"If you're here tonight with someone you're wildly in love with, let them know," said Hunter Hayes, one of the 12 country artists showcased Tuesday night at the Lexington Opera House for the sold-out Acoustic Jam 2014.
That, of course, opened the floodgates for a sizeable, vocal segment of the female contingent on hand to hurl affections — verbal ones, at least — directly at the popular 23-year-old singer as he launched into a poppy slice of romantic confession called Wanted. By the time the song was over, a marriage proposal was offered and accepted in the audience.
"Congratulations, Hunter," said baritone Josh Turner, another Acoustic Jam artist seated directly to the right of Hayes. "One of your fans is no longer single."
Such was the mood that surrounded one of the most refreshing locally staged country music presentations in years. Such a distinction was due as much to the show's design as anything else. The dozen artists performed in groups — or, since we're in the heart of Wildcat country, platoons — of four, with one to three backup players (usually guitarists) to assist. Aside from a few modestly used electric keyboards, the instrumentation lived up to the program's name and operated within lean acoustic frameworks.
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That meant all the production varnish applied to contemporary country recordings was stripped away. There was no auto-tuning, no lip-synching and no arena pageantry. And there wasn't a single performer who didn't sound better as a result.
Each artist played three songs round-robin style. That made everyone, in essence, a co-billed act. Acoustic Jam, presented by WBUL-FM 98.1, also was a benefit concert, netting $120,000 for the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital.
The first wave centered mostly on new talent: the teen female duo Maddie & Tae, "silent" Sugarland partner Kristian Bush, singer Tyler Farr (in his third Lexington performance in 16 months) and The Voice champion Danielle Bradbery.
Farr was the artist who jump-started this set after a somewhat complacent opening with the wistful Whiskey in My Water. But Maddie & Tae later offered a surprisingly blunt ode about the roles of women in the Nashville workplace (Girl in a Country Song) while Bush turned the Sugar land hit Baby Girl into a starkly paternal love song. Bradbery proved a capable but somewhat stymied vocalist during Heart of Dixie. She revealed abundant technical skill but little artistic identity.
Next up was a pack that included two top Central Kentucky country music exports, Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery, along with young stars Sam Hunt and Scotty McCreery.
The duo of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry probably had to make the biggest adjustment to the acoustic setting, but the rockish, homey vibe of My Town lost nothing minus the voltage. John Michael, the younger Montgomery brother, wound up as a comparative traditionalist, with his 2004 hit Letters From Home taking on a deeper, almost sage luster.
McCreery was surprisingly confident onstage as he celebrated the casual, summery charm of Feelin' It. Hunt was the distinctive one, though. A curious hybrid of vintage soul crooner and 1990s alterative popster, he made his current single, Take Your Time, sound like a curious but appealing cross between Bobby Womack and Gin Blossoms.
Hayes, Turner, David Nail and Joe Nichols closed out the evening with what was by far the loosest of the three sets.
Nail was humbly proficient in delivering the understated cool of Red Light, Nichols was the open and obvious reveler during Hard to Be Cool, and Hayes did his best to play unassuming heartthrob for I Want Crazy.
But bettering them all was the solemn traditional stride that Turner summoned for the masterful Long Black Train, a work of Johnny Cash-level spirituality, reflection and drama. Of the 36 songs offered by the 12 artists last night, Long Black Train was the one that most decidedly went the distance.