," and moved on to "Don't Laugh at Me," the wistful plea for tolerance that rose to No. 2 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1998.
In introducing "19 Something," his 2002 hit that topped the charts for six weeks, Wills told of how his label, Mercury Records, had resisted releasing the song as a single in spite of his assertion that it could be big. "Then they dropped me," he said. The crowd cheered throughout the song.
Carter next took the stage with the Warren Brothers serving as her backup musicians. She started with "We Danced Anyway," a No. 1 from 1996. Afterward, she announced she is recording an album for Vanguard Records of hit songs her father, the famed guitarist Fred Carter, had played on. She wrapped up her set with her 1996 smash, "Strawberry Wine."
Then it was time for McGraw.