Last year at this time, we were all rather charmed by Carrie Underwood, what with Jesus taking the wheel and mama sending her off to pursue her dreams. Of course, those songs are still concert favorites, but her new anthem is unquestionably "Before He Cheats," which earned the biggest applause of any song performed over the three and a half-hour nightly concert at the CMA Music Festival on Friday night (June 8) in Nashville.
The women in the rows around me at LP Field leapt to their feet at the first note of Underwood's hit, as if their seats were hot-wired. This wasn't a casual singalong either, nothing like George Strait's fans joining in on "All My Exes Live in Texas." These ladies were vigorously shaking their fingers, their necks and their booties. One section over, I watched a little girl, maybe 6 years old, belting out every single word as though her life depended on it. Her mom might want to keep an eye on the child during T-ball games with all those little Louisville Sluggers lying around.
Wearing a modern black dress that didn't seem to slow her down on stage, Underwood launched her six-song set with "Beautiful," presumably a song from her new album that's due later this year. The easygoing melody will appeal to country fans, and hopefully, she'll bring all the pop fans of "Before He Cheats" to country radio with the new project. She also submitted a strong and empowering version of "Wasted," her most recent No. 1 single.
At the end of her set, she accepted a plaque for selling 6 million copies of her debut album, Some Hearts, released less than two years ago. She looked out on the mass of people at LP Field and said, "You know, this all started because you all voted for me on American Idol ... and this belongs to you, too."
Underwood is leading the charge these days when it comes to women in country music. Just a few years ago, women just weren't having any luck with hit singles. Times have changed, judging from the rest of Friday night's lineup.
Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles stands out as the most limber entertainer on the country scene these days. Watching her perform is like watching a video on fast forward. I think she actually does move at twice the speed of life. Luckily, she can still find the breath to sing because the group has racked up an impressive string of hits to play each night. And with the exception of "Just Might (Make Me Believe)," they sang them all. Looking back, "Baby Girl" was a good choice for a debut single for the band. It's easy to see why it initially connected with young women -- notions of big dreams, overcoming obstacles and knowing that your parents are behind you no matter what happens. It's still a crowd favorite.
Little Big Town spent a few moments chatting with the crowd and used their rest of their allotted time for five songs. Their relentless touring has definitely tightened their harmonies and fine-tuned their stage presence. (They get better every time I see them.) A new album is on the way, so it's likely that "Bones" (a highlight at their concerts) won't be a single. Too bad. Maybe Fleetwood Mac will consider cutting it someday.
Earlier in the set, Sara Evans strutted through a bunch of up-tempo songs, including "As If" (a new single from her upcoming Greatest Hits CD) and a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way." Meanwhile, Jason Aldean rolled through his first four hits, working the stage like a pro and finding his way to the field to mingle with fans. In addition to a handful of their recent singles, Montgomery Gentry brought out rocker Ted Nugent for "Cat Scratch Fever," followed by a few man hugs. (Nugent headlined a concert at the Ryman Auditorium later that night.)
A few minutes before the nightly concert officially got underway, Bucky Covington opened the night with acoustic renditions of "Good to Be Us" and "A Different World." Already, it's clear that Carrie Underwood has opened the door for fellow Idol contestants to be taken seriously. But whatever you do, don't cheat on them.