Before Garth Brooks began using pyrotechnics in concert and flying over his screaming audiences like a cowboyhatted Superman, country singers pretty much stood in front of a mike and sang of lost loves, cheatin’ and drinkin.’
While old-school country singers such as Merle Haggard and George Jones and their progeny — artists such as Alan Jackson and George Strait — still stand stock still while delivering their country message, new artists influenced by Brooks are taking a page from the biggest-selling country artist of all time. They’re making their concerts an aerobic event, much like the arena rockers of the ’70s and ’80s before them.
We’ll call it “arena country.”
While purists may like to nurse a longneck in a dimly lit bar while listening to the honky-tonker on the small stage in the corner, many young fans of country, brought up on the slick videos of Country Music Television, want a little flash and dash with their twang and singers who look like they’ve just crawled off the pages of GQ or Maxim.
You won’t find a beefcake shot of George Strait on CMT, but you will see Kenny Chesney showing off his sculpted biceps in a sleeveless T-shirt. You won’t see Loretta Lynn in a bikini, but you will see Gretchen Wilson dirty dancing on a beach in short shorts.
It’s not a bad thing, just different from the country music stars I grew up with. I’m old, and codgers like me have to hang on for dear life just to keep up with the changing times.
This is a new era of country music, where superstars like Chesney pack the arenas while stars in waiting, such as the Valley’s Dierks Bentley and Texan Pat Green, play small to mid-sized venues while accumulating enough hits to launch them into the arenas.
The surefire sign that an artist has made it to the arena level is the appearance of a live concert album, that ubiquitous status symbol that combines fist-pumping anthems with crowd noise loud enough in the mix to make anybody sound like they’re going through their own Beatlemania.
Witness “Live Those Songs Again,” the new release by the aforementioned Chesney, a 14-song retrospective of the singer’s hits, from his breakthrough “How Forever Feels” to more recent chart-toppers such as “Anything but Mine,” “Keg in the Closet” and “I Go Back.”
Chesney’s mostly likable tunes (the ridiculous hokum of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” excepted) have a little bit of twang, mainly courtesy of the singer’s east Tennessee-flavored vocal delivery, and a whole lot of rock riffs, which are definitely designed with big arenas and big audiences in mind. It hasn’t escaped the attention of up-and-coming country stars such as Pat Green.
“Man, I wanted to put together a group of songs that could be played in big spaces, if you know what I mean,” Green recently told countrystandardtime.com of his new album, “Cannonball.”
He, and other aspiring country stars, can use Kenny Chesney as their arena country touchstone, and “Live Those Songs Again” is the perfect place to start.