After doing everything right during the final evening of Fan Fair, maybe it's time to make Keith Urban the poster boy for country music in 2003.
It could be that Urban has too much rock 'n' roll in his approach to please some traditionalists, but let's remember that country music's pioneers always pulled from diverse influences to arrive at a unique style that moves the music forward. Many current acts in mainstream country seem content to merely make records and tour, but Urban is clearly exhilarated by the process of creating art. And there is a difference between making records and creating art.
Urban writes memorable songs, he has an identifiable voice and his guitar skills are second to none. And while that should be good enough to ensure success, women also seem to find him attractive in that thin, fit, blond, Australian sort of way.
Given his Sunday night (June 8) performance, Urban also proved that he possesses the energy and charisma to dominate a stadium while still managing to make it seem like an intimate atmosphere. He achieved the latter during a solo acoustic performance of his hit, "Your Everything." In a well-paced set, Urban provided inspired electric versions of other hits, including "But for the Grace of God," "Somebody Like You" and his latest, "Raining on Sunday."
But Urban was just one of the nine acts appearing at the Coliseum during a concert that lasted almost four hours. Also on the bill were Wynonna (with a surprise appearance from her mother, Naomi Judd), Trace Adkins, Jo Dee Messina, Chris Cagle, Trick Pony, Billy Ray Cyrus, Jennifer Hanson and Neal McCoy.
A few years ago, a handful of snide comments were made after McCoy was named entertainer of the year at the now-defunct TNN/Music City News awards show. Those detractors had obviously never seen the guy perform. McCoy is a good singer who thus far has never managed to snag those songs that were capable of pushing his career to the highest levels in country music. However, he's a natural-born performer who never ever tries to be too hip for the room.
Ironically, one of the biggest crowd responses of his set -- and the entire night -- came when McCoy introduced one of his guitarists to sing a song. Alluding to Natalie Maines' recent comments about President Bush, McCoy noted that he, too, often makes controversial comments during his concerts. "When we say it, we don't get into any trouble," McCoy joked. "Only 200 or 300 people hear it at our concerts."
With Maines' comment in mind, McCoy's band member then used the melody of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to sing the lyrics: "They oughta take the Dixie out of the Dixie Chicks/Don't let 'em back in Texas/Their asses should be kicked." After the crowd roared with approval, McCoy said, "That wasn't me. I was standing right there." He added, "Clean living that don't get you nowhere. I'm gonna steal a horse. I'm gonna break in your cars right now."
Newcomer Hanson won over some new fans with her set that included the new single, "This Far Gone" and other tracks from her debut album. Hanson's vocal strength was apparent throughout her performance, including her first hit, "Beautiful Goodbye."
Cyrus' set was somewhat frustrating as he concentrated on material from his upcoming album, Time Flies, set for release Tuesday (June 10). As such, the songs were mostly unfamiliar. Cyrus did announce that he starts work next week on a contemporary Christian album for Word Records. He then offered a blues arrangement of "Amazing Grace." The good news was that the crowd had at least heard the lyrics before. The bad news was that they'd probably heard the blues guitar solos before, too. Cyrus finally rewarded fans by delving into his early song catalog to close the show with "Words by Heart" and "Achy Breaky Heart."
Trick Pony turned in a typically energetic set that opened with the title track from their most recent album, On a Mission. The trio turned in lively performances of their hits, including "Just What I Do" and "Pour Me," but one of the highlights was "Big River," which they had recorded with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings on their debut album. Lead vocalist Heidi Newfield delved into the Eagles collection with "Take It to the Limit."
After a thunderous musical introduction that Elvis would have approved of, Chris Cagle jumped into action with "Laredo" and strutted back and forth on the huge stage to sing his ever-growing list of hits, including "I Breathe In, I Breathe Out" and "What a Beautiful Day." Continuing the trend of cover tunes, Cagle took the patriotic route with Charlie Daniels' "In America."
Jo Dee Messina also opted to perform a patriotic cover song, except her choice was even older -- "The Star-Spangled Banner." She included that toward the end of her set before leaving the stage with an appropriate choice, "Bye Bye." In between her own hits, she also offered her versions of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and Aretha Franklin's "Think," attempting to put a patriotic spin on the latter.
Adkins proved the value of his new Greatest Hits compilation with a hit-packed performance opening with "(This Ain't) No Thinkin' Thing" and roaring through other familiar material, including "Big Time," "I'm Tryin'," "Chrome" and his latest single, "Then They Do." Adkins gets extra points for performing "I Left Something Turned On at Home," the closest thing to real honky-tonk music of the entire night.
Wynonna got into Elvis mode by opening with "Burnin' Love." She introduced songs from her new album, but the highlight for fans came when her mother showed up onstage. Referring to the audience as her "extended" family, Judd and her daughter sang two of their biggest hits as the Judds -- "Grandpa, Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days" and "Mama He's Crazy."
