The rap on country music is that it’s forgotten where it came from. It has left its heroes behind, all sounds like 1970s rock now and boots out established stars for the latest pretty young thing at the drop of a cowboy hat.
None of these accusations would explain the 20-year-plus career of Tim McGraw, at least 15 of which have been spent atop the country charts.
But his concert Friday night before 16,400 screaming fans at Rupp Arena sure did.
First and foremost, the man can put on a great show. For nearly two-hours and 24 songs, McGraw worked the edges of the stage and a catwalk giving equal attention to the people with outstretched arms in front of him and the fans near the rafters. He even took a split second to autograph a picture for a little boy at the end of the show.
In that rousing set were hints of the country roots that have sustained McGraw’s career for a couple decades. One of the greatest testaments to the 42-year-old’s ability to put on a show was that he put himself in jeopardy of being upstaged.
Coming into the concert, the smashing success of Lady Antebellum’s January release, Need You Now, made McGraw’s four-month-old Southern Voice feel so last year. And the vocal trio acquitted themselves nicely in an 11-song opening set that followed a quick, generic warmup by the Lost Trailers. Our Kind of Love and Lookin’ for a Good Time were great Friday night party performances, and vocalists Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood endeared themselves to the crowd by donning University of Kentucky jerseys for the closer, I Run to You — for the record, later in the evening, McGraw did a little John Wall dance.
The centerpiece of Lady Antebellum’s set was Need You Now’s intimate title tune, with Kelley and Scott taking opposite sides of the stage and slowly moving closer together to dramatize the song’s forlorn late-night phone call. They manged to recreate the tension and avoid the revved up rendition that ruined Lady A’s Grammy Awards performance of the song.
Out of the gate, Lady Antebellum dragged a bit, not really kicking into gear until bringing their band into the act with Our Kind of Love. The group has great promise but also needs to learn some lessons about playing to big crowds.
Those are lessons McGraw learned a long time ago.
He started his show with a four-song sprint from Real Good Man to Let it Go, before taking a moment to introduce himself, his band the Dance Hall Doctors and declare that they would be the entertainment for the remainder of the evening.
Emphasis on they.
In his trademark black leathery hat and tight blue jeans, sporting a full beard, McGraw was clearly the star. But he constantly yielded the stage to the musicians he readily admitted, “can play better than I do.”
That reference was specifically to brothers Brett and Brad Warren, who joined McGraw for an acoustic set at the middle of the concert that included the war-casualty ballad If You’re Reading This, which McGraw co-wrote with the Warrens.
In his career, McGraw has always known the importance of writing and choosing great songs, and he has three greatest hits albums to show for it. Even packing in two-dozen songs, he left out some biggies including his first No. 1, Don’t Take the Girl, and Southern Voice‘s first single, It’s a Business Doing Pleasure.
But there was little time to miss them while McGraw and his 10-piece band were raising the roof with homages like Back When and Down on the Farm, and more contemporary fare like Felt Good on My Lips, essentially three-chord rock with a “woo-hoo” chorus.
At the end of that song, McGraw raced along the catwalk asking, “Do you feel the spirit of country music filling this place,” so much like a revival preacher you expected him to start healing folks.
And yes, that spirit was alive in Rupp Arena — country past and future — because McGraw is a perfect conduit for it.