Casey Donahew has a line that puts himself and his music into perspective: “There are singers who sing songs about cowboys, and there are cowboys who sing.”
Donahew, a native of Burleson, Texas, is clearly the latter: a singer/songwriter who has spent plenty of time roping and riding inside rodeo arenas. These days, music is his priority.
Thursday night, the Casey Donahew Band drew more than 800 fans to the Uptown Theater, where he delivered more than 90 minutes of songs about small towns, country living, whiskey, trains, love, romance and the cowboy life. Some, like “No Doubt,” addressed a few issues: “I hear you’re lookin’ for a cowboy to take you for a ride / Well, baby, I think I’m your man / I’m a cowboy from my head to my toes / And this rodeo is all I know.”
He was backed by a five-piece band that included drummer supreme Lester Estelle, a native of Olathe. All night, with guitars, fiddle, banjo and bass, they applied muscle and sheen to his songs, which straddle the line between neo-traditional and red-dirt country. All are typically catchy, well-crafted and lacquered with two- and three-part harmonies.
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The crowd was pretty evenly split along gender lines: Donahew comes off as a bro the ladies fancy and the guys want to drink beer with. Behind the band, a huge banner displayed the band’s name, two barrel-crossed pistols and verbiage from the Second Amendment, to which Donahew pledged his allegiance before singing “12 Gauge,” a song about domestic violence and a victim’s revenge.
Donahew is touring off “All Night Party,” his sixth studio album, released in August. Before singing “That’s What Cowboys Do,” he made a crack about music that doesn’t make it onto commercial/corporate country radio, and he has a legitimate complaint: His sound is ready for radio, but birthed in Texas, not Nashville.
The crowd was familiar with most of it, songs like the rowdy “Whiskey Baby,” which compares whiskey to love: “Your love is like whiskey / Burns all the way down / Lights me up and gets me right / Baby, pour me another round”; “White Trash Story — II (The Deuce),” a song that name-checks Dale Earnhardt and the rebel flag, dynamite fishing and another domestic violence incident; “Small Town Love,” a ballad about seduction: “I think you need a long dirt road and a bottle of wine / If I can wrap you in my arms, then I can make you mine”; “Back Home in Texas,” a paean to his native state; and “Party Girl,” a ballad about a gal who likes her beer and Red Bull and Jager.
Donahew pulled off a few covers, including George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” which aroused a hearty singalong; and even more impressively, Matchbox Twenty’s “3 A.M.,” which he turned into a soulful country ballad.
They closed with a flourish, sending the crowd off with party anthems like “White Trash Story,” a song populated with small-town people who indulge in small-town diversions; and “High,” an ode to weed, girls, football and small-town ruts. Like most of what preceded them, those songs felt personal and true, the words of a cowboy who writes about the life he’s lived.
Stoney LaRue: He’s another native Texan, though his music is more deeply rooted in red-dirt country. His 30-minute opening set showcased his lively, scabrous mix of outlaw country, rock and Southern rock.