June 9th, 2013 at 1:48 pm
Sure, the headliner of the Friday night (June 7) festivities at Thunder on the Mountain, Luke Bryan, is surging up the charts and through the public conscious. He recently earned the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year award, too.
But there is only one Artist of the Decade (according to the American Country Awards), and that’s Toby Keith. The native Oklahoman (and one-time Fort Smith resident)’s set very likely exceeded Bryan’s attendance from just the night before and helped closed out the first Thunder on the Mountain festival, which took place on Mulberry Mountain north of Ozark on Arkansas 23.
The country music crowd is a little bit more of a passive crowd than some for rock ‘n’ roll acts, but they showed up in force for Keith’s set and responded to each of the 21 songs he would perform throughout the night. Most of them were at one point Top 10 country music hits, and his songs are both catchy and familiar.
Keith wasn’t the only performer on the mountain yesterday, of course. I got to the festival in the middle of the afternoon, so I missed several of the earlier sets. But I did make it to the mainstage for three of the festival’s biggest draws, each of them successful for very different reasons.
The festival concluded in the early morning hours of Sunday (June 9), and, despite some hiccups along the way, I’d say the festival was a success in its debut. I’ll have more thoughts next week, but for now, here are my thoughts on the artists I watched on Saturday (June 8) at Thunder on the Mountain:
Gretchen Wilson, 5:45 p.m., Main Stage
You could tell a lot about what you would get from Gretchen Wilson by her appearance. Dressed in 4-inch heels and a white A-shirt that had the words “Husband Beater” across the front, Wilson, as she sang in her second song of the afternoon, was “Here for the Party.”
She actually started the occasion with a cover of the James Gang’s “Funk #49.” She would mine classic rock territory several times during the day, as she performed several tracks off her new album of cover tracks called “Under the Covers.”
She’s got the classic rock chops to pull it all off, too.
Justin Moore, 7:30 p.m., Main Stage
Within five minutes of stepping out on the stage, Justin Moore had already called the Hogs. He wore a red and white Razorback shirt, and his red guitar had a Razorback decal on it. The Arkansas native stated his love for his home state early and often. But his inclusion on the festival roster was no courtesy offer. Moore is a legitimate country star in the making, and I walked away impressed with his voice, something that never translated when I listened to his material on the radio. The energetic and unapologetic Moore hustled through several songs during his set, and he proved he might be the most country of any of the acts during the weekend, and that’s certainly saying something. He also drew an ample crowd, with many of them no doubt there to cheer on a local boy doing well.
Toby Keith is a smart man. He might even be labeled as a visionary in his field, and I’m being quite serious here. Throughout the past two decades, Keith has stayed at the top (or near it) of the country music charts through savvy songwriting and equally savvy marketing.
His first big hit, the honky tonk approved “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” was released in 1993. It has since been played more than 3 million times on the radio, making it the most played country song of the 1990s. The audience, of course, knew every word.
Three other songs he played to the adoring audience at Thunder on the Mountain were all recorded in the past three years, and all of them — “Red Solo Cup,” “Beers Ago” and “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” — have achieved radio success. He’s a hit-making machine.
But he’s also iconic for other reasons. An actor, activist and a de facto spokesperson for country music’s patriotic causes, Keith is one of the genre’s most marketable stars. That was clear from the opening seconds of his show — he came onstage as a video playing behind him showed him driving around in a Ford truck. Ford, of course, is one of Keith’s biggest sponsors.
The music elements of his set started quite literally with fire and fireworks that shot upwards from the edges of the stage. He and his large backing band, which included at least two backing vocalists and a host of other players, would be onstage nearly nonstop for the next two hours.
Even though some of Keith’s interests may be commercially motivated, his voice sounded authentic — he sounded like the Toby Keith we all know from the radio.
And he was very much the Toby Keith we all expected. He praised the troops, and he brought a few on stage with him for the end of the show. He told the crowd no one should ever be ashamed of patriotism — and had some choice words for those who think otherwise.
With all that in mind, how do you like him now?
Toby Keith likely cares, even if it doesn’t appear to be so.