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Country comeback: Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie and Lorrie Morgan demonstrate vitality at Kauffman Center

Joe Diffie
Joe Diffie File photo

A trio of veteran artists on Friday demonstrated the absurdity of the country music establishment’s longstanding emphasis on youth.

Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie and Lorrie Morgan are victims of a system that treats artists on the wrong side of 40 as outcasts. At the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the three former hitmakers didn’t look or sound like pariahs in a compelling 110-minute survey of their careers.

With 26 chart-topping hits among them, the three were among the biggest stars of the 1990s. Their work disappeared from the airwaves during the last decade in favor of songs by younger artists who are more eager to incorporate elements of pop, rock and dance music into their sound. Covers of songs associated with Hank Williams, Charlie Rich, George Jones and Tammy Wynette revealed the trio’s steadfast allegiance to tradition.

The incongruous setting in the opulent Muriel Kauffman Theatre, which Chesnutt referred to as a “thee-ay-ter,” didn’t detract from the earthy music. A few dozen members of the audience of about 1,000 loudly displayed the “Friday night, get-right, honky-tonk attitude” Diffie hailed in one of his hits.

The three stars and five backing musicians remained seated for most of the acoustic-based show. They told stories, cracked jokes and traded songs. When he wasn’t belting out hits including “John Deere Green,” Diffie behaved like a garrulous barstool philosopher. Chesnutt mirrored the stoic cowboy who narrates his heartbreaking ballad “I’ll Think of Something.” Morgan resembled a glamorous celebrity as she sang her signature song, “Something in Red.”

Diffie explained that “this is the first show Lorrie, Mark and I have done together.” The lack of rehearsal failed them only during a comically sloppy stab at “Near You.” Morgan confessed that “I’m just gonna sing like I’m ridin’ along in my car.” The relaxed approach that she and her colleagues adopted further enhanced the appeal of the informal format.

A cameo appearance by Jesse Keith Whitley, the son of Morgan and the late Keith Whitley, was a nice surprise. Morgan added tender background harmonies as her son sang Whitley’s 1988 hit “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”

Morgan’s rendition of the title track from her forthcoming album “Letting Go … Slow” was just as potent as her biggest hits. The song served as a further reminder of the ongoing vitality of forsaken country artists like Chesnutt, Diffie and Morgan.

Set list

Chesnutt, “It’s a Little Too Late”; Morgan, “Watch Me”; Diffie, “Third Rock From the Sun”; Chesnutt, “Brother Jukebox”; Morgan, “A Picture of Me (Without You)”; Diffie, “Pickup Man”; Chesnutt, “Rollin’ With the Flow”; Morgan, “Letting Go … Slow”; Diffie, “If the Devil Danced (in Empty Pockets)”; Chesnutt, “I’ll Think of Something”; Jesse Keith Whitley, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”; Diffie, “Ships That Don’t Come In”; Chesnutt, “Bubba Shot the Jukebox”; Morgan, “Except for Monday”; Diffie, “Prop Me Up Me Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)”; Chesnutt, “Too Cold at Home”; Morgan, “Something in Red”; Diffie, “John Deere Green”; Chesnutt, Diffie and Morgan, “Near You”; Chesnutt, Diffie and Morgan, “I Saw the Light”