Amid a variety of styles and sounds, all of the performers at Sunday night's (June 12) concert at LP Field all shared one emotion -- an intense feeling of gratitude towards the fans to close out the 2011 CMA Music Festival.
Photo Credit: Ed Rode
The yearly fan fest wrapped up with an exciting show that included Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker, The Band Perry and the JaneDear Girls. Special guests and surprises followed, but the main thing on each singer's mind seemed to be celebrating the joy of country music's most faithful followers.
Swift has had much practice in this department, often thanking her fans on awards shows and surveying her crowd in awe during concerts, but her headlining spot at this year's event held special significance for the now world-famous singer.
"I'm so honored to be here at the biggest country music party in the world," she announced in greeting the massive audience. "I was about 15 the first time I came to CMA Fest, and I sat right over there!" she said, pointing somewhere to the right of the stage.
With that, she invited everyone to listen to her tell a few "stories" and promptly jumped into her latest single, "The Story of Us." Wearing a sparkling gold mini-dress, she pranced across the stage with arms raised and flinging her hair wildly, sometimes acting out portions of her lyrics with bandmates.
"You are so absolutely incredible, thank you!" she said after picking up a guitjo (a banjo with a guitar neck) and launching into "Our Song." That followed with her other guitjo tune, the redemptive "Mean."
Then, like a slow moving bolt of lightning energizing the crowd, she and an escort of security guards left the stage and began working straight through the audience. Spotlights and camera flashes twinkled off her dress as the mass of humanity began to part and Swift skipped through fans, high-fiving her way to a special stage built in the center of the stadium.
As she reached her mark, the crowd re-adjusted around the small stage, and Swift introduced another weapon in her arsenal, a ukulele.
Calling it "the happiest sounding instrument -- ever," she picked an equally upbeat song, "Fearless," and added in pieces of Train's "Hey Soul Sister" and Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" for good measure. Most likely, the performance will be featured on the festival special airing later this summer on ABC.
Returning to the main stage, she enticed fans to sing along to "You Belong With Me" and signed off with "Love Story," bringing a warm and fuzzy feeling to the last notes of the festival.
Before Swift tore the house down, though, it had to be built first.
Shelton's performance was one of the night's many highlights, as the newly-married Oklahoman delighted fans with a guest appearance from Trace Adkins on "Hillbilly Bone" and used his lighthearted sense of humor to help tell a story about family. Explaining he was clearly "damaged," he attempted to describe why by playing snippets of various songs that could be heard in the Shelton household.
First up was his parents' pick with Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music White Boy," then his brother's with the J. Geils Band's "Centerfold" and finally his sister's with Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." After all that, he talked about working up the nerve to ask his sister to turn it down one day, only to have the door slammed in his face. This led fittingly to his response, "Kiss My Country Ass."
The CMA's reigning male vocalist of the year started off his set with "All About Tonight," then slowed things down briefly with "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking" before the crowd erupted during the first few notes of "Honey Bee," Shelton's latest No. 1.
Shelton's wife, Miranda Lambert, took the stage just after her husband (a word she said she's still getting used to) and offered a selection of songs starting and ending with the explosive duo of "Kerosene" and "Gunpowder & Lead." In between, she offered the sassy "Only Prettier" and the rejuvenating "House That Built Me." The latter produced what was described by some in the crowd as "the most beautiful moment" of the show as cell phones and lighters dotted the audience and blue lights washed over the stadium. Fans sang along with her current single "Heart Like Mine" and reveled in Lambert's admission to being "one of those redneck chicks" that you see all around the festival.
As a bonus, she took the opportunity to introduce the crowd to her side project, a trio called the Pistol Annies. Featuring Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, Lambert correctly described them as "a band of hot chicks," and the trio performed the girl-power anthem, "Hell on Heels."
Rucker also praised his fans, thanking them over and over for "letting him in" to country music. He brought the crowd to its feet from the moment he took the stage with the feel-good "Alright" and serenaded them through "Comeback Song," "This" and his current chart climber, "I Got Nothin'." Old standards like Hootie & the Blowfish's "I Only Want to Be With You" proved to still inspire fans, and his enthusiastic cover of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition" earned the award for the night's loudest singalong.
Earlier in the night, The Band Perry riled up the crowd with a gracious and quick-moving set. Fresh off scoring their first two wins at the CMT Music Awards on Wednesday (June 8), they sent the crowd into a frenzy with their No. 1 hit, "If I Die Young."
"We believe country is the people's music, and this song belongs to you," said Kimberly Perry.
For a newer group, it was refreshing to hear the big audience sing most of the song note for note, and many in attendance were familiar enough with "You Lie" to do the same for that one.
To open the show, fresh-faced duo the JaneDear Girls got their first taste of the CMA's main stage. Energetic and engaging, they mixed their voices into a thick harmony on "Wildflower" and "Shotgun Girl," while fiddler-singer Susie Brown showed off her skills on an instrumental medley of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "Orange Blossom Special."
Edens Edge performed the national anthem, while Jimmy Wayne, the Eli Young Band and Tracy Lawrence played from the "acoustic stage" while set changes were going on behind them.
As the final notes rang out and fireworks exploded overhead, the 40th annual CMA Music Festival ended on a high note with many fans pledging to return. Since they had yet to even reach the exits of the stadium, it's no wonder performers are so genuinely grateful year after year.
View photos of Sunday night's concert at LP Field.