Country music is changing, again. And based on Friday’s WYRK Taste of Country show at Coca-Cola Field, it’s changing for the better.
But change comes slow.
And so, the first half of Friday’s show – which appeared to be a sell-out, meaning in excess of 20,000 folks attended – suggested where country has been, and where it might yet go. And then later, some of the old guard showed up to suggest, rather strongly, where it has been since Garth Brooks took over the world, and where it right ought to stay.
So we got some country that wants to reconnect with its Southern blues and rock ’n’ roll roots. And we got some country that is happy occupying that middle ground between modern pop and mildly twangy mainstream rock.
All of it was well-played, and delivered with conviction. However, there were some qualitative differences between acts.
Headliners Jake Owen and Montgomery Gentry – and man, I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall when it was decided who would play before who – brought the pop and the populism to the party.
Owen was excellent and seemed comfortable as the current good-looking purveyor of Keith Urban-based rock-country.
Montgomery Gentry arrived like your cranky old uncle, who will not be dissuaded from turning the annual summer family picnic into an opportunity to start preaching about the war.
As much as you might love and respect your uncle, there might come a time when you just want him to shut up. That way, you can set about accommodating the present, and avoid getting trapped in the past.
The Cadillac Three, from Nashville, opened the proceedings with a set that reacquainted country with its deep southern soul and rock roots. This band opened with a set that seemed to stun the crowd, at least for the first tune or two. The trio kicked it hard with a guitar-driven brand of southern blues, fronted by Jaren Johnston’s filthy Fender Telecaster lines and lap steel player Kelby Ray’s accompanying swells and contrapuntal bass lines. (Ray had his lap steel’s lower octave sent to a separate amp to cover the low end normally provided by the bass.)
By set’s end, the Cadillac Three had taken over, and Nashville rock ’n’ roll was the order of the day. Later, Ray told me that “Eric Church has opened up this broader idea of country music, and we are into that.”
Yeah. It showed. These guys were fantastic on Friday.
The more open and accommodating take on country music continued with a set from Joel Crouse and his band. These guys offered a marriage of country, pop and folk that seemed to strike a resonant chord with the crowd. Mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars provided a nice quilt of harmonic backing for Crouse and his bandmates to weave their harmony-heavy arrangements gently on top of.
This was nice stuff, and a closing medley that wedded the Beatles’ “Get Back” to the Steve Miller Band’s “Keep On Rockin’ Me” made perfect sense, following Crouse’s earlier tackling of the Jackson Browne/Eagles tune “Take It Easy.”
Tyler Farr and his band offered a bit of a go-between, keeping some of the Southern rock roots exhibited by the Cadillac Three and Crouse, and adding the arena-rock that marks so much of modern country music. Farr and his band were not afraid to show their allegiance to hard rock – Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society in particular, and traditional country-rock in general.
Things got a little bit strange when Montgomery Gentry took the stage. This band – the duo Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry, with backing musicians – is a commercially proven hit machine with a strong fan-base. Much of Friday’s Taste of Country audience seemed to be composed of major M&G fans.
And yet, it seemed that the band was clinging to an old and outdated version of country, one replete with the flying of flags, the pledging of allegiances to a country we’ve all already pledged allegiance to, and the reliance on cliché-ridden signifiers. Singer Eddie Montgomery strode the stage adorned in an ankle-length drape jacket that was half covered in an American flag, belting out odes to a way of life that revolves around drinkin’, fallin’ in love, and venerating “American heroes,” which he took strides to assure us were those who’d served time in the military.
You can’t argue with any of this, even if you want to, unless you welcome the idea of being run out of town on the next available “Unpatriotic Express.” And yet, it just felt lame, forced and contrived. This felt like country music’s recent past, not its future. Some great guitar players in the Montgomery Gentry Band, though.
Headliner Jake Owen made it plain just why he was headlining Taste of Country within the space of his opening tune. Melding country and pop to stadium rock, Owen and his band brought strong musicianship and assertive dynamics to bear on straight-up country-pop tunes, and drove the crowd wild in the process. Owen – who is clearly loved by the female portion of his audience – strode the stage like a man who knows he has found his home.
A smooth-flowing, easygoing time, then. WYRK’s Taste of Country celebrated country’s movement toward a new fusion of influences, in the wake of Eric Church’s fusion of rock, country, and indie-rock tendencies. The Cadillac Three stole the show, for sure, with a jaw-dropping set of present-day Southern rock. But everyone gave their best. Only Montgomery Gentry appeared to be cashing a check written at least a decade ago. But then again, the crowd was more into that band than any other. So who’s to say?