Fans got their money's worth -- and then some -- Thursday evening (June 6) when the 2013 CMA Music Festival staged the first of its four nightly superstar concerts at Nashville's LP Field.
In addition to the announced lineup of Taylor Swift, Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, the Zac Brown Band and Tracy Lawrence, there were surprise appearances by Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Kenny Rogers and Kid Rock.
The incomparable Oak Ridge Boys opened the show with a particularly soulful version of the national anthem.
Counting the time spent on set changes and taping segments for the Aug. 12 ABC-TV special that will chronicle this year's festival, the show lasted almost five hours.
In spite of predictions of rain, the weather was almost perfect, with nothing more than a stray cloud or two to keep an eye on.
Lawrence, who was celebrating his 22nd year as a festival artist, was in splendid voice. Although he has not headlined the event lately, the cheers that punctuated his performance proved that he still has a faithful fan base.
Clad in a red T-shirt, black vest and jeans and topped with his signature black cowboy hat, Lawrence opened with "Footprints in the Moon," a song of relatively recent vintage, and rolled ahead to such of his standards as "Time Marches On" and "Find Out Who Your Friends Are."
He also debuted "Stop, Drop and Roll" from his forthcoming album, Headlights, Tail Lights and Radios, set for release in August. He concluded his set with his poignant 2003 hit, "Paint Me a Birmingham," as the crowd sang along.
Thunderous drum rolls and stabbing spotlights -- both of which went on a little too long -- heralded Bryan's arrival onstage.
Wearing skin-tight denims, an equally form-fitting T-shirt and baseball cap, he bolted into "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," accentuating his delivery with an occasional pelvic thrust that seemed to find favor among the masses.
Next came "Rain Is a Good Thing" and "Crash My Party," each one demonstrating how well Bryan has evolved as a performer.
"I want to hear the biggest damn 'BOOM BOOM' I've ever heard," he told the crowd, as his band struck the opening chords to "Drunk on You." And the audience did its best to comply.
Bryan accelerated to a series of stiff-legged jumps while belting out "I Don't Want This Night to End." But he ended the night -- at least his part of it -- with the raucous "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)," which elicited so much country-girl compliance one feared it might set off earthquake alarms.
Supremely confident -- as she had every right to be -- Swift sashayed onstage looking like a model for a World War II pinup poster. She was decked out in a white, sleeveless blouse, tight black, midthigh shorts and fire-engine red lipstick.
Without prelude, she flounced into "Love Story," striding back and forth across the stage, her face looking back coquettishly over her shoulder. Her excellent band looked just as stylish and as engaged.
"I put out an album this year," she said. "It's about falling in love and bitter, terrible breakups." To give voice to those catastrophic conditions, she sang "Red" -- into a red microphone.
Then it was back to her earlier hit, "Mean," her face an endearing mixture of mischief and triumph. She followed with the resolute "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together."
Swift told the crowd that she's often asked to sing the song she wrote at 15 and which proved to be her breakthrough to stardom.
"This song kind of reminds me of my two favorite things: Nashville and Tim McGraw," she said. She sang the opening lines of "Tim McGraw," just as a seriously tanned and buff McGraw walked onstage. The crowd went crazy.
The two performers embraced, and McGraw took the spotlight to kick off his current hit, "Highway Don't Care," which features Swift on assisting vocals. The crowd had hardly quieted down from McGraw's entrance when Urban strode out, laying down the same blistering guitar lines he plays on the record.
It was the final song of Swift's set, and it netted the three performers one of the loudest and most sustained ovations in the history of the festival.
Seeming not the least intimidated by the act he had to follow, Church swaggered onstage just after 10 p.m. and immediately marked his territory with "I'm Gettin' Stoned."
He looked comfortable in his regular costume of black shirt, jeans, ball cap, sunglasses and a red Solo cup purportedly full of Jack Daniel's whiskey.
After charging through "Keep On," Church, indeed, turned his attention to Jack Daniel's advocacy, telling the crowd he sometimes outpaced the formidable drink and that sometimes it outpaced him.
This intro led to the song "Jack Daniels," which has the woeful refrain, "Jack Daniel's kicked my ass again last night."
Church struck a more mellow tone with the nostalgic "These Boots." Responding to some hand signals from the stage, a girl in the audience handed Church one of her boots which he brandished as he paced the stage. He autographed the boot and handed it back to her.
Church wrapped up his set with "Homeboy" and "Smoke a Little Smoke." Although he's still working on his tough-guy persona -- as witnessed in his recent interview in Playboy -- Church came across as eager and generally amiable, like he was having a good time rather than bearing the entire burden of keeping country music honest.
At this point in the show, the audience was drafted into helping tape various intros for the television special, including one segment in which it was asked to cheer long and loudly for Carrie Underwood, who wasn't even in the stadium Thursday. It took nearly a half-hour slice out of the evening to get this tedious business out of the way, and it made one wonder why the crowd didn't rise up and trample its manipulators.
Lambert strode out at 11 p.m. to brighten the scene. She was slim and stunning in a bustier emblazoned with a flame design, black leather pants and black, knee-length, high-heeled boots.
Starting with "Fastest Girl in Town," she grinned and belted her way through "Baggage Claim," then slowed the pace with "Over You" and the gently embracing "All Kinds of Kinds." But it didn't take long for her to return to her combative mode with "Mama's Broken Heart" and "White Liar." She closed with the fierce revenge rocker, "Gunpowder and Lead."
Hundreds of people had left the stadium by the time the Zac Brown Band came on at 11:45 with its first hit, "Chicken Fried," but thousands remained and ready for more.
Brown, as is his habit, dazzled the audience with his maniacally fast guitar picking at the end of the song.
The band then moved on to the slow and wistful "Goodbye in Her Eyes," after which Brown enlisted the crowd in a singalong with "Jump Right In."
After the applause died down, Brown beckoned Kenny Rogers to the stage. The crowd rose with new energy to cheer the veteran performer and impending Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.
Rogers sang his classic "The Gambler" with the band backing him and Brown singing every other verse of the song, as well as harmonizing with Rogers on the chorus.
Brown resumed his set with "Day That I Die," a song he recorded with Amos Lee. "This is basically my life story," he said. The lyrics contain the line, "I believe that I was born with a song inside of me," and expresses the wish that on the day the singer dies, he'll be found "at home with a guitar in my hand."
Next came the wishful "Keep Me in Mind."
For the final performance of the evening, Brown introduced Kid Rock, who led the band in a high-spirited cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band."
A tired but musically fulfilled crowd headed for the parking lots at 12:20 a.m.