TWIN LAKES, Wis. -- Kenny Chesney sang the last song of the last night of a country music festival set deep in the cornfields of Wisconsin. How could it not be about tractors?
Photo Credit: Alison Bonaguro
Chesney wrapped this year's Country Thunder USA in Twin Lakes, Wis., on Sunday night (July 22) with his 1999 farmers' anthem "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy." As the sun went down, literally, he brought out his full band and a four-man brass section to lull the crowd into a full-on Chesney love fest.
Almost 40,000 country fans were there to groove along with Chesney's every tune. And his show came at the end of five long days and nights of country music. For those who stuck around until the bitter end, he made it worth their while to suffer through traffic jams, blazing sunburns and rigorous security. (His rock star status, the over-capacity crowd and plenty of drinking apparently created the threat of potential security problems.)
Chesney has such a stable of hits, it's hard for him to narrow them down to a 20-song set list, but he managed to cover a string of both familiar and unreleased material. From "How Forever Feels" to "Don't Happen Twice" to "Anything But Mine," the fans sang right along with him to every single word. The exception was his current single, "Never Wanted Nothing More," which is new enough that it seemed unknown to most.
Shows like Chesney's have a predictability about them that feels almost comfortable. There are no big surprises, no cover songs that seriously bend genres, but that may be one of the things people like most about him. The lyrics he sings ring true for the masses, and his vocals never seem to falter in these live settings. And while he isn't big on audience chit-chat, he did spend much of the night on the catwalk shaking hands and signing autographs. If that's his recipe for success, why add too many new ingredients?
Sugarland had the job of warming up the fans for Chesney, and they did so with their usual down-home enthusiasm. Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush packed 17 songs into their show, complete with the stories behind the lyrics and a whole lot of twang. Songs like "Fly Away" ("about spreading your wings") and "Tennessee" ("about a redneck apology") all had a reason for being in Nettles' mind. Their backing band had all the regular instrumentation, plus a guy on the squeezebox to provide added points for originality.
Even peripheral country lovers know how infectious Sugarland's music is, but after this show, it's clear the talent runs deeper than just radio-friendly songs. Nettles played the harmonica, guitar and tambourine, but the real shock was Bush. He's always been solid on acoustic guitar, but his mandolin work throughout the set and powerful vocals on duets like "These Are the Days" made for a nice balance to everything Nettles was bringing. His voice was so sexy and gritty on "Who Says You Can't Go Home," he positively outdid Jon Bon Jovi.
The only odd song out was Sugarland's kitschy cover of Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" (more commonly known as "To the Left"). But Nettles got back on track when she introduced "Something More." She said people are always telling her how lucky she is to go out and play music every night. She added, "I say, 'You're damn right.'"
A barefoot Pat Green had the stage before Sugarland, and had it not been for all his self-deprecating humor, the fans might not have known that he's happy to be a lesser-known act.
"Everybody loves Kenny," he joked. "But what about me?"
And when he introduced his new single, "Way Back Texas," he encouraged folks to call the radio station and request some Pat Green. "We don't suck," he shouted. But through all the comical banter, his raspy Texas voice came through loud, clear and blessedly pure. "Baby Doll," "Dixie Lullaby" and "Wave on Wave" had the ear of the rapidly filling audience.
The early slots in Sunday's lineup were taken by Heartland and Jake Owen. Heartland, of "I Loved Her First" fame, might face the risk of being written off as a one-hit wonder, but the Alabama in their voices gives them enough country roots to have the potential to stick around a while. And frontman Jason Albert has enough personality to make their live show feel rowdy and redneck. He even convinced the fans to do a "holler 'n' swaller." (Translation: Yell as loud as you can, then take a swig of whatever you're drinking.) Musically, Charles Crawford held the band's sound together with his flawless fiddling, even on the Charlie Daniels Band classic, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
Because he had no inhibitions about getting on stage so early, Owen was a good choice to start the day. If the seats were empty, he didn't notice. He worked the stage like a catwalk brat -- up and down and around until he'd slapped every hand in reach. His 13-song set was ambitious for a newcomer, but he was just bold enough to pull it off. Most of his songs paid tribute to either his parents or to women, in general, so it wasn't hard to get a reaction from the Midwesterners just starting to arrive. His current hit "Startin' With Me," was a favorite, as was his new single "Something About a Woman."