Sam Hunt remarked near the halfway point of his headlining set for Red, White & Boom’s second evening at Whitaker Bank Ballpark Saturday night that his Georgia youth was so specific to country music that he “couldn’t have told you the difference between Nirvana and Madonna.”
Inner reply to that: Swell. Another Nashville star with blinders on to the rest of the world. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. After dismissing his band, Hunt settled into a solo acoustic segment that exhibited where detours developed within his influences. He performed snippets of four cover tunes, one each by Alan Jackson (“Don’t Rock the Jukebox”), Travis Tritt (“Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares”), Usher (“Nice and Slow”) and R. Kelly (“Ignition”). The country-R&B connection might not seem surprising to fans introduced to Hunt through his 2014 hit “Take Your Time,” a smoky mash-up of crooning indebted to both genres that was served up with fitting reserve near the end of the 75-minute set. But Hunt didn’t just use the medley as exposition. He backed it up with a wish that the 15,000-plus country fans assembled before him last night be accepting of diversity and strive to be more “culturally integrated.”
Those are two words you aren’t likely to hear together often in any context at a contemporary country concert. They were perhaps even more unexpected given how conventionally cosmopolitan Hunt’s set was up to that point. It relied heavily on a radio-friendly pop sound during the show opening “Leave the Night On,” the domestically themed romp “House Party” and especially his newest dance-directed hit “Body Like a Back Road.” But the message was clear and welcomed. May country artists and audiences alike heed it.
Curiously, the generation Hunt spoke of also made up all of Saturday’s Red, White & Boom lineup, which is the same roster the singer has been on the road with this summer for his 15 in a 30 Tour (the title references a chorus lyric from “Body Like a Back Road”). Each is an essentially young artist whose respective sets were built around the music of a single album.
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Lead off singer Ryan Follese, who came to country right out of frontman duties for the Nashville pop troupe Hot Chelle Rae (its biggest hit, “Tonight Tonight,” closed the singer’s 35-minute set) possessed a clean, expressive but largely antiseptic voice that dressed songs from a new self-titled debut album. Tunes like “Wilder,” “Roots” and “Put a Label on It” catered nicely to the crisp contours of Follese’s singing, but there was little to distinguish this material or even this performance from scores of similarly designed country-pop merchants.
The exact opposite held true for Chris Janson, a Missouri born songwriter with a lit-fuse level of performance energy and immediacy that ignited his set at once during the opening “Redneck Life” and its credo-like chorus (“I didn’t choose the redneck life, the redneck life chose me”). While one could admire the gusto in such sentiments and execution, Janson didn’t impress much as a vocalist. Maybe it was because he could never stop talking before, after or during songs like “Fix a Drink,” “Everybody” and “Name on It” (which, along with “Redneck Life,” appear on the forthcoming “Everybody” album, due out on Sept. 22). He talked about himself, his wife, his faith, his mood, his stage moves, his somewhat flat ability to tell a joke and more. Maybe focusing some of that stamina on his singing might help.
That left a 45-minute set by Maren Morris. Though the Texas songsmith played last year’s Red, White & Boom as a relative unknown, her return last night as an established star revealed little artistic growth. Morris again possessed a pleasing, serviceable vocal profile that reflected a wealth of pop inspirations dating back to the 1990s. She earned considerable audience reception for her hit “My Church” in the process. But Morris’ set again revolved tightly around her 2016 album “Hero” – so much so that she performed all of the album’s 11 songs (the best being the pop-soul flavored “I Wish I Was”) along with “Greener Pastures” (a more traditionally flavored original tune cut last year by Brothers Osborne) and an attractive but hardly revelatory cover of the John Prince staple “Angel from Montgomery.” All in all, it was a nice summation of the year that made Morris a celebrity. But with a repertoire that was essentially a rerun, it made one curious as what new music she has in development. Perhaps that was the point.
If you go
Red, White & Boom
When: 5:30 p.m. Sept. 3
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark, 207 Legends Lane