With the Country Music Association revamping Fan Fair and turning next summer's big event into the CMA Music Festival, Sunday's show could take on a certain degree of historic significance. The crowd response was overwhelming when Cyrus asked, "How many of you think they took the fans out of Fan Fair?" Noting that this marked his 11th year at the event, Cyrus said, "You put the fans back in Fan Fair and you'll have a freakin' party."
Fan Fair With Urban, Lonestar, Griggs and Paisley
Keith Urban and Lonestar hosted successful fan club parties Thursday (June 5), but Andy Griggs and his friends really hit the target on the parking lot at the Coliseum in Nashville.
Urban's fans showed the meaning of diehard devotion at his third annual fan club party at the Gibson Bluegrass Showcase in Nashville. In fact, one faithful follower flew more than 9,000 miles from down under to spend time with her fellow Aussie.
"He's just so great," Becky Walsh of Queensland, Australia, told CMT News. "He's gorgeous, and he's so great to be around."
"It's just something you can't take for granted," Urban said of his fans' loyalty, "because when it's not around or when it's sort of subsided, you'll miss these days."
If Urban has a refreshingly realistic attitude toward stardom, there's no denying his increasing popularity. With 480 admirers in attendance, party organizers said they had to turn down ticket requests from almost as many of his fans. Because of the crowd size, Urban had to abandon his plan to sign autographs. He did, however, take the time to pose for photos with fans.
At the Coliseum, sunny blue skies graced Griggs' second annual celebrity archery tournament, an event he created last year as an alternative to celebrity golf tournaments. Returning with a bow and arrow this year was Blake Shelton, who was joined by Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry, Craig Morgan, Rhett Akins, Ty England, Jolie Edwards, Neil Thrasher, Paul Overstreet, Daniel Lee Martin, Greg Cook of Ricochet and Doni Harris of the new band, Rushlow. The part of arrow caddy was played by Aaron Tippin.
Singer-songwriter Rusty Tabor's archery skills won him the grand prize, a hunting trip to Cheyenne, Wyo. Griggs took second place honors while third place went to Craig Morgan. NBC-TV star Peter Reckell (Days of Our Lives) gave a shooting demonstration before the competition began but confessed he hadn't shot since his high school days.
Preferring an indoor setting, Lonestar hosted its annual fan club party at the Hilton Suites in downtown Nashville. Having recently won the Home Depot Humanitarian of the Year award at the Academy of Country Music Awards, Lonestar continued their good works by hosting a charity auction. The band also treated fans to a performance featuring key tracks from its just-released Greatest Hits album.
Brad Paisley and members of his band were in nearby Franklin, Tenn., for a fan club party at the Factory. The musicians performed a casual concert for the crowd, and Paisley introduced new MCA Nashville recording artist Josh Turner for a song. Attending the party was Paisley's friend, Country Music Hall of Fame member Little Jimmy Dickens, Dickens is featured in the music video for Paisley's current single, "Celebrity," and will also appear on Paisley's upcoming album, Mud on the Tires. Dickens was also featured in the video for Paisley's "I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song)," which won video of the year honors at the 2002 CMA Awards.
Paisley used the fan club party as the occasion to give his CMA trophy to Dickens, telling him, "You're deserving of this more than I am." In accepting the award, Dickens told Paisley, "Count me as a friend. Anytime you need me, you know I'm there."
No matter how the record industry fares, Keith Urban won't have to worry about finding work for the next decade or so. The way the crowd embraced him Tuesday night (June 3) at the International Fan Club Organization show, he can make a fortune just by sitting on a bare stage, singing and picking his acoustic guitar. Despite this decidedly low-tech approach, the young Australian had the audience in his pocket from the moment he ambled into the spotlight at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Preceding Urban on the tightly packed bill were Andy Griggs, John Berry, Steve Azar, the Wilkinsons, Jennifer Hanson, Eric Heatherly, Jimmy Wayne, Lila McCann, Dean Miller, Kim Patton-Johnston, Nashville Star contestants Buddy Jewell, Miranda Lambert and John Arthur Martinez and surprise guests Earl Scruggs and his A-team band.
Although the Ryman was less than half full, the audience compensated for the empty seats with raw enthusiasm. These were the hardcore early arrivals who had streamed into town two days or more before the official start of Fan Fair on Thursday (June 5). Under their benign gaze, no effort on stage went unapplauded, and Urban's and Griggs' efforts made them positively giddy. The show's beneficiary was the St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis. As is customary, Joe Bob Barnhill led the infinitely versatile backup band.
Emceed with carnival gusto by music historian and TV personality Robert K. Oermann, the evening was one delightful performance after another. Miller -- Roger's son who now records for Universal South Records -- contributed some wry humor his dad would have been proud of with the loopy, self-pitying honky-tonker, "The Gun Ain't Loaded." He said the song -- whose refrain goes "The gun ain't loaded, but I am" -- will be released as a single within "a couple of weeks."
