By Kevin Corbett
There's plenty of country variety on stage at this year’s New York State Fair between the opening-night performance of smooth-singing veterans Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers on Thursday, Aug. 25, and the Fair-closing set by rising vocalist Jake Owen on Monday, Sept. 5, both at 8 p.m., at Chevrolet Court. Although the 10 acts on the bill are skewed toward the younger generation of not-quite-country acts, it’s comforting to know that a kid like Owen keeps the tradition burning, despite having been born more than three years after the Gatlin boys first topped the charts with 1977’s “I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love.”
That success solidified the brothers’ status as one of country’s premier vocal groups. They soared with such memorable numbers as “She Used to Be Somebody’s Baby” and “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You),” always featuring the stellar voice of Larry Gatlin, undoubtedly one of the best to ever caress a country tune. Not only did he sing lead over his siblings’ harmonies, Larry Gatlin also wrote every one of the family’s hits. Offstage, he also starred in one of the most powerful anti-drug commercials ever screened, convincingly testifying to his own fall and redemption.
One of the largest throngs to mob Chevy Court will no doubt greet beefy baritone Trace Adkins on Saturday, Aug. 27, 8 p.m. The goateed, ponytailcoiffed hunk has garnered consistent airplay on country stations since 1996 and has grown into his big boots, less often playing up the macho cowboy imagery, instead singing songs with more philosophical, mature themes like “You’re Gonna Miss This” and this summer’s “Just Fishin’.” The former college football player and oil rig worker may just be large enough to be seen in a crowd sure to stretch to the back of the courtyard.
It will seem a little weird to see Ronnie Dunn charge onto the Stan Colella Stage on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 8 p.m., without duet partner Kix Brooks. The duo played the Mohegan Sun Grandstand numerous times as one of the State Fair fans’ favorite acts since they debuted there in 1993, when they opened for Reba McEntire. But the bearded Texan has already parlayed his familiar homespun tenor into two well-received tracks from a new solo CD and can always fall back on the songs he recorded with Brooks, from his own line dance anthem, “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” to their countryfied cover of “My Maria.” Get there early.
The steamy themes and intricate harmonies of Steel Magnolia move into Chevy Court on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2 p.m., having emerged from competition on the CMT cable-TV series Can You Duet? as an intriguing entry that alternates between bluesy numbers like “Ooh La La” and theLady Antebellum: The incredibly popular band that lured thousands to their free Chevy Court show last summer will perform as a hot-ticket Grandstand show on Sept. 2.
power passion of “Keep On Lovin’ You.” Meghan Linsey and Joshua Scott Jones ricochet lead vocals back and forth, exuding great chemistry as two dynamic vocalists who comprise a charismatic team.
David Nail, the Chevy Court headliner on Friday, Sept. 2, 2 p.m., has a hard climb to prove he belongs among a strong field of up-and-coming male country singers that includes the likes of Easton Corbin, Craig Morgan and Chris Young. The competition has thus far outdistanced Nail in terms of material as his songs haven’t exactly been unforgettable, the inspirational ”Turning Home” being the exception. Too often his vocal style swerves toward pop contrivance, leaving him sounding a little like Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox. And that’s not a compliment.
Lady Antebellum makes its first Grandstand appearance on Friday, Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m. (tickets are $35 and $45), but ironically, there will be fewer fans in attendance than when they packed Chevy Court last year. Even though this year a ticket purchase is necessary, it’s a better venue for both fans and performers, so it could be a great night for adult contemporary listeners, less so for country fans.
The trio of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood has soared to popular success largely on the strength of their multiple Grammy-winning 2009 single “Need You Now.” Songs released since then have teetered on the edge of syrupy, but radio will play to death anything they release as they’re now a phenomenon, never a good thing for a band’s creativity.
Spunky blond Sunny Sweeney, who makes her first State Fair appearance as Lady A’s opening act, brings with her at least a couple of songs that are familiar to radio listeners. Her biggest success to date, “From a Table Away,” harkens to earlier generations of woman singers, particularly Lorrie Morgan or maybe Janie Fricke. An earlier single, “If I Could,” should be a real showstopper, boasting a rapidfire, almost yodeling vocal with a spirited delivery on a song that could easily have been an early Dolly Parton favorite. Fans who like an authentic country sound should resolve to arrive early and pay attention to this charming young Texan with talent to burn.
Three weeks after the tragic stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair, Sugarland makes its first top-billed appearance at the Grandstand on Saturday, Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m. ($50). Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush will step into the spotlight as an act that has grown into a versatile and confident duo and one that has enjoyed tremendous commercial success since opening for Kenny Chesney on that same stage in 2007. Unfortunately, they’ve steadily moved away from such strong material as their wistful first hit, “Baby Girl,” and the sassy “Something More,” toward the dance track fodder and wisecracking pop of “It Happens” and the cotton candy of “Stuck On You.” Although Nettles’ strong vocals dominate their sound, her arrogance is getting a little hard to take, especially back-to-back with Bush as the smarmy second banana.
Thus, the choice of jazz-style singer and pianist Sara Bareilles to open for Nettles and Bush isn’t so odd. The eclectic singersongwriter will no doubt bring in some fans who may not have plunked down the $60 for Sugarland. Her repertoire ranges from gutsy piano bar ballads to Gilmore Girls soundtracks. It’s not hard to listen to
the California girl, it just may not be consistently inspiring.
By the time Jake Owen hits the Chevy Court stage on Labor Day evening, the Fair will be winding down, so it may be a chance to make a few final memories, especially for fans who appreciate the Floridian’s hearty tenor and easy charm. His current party-time release, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night, “ breaks his trend of portraying the cowboy Casanova with “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” and “Eight-Second Ride.” For country fans, the State Fair will finish strong this year.