In its second year removed from its early July origins, there were moments the 2017 Red, White & Boom country music festival felt downright October-ish.
The weekend started with the show going on under heavy rains, sometimes complete downpours, from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey. Still, an announced crowd of 13,000 sang along with stars such as Luke Bryan and Brett Eldredge, who eschewed the covering of the outfield stage to sing in the rain, with his fans. Saturday was merely cloudy, but Friday’s nearly four-inch rainfall left underterred fans in ankle-deep mud. By Sunday evening, a muted sun was peeking out as Kentucky native Carly Pearce made her transition from Boom fan to performer and country and reality show superstar Blake Shelton closed out the fest.
Kicking off Sunday evening was Pearce, who took the stage donning a custom Lexington Legends jersey, paying thanks to the ball club that hosts the super-sized country music festival year after year. A self-proclaimed Dolly Parton fanatic, Pearce dropped out of high school at age 16 to enter a contest at Dollywood, laying the foundation for her music career that will see the release of her debut record “Every Little Thing” on Oct. 13.
Aside from Parton, Pearce said she’s heavily inspired by late 1990’s and early 2000’s country, notably Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood. Pearce performed several songs off her upcoming record including “Everyone Wanna Talk” which she introduced as a “Bad girl song;” “Hide the Wine” illustrating her affinity for red wine and “Every Little Thing,” the single off her aforementioned record that has received significant radio air time, reaching the top 10 on country music radio charts. Pearce closed her abbreviated set with an energetic cover of Parton’s hit “9 to 5.”
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Capping off Sunday night was superstar and master showman Shelton. The crowd reached a fever pitch as he entered stage right under bright lights and a near full moon, kicking off his set with the 2014 hit “Neon Light” and 2010’s “All About Tonight.” Throughout the evening Shelton performed hits spanning his career, illustrating the artist’s progression along with his longevity in the country music scene with hits such as 2004’s “Some Beach” and 2001’s “Ol’ Red,” a tune about a dog named Ol’ Red, referred to as “a four legged tracking machine” with “a nose that can smell a two day trail.”
Shelton’s performance felt more like a rock’n’roll concert rather than a country one at times, much to the approval of a record crowd, which according to iHeartRadio’s Michael Jordan set a Whitaker Bank Ballpark attendance record with roughly 17,500 fans packed in.
After dismissing his band Saturday night, headliner Sam Hunt settled into a solo acoustic segment that exhibited his influences from within and outside of country music. 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 Saturday 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. But the message was clear and welcomed.
As Harvey’s rains continued to fall Friday, Luke Bryan worked to make the logistically-botched Farm Tour performance he gave at Lexington’s Talon Winery three years ago seem like ancient history. Coming out of the floor at the top of a light-up staircase, he launched into a pair of danceable country-rock tunes, “Move” and “That’s My Kind of Night,” and he didn’t wait long to play his most fitting hit for the evening, “Rain Is A Good Thing.”
And the Kentucky crowd was one he was happy to be playing for, saying they were the most hardcore country fans in North America for braving the weather — between last night and that Talon show, we have gone through a lot to see Luke Bryan.
Every other artist braved the storm, but Brett Eldredge truly relished the rain. You could tell a sizable portion of the crowd was there to see him as he soaked up the moment, giving fans a style of polished pop-country punctuated by some soulful pipes and plenty of upbeat positivity.
Eldredge was preceded by the first Luke to take the stage Friday, singer-songwriter everyman Luke Combs. The North Carolina native won’t be pegged as a country heartthrob, but his talents as a writer and vocalist during his 40 minutes on stage hinted at a welcome stylistic versatility and depth. Several of his songs sounded like modern country with a little more attitude, more sincerity and better lyrics, like “One Number Away,” “Beer Can” and “When It Rains It Pours,” which seemed to coincide with heavier rainfall. He closed with his No. 1 hit “Hurricane,” another weather-appropriate track that resulted in the festival’s first major sing-along.