Review by Brad WalsethCountry Thunder - the annual country music festival held in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin - opened Thursday night, as a large crowd of cowboy-hatted, confederate flag waving, music fans filled the grounds to hear popular country stars Ronnie Milsap and Travis Tritt perform. Admittedly not a huge country music fan, I am, nonetheless, a music fan and enjoy a wide variety of music. Tired of my CD collection, I looked forward to hearing some different sounds; and tired of the usual sloppy musicianship one often hears from modern rock - I especially looked forward to hearing some of Nashville's finest sidemen - musicians that can usually be counted on to play with both talent and taste. And the tickets were free.
Photo by Mike Heine
Like a Dead concert, Country Thunder is more than the music: it is a celebration of a way of life. The resemblance to a Dead concert gained more credence as the crowd stepped over a young woman passed out on the ground just inside the entrance. "Cowgirl in the Sand"? I said giggling, though no one seemed to catch the joke.
Traffic woes being what they were, we missed the first five Ronnie Milsap songs (although we were able to hear them as we crossed a seemingly endless pasture/parking lot), but we quickly settled into place in time to hear the blind, former child prodigy (on violin no less!) tinkle the ivories while singing a string of his hits in a still strong and velvety smooth voice. Milsap - no milksop - plays a mean piano, in a honky tonk, Ray Charles-ish manner, and his band, including a Bonnie Riatt look-alike on guitar and backing vocals, was simply top notch. Ronnie's hits often feature good old-fashioned hooks with pop arrangements. "Any Day Now" was a crowd pleaser, and even this morning I can't get that darn "Smoky Mountain Rain" out of my head (although I did find his "Daydreams About Night Things" a tad creepy). The overall sound was Vegas/Branson sheen, without becoming treacly; and I suspect (I could be wrong) a smattering of sequencing or prerecording enhancement may have been in use. The only false step was an inclusion of an Elvis impersonator, a moment that served to highlight Ronnie's service as a keyboard player and backing singer for the King, but also seemed too corny even for the corn farmers in the crowd. Near the end of the set, Ronnie offered a prayer for President Bush (that garnered only a smattering of applause - making me wonder just where the President is doing his polling these days), and a prayer for our servicemen overseas - which brought the crowd to its feet. Seeing a huge crowd - all standing at attention as he sang "God Bless America" (or was it "America the Beautiful"? well, you get the picture anyway)- was a stirring sight, and later, as he and his band left the stage, the atmosphere was all good will and excitement.
Leaning back in my lawn chair in the pleasantly cool July sunset, I watched the crowd with great interest. Ranging from strutting, tanned farmboys - fresh from bucking bales - to blue-haired grandmothers in walkers - the audience ran the gamut from old to young (with a decidedly singular color scheme, of course). These people are the salt of the earth, I thought, too bad I am on a low sodium diet. I was tempted to make a crack about someone opening the borders of Kentucky and letting the inmates out, or of seeing whole families with only one tooth between them; but there is something about the lack of inhibitions of a 300 lb woman in a string bikini and cowboy boots, the single-mindedness of a tattooed rodeo rider/gigalo on the prowl, the dewy innocence of a young cowgirl, that gives one pause. These are the people who work in the fields to fill my oversized belly, the ones who will fight the wars to protect me and my freedom to be the obnoxious jerk that I am. These are the cannon fodder, who will go forth into a desert or jungle to fight for the United States or a reasonable facsimile (like an oil company) so that I can listen to "commie music" on my cd player and drink martinis.
Tears in my eyes, and a song in my heart, I eagerly anticipated the appearance of Travis Tritt onstage. Having heard that Travis was a bit of an "outsider" on the country music scene, due to his mixing of rock styles into his music, I was ready to boogie (albeit without the boot-scooting): alas t'was not to be.
Having not followed the country scene in many years, can someone explain to me how Travis Tritt became a "star?" The man is butt-ugly (I'm sorry Travis, but it's true - that's okay, so am I - of course, you're rich - so you've got me there) with a flat face that looks like he's been hit by an 18-wheeler, and wears "Cousin It"-length hair hanging loose down his back. Not only is this generally not a good look on a man, but it impeded his guitar work, as he kept having to brush it back out of the way of his fretwork. For practical reasons Travis, if you aren't going to get a trim, at least use a pony holder.
His opener - the semi-hit, eschewed by country radio for having too much of a rock influence - "Put Some Drive in your Country" rumbled like distant thunder, and the simmering strains hung in the air with the promise of crackling good time. Then the downslide started. It's usually not a good sign if a cover song makes its way into the first few tunes (in contrast - Ronnie Milsap and crew did a spirited take on the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" to conclude their set) - and the pedestrian version of the Jackson Browne/Eagles warhorse - "Take it Easy" that Trite and his band pulled out was no exception. That the same throw-away cover was perhaps the highlight of his show is simply inexcusable. Maybe he wanted to show his country roots, maybe he wanted to "prove" he wasn't a rocker at heart - whatever the reason, the bandleader suddenly stepped on the brakes and pulled the tour bus to a stop, pulling of the excitement out of the air with a string of 85 bpm slow and sappy tunes. Backed by an invisible band, and showing none of the showmanship his predecessor showed, I wasn't sure if the "performer" was proof of just why America is a great country - in that it is a place where an ugly guy, with a bad haircut, singing bad songs in a middling voice can make it big; or if it was evidence of the music business machine in place that says keep throwing crap against a wall and its bound to stick sometime.
Positing himself as a working class Twitt through his spoken asides about living from "paycheck to paycheck" and playing "biker bars," he connected with the audience's hearts; but his clichéd, repetitive song list failed to engage their feet, as even the grandmothers stopped tapping their toes and nodding their heads as the depressing onslaught moved onward at glacial pace. He sang with feeling, but it was if he were in a vacuum - content to please himself only. With an audience so primed to join in a celebration, this was a sin. And who would have guessed that bikers were such big softies. I can just see the big bruisers getting their hankies out and listening quietly to the sensitive country troubador in their midst - NOT!!! Any biker worth his salt would have told the slacker to shit or get off the pot.
(As an aside, due to the nearly comatose songs I was hearing, I did gain a new insight into country music listeners. Their interest in the pain and hurt of life seems to me to be similar to those expressed by our friends - "the Goths." Perhaps we are all closer than I ever dreamed in our delving into the underside of life. Perhaps an alliance can be formed, not unlike a Coke or Poloroid commercial, where people of all forms of music can come together and form a vast "rainbow coalition" under the banner of a new music style - "Country-Goth?" Or maybe not.)
The final straw occurred when he announced to the crowd a new tune off his new album (the mention of which received extremely sparse appreciation) and asked the audience to "go crazy - even if they didn't like it" (has he been experiencing a similar reaction elsewhere?) - then proceeding into yet another (the fifth in a row) slow groaner. Folding up the lawn chair, I joined an ever-growing stream of disappointed people exiting the venue. As a working stiff myself, I had to get up in the morning, and I'm sorry but I have to have a reason to stay up late these days.
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