Like all other genres, country music issues a variety of styles, some of which are more dominant and popular than others. Saturday night before a crowd of about 5,500 at Starlight Theatre, three were on display: something traditional, something very modern and something in between.
Little Big Town headlined the show, following openers Ashley Monroe and David Nail, two songwriters who have been grinding it out in Nashville for years. Monroe performed with a five-piece band, all dressed formally in black suits and ties and featuring a stand-up bass, a fiddle and violin — instruments that suit her style, which leans toward country music from another era.
Vocally, she recalls singers like Natalie Maines, Miranda Lambert or Sunny Sweeney; her thick Tennessee drawl has something to do with that. Monroe has written songs for other country artists, including “Heart Like Mine,” which Lambert turned into a No. 1 hit. Monroe performed it during her set Saturday night, plus “On to Something Good,” the first single from her latest album, “The Blade,” and a rare uptempo song for her, she confessed: “I tend to write sad songs.” And she sings them emotively, without going overboard.
Nail, a native of Kennett, Mo., home of Sheryl Crow, followed Monroe. He can do the bro’ country thing, as in the songs “Whatever She’s Got” and “Night’s on Fire,” a song about a red-blooded boy out for a ride in his truck with a lady who has whiskey on her lips and something carnal on her mind. Or he can do something more retro, like the country-soul anthem “Let It Rain,” or the ballad he wrote for his wife, thanking her for pulling him through hard times. Though his lyrics can get trite or cliched, Nail’s resonant voice sells whatever he is singing.
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Little Big Town comprises vocalists Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman and vocalists/guitarists Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook. The quartet has been making records for 13 years and gathering lots of country music awards along the way. In 2014, they were inducted into the Grand Old Opry.
Their style, though, falls decidedly on the hard-rock and more modern side of country. At times, it veers headlong into straight-up rock-blues, as in “Faster Gun,” which uses gunplay as a metaphor for heartache, and “Turn the Lights On,” which sounded like something Pat Benatar might have recorded in the 1980s.
They opened with “Day Drinking,” a lighthearted number about submitting to the urge for a patio beer long before happy hour arrives, then “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” a catchy, heavy-pop tune with a light Joan Jett vibe.
The strength of Little Big Town’s songs and performances have always been their four-part harmonies, which were stellar all night. The passing of the lead-vocal baton, sometimes in the middle of a song, provides some variety and draws comparisons to Fleetwood Mac.
They flashed their country roots during songs like “Pavement Ends,” “Things You Don’t Think About” and “Bring It On Home,” which had a pleasant ’70s country-rock vibe (think of Poco).
The show ended with two hard-rockers: “Pontoon,” a party anthem, and “Boondocks,” a song extolling the virtue of country living. They closed with Fairchild singing “Girl Crush,” a song that stirred a ruckus for its lyrics, which have been misinterpreted as homoerotic: “I want to taste her lips / Yeah, ’cause they taste like you.”
“Crush” is a breakup song and the singer’s lust is really jealousy for the girl who is now with her ex-boyfriend. It’s a pop ballad with a retro ’60s feel that found a home on several radio formats, including country, which can deliver more diversity than it gets credit for.
SET LIST: Day Drinking; Quit Breaking Up With Me; Front Porch Thing; On Fire Tonight; Pain Killer; Bones; Faster Gun; Little White Church; Bring It on Home; Tumble and Fall; Pavement Ends; Sober; Your Side of the Bed; Live Forever; Things You Don’t Think About; Turn the Lights On; Save Your Sin; Tornado; Pontoon; Boondocks; Girl Crush.