Some say that country radio is being hijacked by young artists who are influenced by Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars, all under the guise that “country music should evolve.”
Well, judging by the 18,000 people packed into the legendary Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD, to see Frank Turner, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, there’s a strong contingent of country fans who are more than willing to embrace a more organic “evolution.”
Make no mistake about it, when one of the biggest folk-punk heroes (with slight country leanings), the reigning king of Americana, and a fish-out-of-water blues infused mainstream country artist (who has cleaned up at all of the Country Music award shows in the past year) gets together, the concert becomes solely about the music and not about late night hook-ups and dirt roads.
English folk-punker Frank Turner and his band The Sleeping Souls lit up the stage with a high energy set that had the crowd moving and singing along, even if he has never had a “hit.” Turner arrived to the stage with an acoustic guitar and jumped right into “I Still Believe,” a song that celebrates the joy of rock and roll. Turner’s set included the rollicking “Recovery,” the mandolin tinged “The Opening Act Of Spring,” and the wonderful acoustic gem “Glorious You.” At one point Turner picked a random fan, who just happened to be wearing a Subhumans T-Shirt (Canadian Punk Band) to join him on stage to play a harmonica solo for “Dan’s Song.” The punk fan had no clue what he was doing, but still sounded great (after a brief lesson), and the crowd erupted when his moment to shine arrived. The highlight though was when Turner had the packed house singing along to “Photosynthesis” with its ultimate line, “And I won’t sit down, I won’t shut up, and most of all, I won’t grow up.” I’ve seen a lot of country shows at this venue, and I have never seen a house that packed for an opening act. The crowd was engaged, energized and appreciative for the British troubadour’s artistry.
The next 90 minutes were pure bliss as former Drive-By Truckers singer/guitarist and Americana icon Jason Isbell took the stage with his band The 400 Unit. His epic set started with the sublime “If It Takes A Lifetime,” into my personal favorite “24 Frames,” to “Stockholm,” and then “How To Forget.” Isbell kept the favorites rolling with “Traveling Alone,” featuring his wife Amanda Shires’ fiddle playing and backing vocals (one of many songs that this was the case) and “The Life You Chose.” Isbell also played his most beloved Drive-By Truckers’ songs “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change” which he and his band turned into an otherworldly guitar battle in an extended jam. “Alabama Pines” and “Super 8” thrilled the rapt crowd as well. The coy interplay between Isbell and Shires throughout the performance was truly a wonderful thing to witness and was similar to what came next with Stapleton and his wife Morgane.
Chris Stapleton is the most buzz-worthy artist in mainstream country. Despite having a sound unlike any other on the radio, he’s an artist that even the “cool kids who don’t like country” like. For more traditionally country-oriented fans, his music has become a refuge from the mundane, hum drum, and lazy lyrics often found in pop country music. The moment he took the stage, everyone in the crowd eagerly rose to their feet to sing and feel every word, on every song, from “Nobody To Blame,” to the two songs in the encore, “Whiskey And You,” and “Sometimes I Cry.” Stapleton thankfully, eschewed singing the songs he wrote for other pop country artists, but did perform the fantastic “Either Way” from Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album which he wrote. He did two The SteelDrivers songs, “Midnight Train To Memphis,” and “Drinking Dark Whiskey,” and a new song, “Hard Living.” It didn’t matter what he played though, the crowd intently and intensely were along for the ride and sang their hearts out, especially during, “Traveller,” “Fire Away” and the gorgeous duet with his wife Morgane – “You Are My Sunshine.”
Artists like Frank Turner, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton are “evolving” what is considered country music without turning their back on its roots or pandering to demographics, the bottom line, and the lowest common denominator. We need more of this.