McCann, who made her chart debut in 1997 with "Down Came a Blackbird," has evolved from a gawky, braces-wearing teenager into a sexy chanteuse. She reprised her Top 5 hit, "I Wanna Fall in Love," before bowing a soulful new song, "Back to Me." Martinez scored big with his romantic ballad, "River of Love." The crowd treated Jewell like a superstar, roaring its approval at the first mention of his name. Jewell, who won the Nashville Star talent contest, has completed recording his first album for Sony. He brought two of his children -- "little Buddy" and Lacey -- onstage to help him introduce his current single, "Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey's Song)."
Berry demonstrated that he's lost none of his crowd appeal, whatever his fortune may be at radio these days. Both at intermission and after the show, the lines to his merchandise table stretched across the lobby. After inciting the audience into a sing-along with his 1996 hit, "She's Taken a Shine," Berry told an affecting story about his boyhood closeness with his dad. He then memorialized those golden days with his song "40 Again."
Hanson opened the second half of the show, accompanied by a band that included her husband, singer-songwriter Mark Nesler. While her rendering of "Beautiful Goodbye" gave the crowd a familiar point of reference, it was her new single, "This Far Gone," that supplied the real emotional voltage. It was the kind of bluesy rumination you could imagine Judy Garland moaning out -- not that there was anything lacking in Hanson's own reading, which was perfect. Don't be surprised if this song eventually finds favor with a jazz audience. Hanson confided to the crowd that this was a particularly special evening: her [third] wedding anniversary.
The Wilkinsons -- the father, son and daughter act -- used the occasion to reacquaint themselves with fans and to deny the rumor that they've split up, even though daughter Amanda does have a solo deal with Universal South Records. The trio reprised its 1998 hit, "26 Cents," and introduced a new tune, "L.A.," from an album it hopes to have out this fall.
Wayne, a newcomer who has already scored a Top 10 hit with "Stay Gone," earned a huge ovation for the song that was inspired by his beloved sister. He said the two had lived together as kids in a trailer and that one morning he awakened to the smell of smoke. Fearing the worst, he rushed to an exit, only to find that his sister had burned the birthday cake she was baking for him. Later, he said, he had to help rescue her from a bad relationship, an errand of mercy that eventually gave birth to the song.
Griggs turned in an impassioned five-song set, the first two elements of which were his own hits, "You Won't Ever Be Lonely" and "This Ain't No Practice Life." He then told the crowd that his favorite kind of country music was the traditional variety and that he had persuaded one of its masters -- Scruggs -- to perform with him on the show. The fabled and still formidable banjoist joined Griggs on stage, accompanied on lead guitar by his son Randy Scruggs (who is also Griggs' producer), fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Byron House. The assembled talents then proceeded to romp through the bluegrass with "Salty Dog Blues," "Little Maggie" and the incomparable "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
By the time Urban appeared, the fans were in full ovation mode. Shunning backup musicians and electrified instruments, Urban simply sat at the front of the stage on a folding chair, sang and chatted with the crowd. It was a masterpiece of performance intimacy. Before Urban began his first song ("But for the Grace of God"), women throughout the auditorium were screaming, "Marry me, Keith" -- to which the would-be groom responded amiably, "I'll have six marriages before the night's out. We'll have to move to another state."
When Urban got to the fourth song of his set, "Your Everything," he told about arriving for a show in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., just in time to hear his recording of "Your Everything" wafting from a church next door where a wedding was in progress. Thinking it would be a nice gesture to sing the song personally for the couple and their guests, he eased into the church -- and was stopped at the door by the suspicious father of the bride. Finally, he said, he was able to convince the man of his identity and what he wanted to do. "I went in and sang it, and they loved it," he reported. "I charged them $2,000. I'm just kidding. It was $1,500."
Later on in his IFCO set, Urban invited a young girl from the audience to come up and pose with him for a picture. Introducing herself as "Brittany from Ann Arbor," she promptly upstaged him by saying, "You told my mom you'd give her a pair of your pants." Pausing for a moment to reflect on this revelation, he snapped, "Well, I'm certainly not going to give her the ones I have on."
Just as he was preparing to end the show with "Somebody Like You," a woman shouted "I love you, Keith." "I love you, too," he replied, "but I think we should see other people."
"One Less Monkey"
"The Gun Ain't Loaded"
"My Heart Is in Your Hands"
"I Wanna Fall in Love"
"Back to Me"
"Urge to Run"
"Last Man Committed"
John Arthur Martinez
"River of Love"
"Abilene on Her Mind"
"Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey's Song)"
"She's Taken a Shine"
"This Far Gone"
"End of Indianola"
"Waitin' on Joe"
"You Won't Ever Be Lonely"
"This Ain't No Practice Life"
Andy Griggs, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Stuart Duncan, Byron House