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Country music these days likes to tell you what it is. More often than not, the songs you hear on the radio explicitly define the genre as the official soundtrack of small-town America, a down-home heaven of pickup trucks, porch swings and tall cold ones.
This message rang out loud and clear at WYRK's annual Fall Acoustic Show on Sunday night in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, but another point was driven home with even more gusto - country music always has been, and always will be, a storyteller's game.
These all-star acoustic sets are a highlight of the year, and Sunday's event was no exception. The formula was the same: take three gifted, big-ticket Nashville songwriters, put them on one stage and have them trade songs and anecdotes in a carefree manner that makes the whole venue feel like one big living room.
This year featured Andy Gibson, an up-and-coming crooner who sat stage right with a lead guitarist in tow; Josh Thompson, a poignantly irreverent straight-shooter who took center stage; and Randy Houser, who mixed rebel country with pop from his stage-left stool and got away with it, thanks to his seriously soulful voice and the warmth of his keyboardist's Fender Rhodes patch.
The joy of these concerts is twofold. First, it's the chance to hear some finely crafted, devilishly clever tunes, stripped of their studio gloss - a comforting reminder of just how deep the bench is down in Nashville.
Both Thompson and Houser had several such gems up their sleeves, from the former's cheeky ode to being on the rebound, "Won't Be Lonely Long," to the latter's astounding descent into the depths of heartache, "Anything Goes."
Gibson's tunes lagged behind a bit, his broader romantic sentiments feeling false next to the earthier blend of emotions coming from his counterparts. (Sample lyric: "You make me wanna make you love me.")
Second is the extended between-song banter, including stories of how the songs came to be and the inevitable, un- rehearsed back-and-forths among the artists. If you're a fan of singer/songwriters and a chronic lyric-sheet analyst, this makes for some supreme entertainment.
The best example of this Sunday came when Houser played "Beach to the Sand," a charmingly piggish novelty about a girl who ruined his island vacation.
While setting up the song by explaining the true story that inspired it, Houser laughed like a schoolgirl, a reverie that spilled over into the song itself, interrupting things blooper-reel style.
The endearing performance of this insensitive song inspired Thompson to change his set list, opting to play a dirty Christmas song he wrote, much to the crowd's delight.
As excellent as country shows can be in huge venues, the Fall Acoustic Show provides something those don't give you: Loose, off-the-cuff moments that lead things into unpredictable places, from artists who take the time to explain what a song means to them, giving it a depth of field that listeners could previously only guess about.
Sunday, we weren't just hearing about small towns - we felt connected to the people singing about them.