Country music has put out the welcome mat in the last decade for a whole generation of young artists, but there's still a lot to be said for the value of dues-paying.
The proof was George Strait's headlining performance Saturday at the seven-artist, 10-hour country music marathon at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore. Strait's recording career stretches back nearly 20 years, and even though he's 44, he's practically an elder statesman now that a flood of singers in their 20s and 30s has taken over.
Yet it's only in the last three or four years that Strait--who has five nominations in Wednesday's Academy of Country Music Awards--has begun to shed his stiffness as a singer and performer and started to emerge as something more than a well-intentioned preserver and promoter of traditional country music sounds.
On Saturday, he was relaxed onstage, occasionally almost exuberant, but he never loosed his solid grip on the all-important musical pulse. That pulse was supplied by his aptly named Ace in the Hole Band, whose eight members reveled in the joys of large-ensemble play.
More important, Strait's singing is more adept than ever, allowing him to dance nimbly around the twists and turns of the old George Jones hit "The Love Bug" and his own infectiously chugging single "Where the Sidewalk Ends."
It all boils down to experience. It takes time for even the most gifted musicians to mature, and everything about Strait's part of the show--from his skilled vocals to the tasteful, elaborate production values--was a tangible notch above those of the youngsters who preceded him. Tim McGraw, Clay Walker, Terri Clark, James Bonamy, Mindy McCready and Emilio.
In time, second-billed McGraw might wise up and take a pass on songs as shamelessly schmaltzy as "Don't Take the Girl" and as mindless as "Indian Outlaw." And one day maybe he'll find something more worth resuscitating than the Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," for which he and his aggressive Dance Hall Doctors band engaged in a bloated 10-minute exercise in Southern rock as their encore.
Strait's fellow Texan Clay Walker alternates between cloying and promising in his songwriting, and as a Strait sound-alike, he has a long way to go to establish a musical identity. He was joined by the day's opening act, Emilio, a tejano singer who is lobbying for a second career in country music, for a tender bilingual duet on Freddy Fender's "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." But then Walker fell back on bar-band staples--"Brown-Eyed Girl," "Louie Louie," "Desperado"--for an easy but empty, crowd-pleasing ending.
Clark spent her 45 minutes onstage as the female Garth, running from side to side of the stage, shaking her derriere, chatting with fans and pumping her fist during the rockers. She squandered an opportunity a more seasoned artist might have capitalized on when she brought McCready out for "Emotional Girl." Instead of setting up a musical dialogue by trading verses, or exploring their vocal contrasts with harmonized choruses, they simply sang choruses in unison. Vocally, she broke out of the monochromatic Patty Loveless mold once, with a solo acoustic version of a blues-rock number.
Bonamy has an appealingly reedy, Jim Croce-like voice, but tried to gussy up his early set with arena-sized gestures that added little to his songs. His single "Dog on a Toolbox" locks into the kind of vividly specific imagery that's rare in the one-scenario-fits-all products of Nashville songwriting factories.
The lesson Strait gave his young charges is that hits may come, hits may go, but enduring musical artistry will develop only with patience and persistence--in a word, with time.