NASHVILLE Country music's biggest road show for the past few years is taking on a singular life of its own, one that may have ominous overtones for country music.
The seven-year-old George Strait Country Music Festival, which spent Sunday occupying Adelphia Stadium Coliseum and environs here, has grown into a mammoth creature devouring everything in its path. Bigger than the Rolling Stones' stadium tours, more successful than U2's similar ventures, the Strait Fest has evolved into a rolling city that creates its own ethos.
It sells out everywhere it goes. And selling out is becoming an apt metaphor.
Putting country artists in the gigantic setting of football stadiums seems to fly in the face of what has always been best and remarkable about country music: its access and immediacy and closeness. The best country artists make the listener feel a kinship that borders on intimacy. Very few country stars have dared to go beyond what always has been considered the ultimate-size country audience: about 2,000 or so fans in auditoriums or in-the-rounds. Garth Brooks made the big venues work, mainly because of his magnetism and incredible ability to seem to bond with every audience member.
Brooks did it with personality. George Strait is doing it with ethos, with lifestyle choices. Love me? Then love my truck sponsor (Chevy trucks), my boots sponsor (Justin), jeans (Wrangler), cowboy hat (Resistoil), cell phone (Nokia), sour mash whiskey (Jack Daniel's) sponsor, and on and on. The commercial banners fly from every part of the Coliseum.
For some, that's a good thing. For others, it's not.
Sally Conroy, a young fan from Atlanta, said she was offended by some of the commercialization of "Straitland," the large self-styled "country fair" that surrounded the stadium and offered different exhibits and amusements, food and drink. Especially drink and smoke. "I couldn't believe it," Conroy said.
"I wanted to go into the Doral [Cigarettes] tent to see what was there. And they refused to let me in without showing my ID and showing them a pack of cigarettes. To prove that I smoke!"
Commercial Bombardment Vs. Artistry
Indeed, "Straitland" is a kind of idealized village of the commercial concerns of young country-music fans. Included with the amusement diversions and food booths are aggressive marketing teams signing up young consumers, who like Strait's endorsed products and welcome the marketing pitches.
That said, neither Brooks nor Strait is really doing it with music. Country music requires a certain amount of room to connect, a measure of intimacy.
No intimacy in this coliseum. The artist, invisible as a human figure to the thousands in the upper decks, is only a Jumbotron image, and not a very lively one at that. Mick Jagger can make a Jumbotron seem exciting and vital. Garth Brooks can. Most non-moving country artists cannot.
Poor Kenny Chesney, trying to eke all of the pathos out of his anti-drinking song "That's Why I'm Here," was hopelessly drowned out by some beer-sodden, sun-stricken fans who began The Wave at one end of the stands and it took over, as the multitudes on both sides of the stadium did dueling wave cheers at each other.
Mark Chesnutt earlier turned all that raw energy into something that worked for him during most of his dynamic set. Then, the crowd turned and became quietly petulant during his hit cover of the Aerosmith hit "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing."
Martina McBride, whose incredible pipes recall those of a Linda Ronstadt, was able to shake the Coliseum rafters, unlike equally talented Lee Ann Womack earlier, who suffered from an uneven sound system. Show opener Asleep at the Wheel played to many empty seats because of traffic and late arrivals. Many of the fans never came in at all, and simply gathered to tailgate in parking lots nearby and cook barbecue and drink beer and listen with one ear to the music wafting out of the coliseum while paying more attention to radio and TV coverage of NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield winning the NAPA Auto Parts 500, which coincided with Strait Fest.
Authentic Cowboy Pulls Fans Together
In the end, the music was not so much the point of the day, but its afterthought. The event becomes the be-all and end-all. The music is simply the social glue that holds together a remarkable number of like-minded individuals. The country music tribal gathering becomes an affirmation of what they share: similar values, goals, lifestyle and dreams.
Strait succeeds because he is Strait. The epitome of the real country artist, his fans love him because he is real: He's an authentic cowboy who spends most of his time on his working Texas ranch with his family. He doesn't fool around or make headlines or talk out of turn.
Perhaps the most lasting moment came when Alan Jackson unannounced strode onto the stage to join his buddy Strait for an effective rendition of their duet from Strait's current album, Latest Greatest Straitest Hits.
They sang "Murder on Music Row" (RealAudio excerpt), which is essentially a song about the death of traditional country music, driving the money changers from the temple and keeping the music pure. It sounds wonderful in any setting, but how strange to hear it ringing out in a multimillion-dollar stadium in a festival setting that will gross untold millions.