Given our proximity to an abundance of casino venues, the popularity of state and county fairs, big summer festivals in every neck of the woods (and on lakes and in fields), and the recent influx of urban and suburban Western-themed bars, it's no surprise we've seen plenty of great country acts come through the area over the past twelve months. Here are my top picks of 2010. Feel free to fill in the blanks with anything I've neglected - I've an aversion to port-a-potties and drunk chicks in bikini tops so I'm not exactly the expert on WE Fest around here.
The merch table sold ladies nightshirts that read "He Stopped Loving Her Today," one size fits all. If that doesn't just say it all...
9. Brooks & Dunn at Xcel Energy Center
Okay, this one's selfish.
Don't hold me to this, but I reckon there's only one 73-year-old who could woo me straight into his hotel room, and that man played a surprisingly killer show at Grand Casino Mille Lacs Friday night. I mean, killer for a 73-year-old. A 73-year-old with well over 50 years of hard living under his belt.
But by golly, one smile from Glen Campbell and I knew immediately what five decades of fuss have been about. He's a great singer. A great guitar player. But what is it about Glen Campbell, aged 73, that at a casino on a Friday night made me swoon?
Well, Glen Campbell just don't give a shit.
When my friend Sarah Jean texted me yesterday to say that the coolest -- and, she added, she would not say it if it were not true -- classic country in town was happening Wednesday night at the Kitty Cat Klub, I cringed. You're so untrusting, Nik. She added that they are brothers called the Cactus Blossoms, and would be opening for Jack Klatt. That they harmonize some Roger Miller and Louvin Brothers in a way she described as simultaneously fresh and traditional, and that her heart said I would love it.
Rest your weary mind, Nik. Trust Sarah Jean's heart.
You know that feeling you get when you go to a cousin's wedding? "Wedding... okay. Open bar (or cheap bar if you're most of my kin)... cool, this'll be good. Drunk uncles? Yes. I like it. Wedding band? Awesome. These guys coulda really gone somewhere if they were only stupid enough to think they coulda gone somewhere instead of opting to make bank playing a wedding once a month. Gonna drink a lot, then spill all ensuing drinks on this here dance floor. Chicken dance? No. Dancing with the flower girl to 'Fishin' in the Dark?' Yes."
There's only one thing I love more than fried chicken, and that's Marty Stuart.
I missed this show.
In my mind, however, it was number 5 on the best country shows of the year. I've yet to find anyone to dissuade me of this belief.
Justin Townes Earle, who on Thursday night turned out one of the best performances I've seen in a real long time at the Turf Club or in any other damned club, is a man after mine own heart. Why? Is it because he's a country music singer, and I like country music singers? Uh uh. In his circa-1950s math teacher suit and glasses that look like they belong in the coffin with James Manning, my long-deceased grandfather, he looked more the part of only boy to play clarinet in 6th grade band than belt buckle-wearing Waylon lookalike. Is it because he's a bad boy? Oof, he was a drug addict by his early teens. Is it because he's well-known to be the son of Steve Earle? Naw.
"This one goes out to my favorite things: fried chicken... and the ladies."
Never since I first heard First Edition's rendition of "Tulsa Turnaround" -- If a man's gonna eat fried chicken he's-a gonna get grea-say -- have I swooned so hard.
I love fried chicken too, Justin, and I'm glad you appreciate it as well as you do the ladies.
Justin turned in an even better performance just a few months later at the Taste of Minnesota, perhaps the afternoon time slot and fresh air allowing for more clarity of mind than a dark club full of devil spit and god knows what else, even though that air was hot and our performer had an injured foot. Justin sadly had to cancel an appearance this fall at First Avenue due to some personal problems, but we'll be glad to have him back for his rescheduled date on Valentine's Day this spring. Justin, 2/14's all about love, and we love fried chicken. Take it where you will from there.
On a summer night that brought two of music's biggest female artists to stages in St. Paul - Carrie Underwood at the State Fair Grandstand, and Lady Gaga at the Xcel Energy Center - it was on a third stage in St. Paul that a third female artist renewed my appreciation for good music. Inspired an audience full of new and old fans, young and old alike. Blew my fucking mind. This woman did it without costume and smoke and lights and dancing gimmickry.
This woman is my mother's age. But really, how else could she be this good, if not through over fifty years of living?
And the best part about seeing Willie Nelson? He's never gonna sound like that recording of that song you've grown to know, whether it's his song or one someone else has made famous. And he'll definitely never sound the same as the last time you saw him, or the next. I don't know how he does it - the man's nearing 80, you'd think he'd finally be set in some sort of way - but it's as if from moment to moment something new still strikes him, and he goes with it. The result? The audience feels a real connection to him as a performer. You're never gonna accuse Willie Nelson of phoning it in. And it sure as hell means you ought never, ever miss one of his performances, each one as unique as the newest scratch dent or hole he's put in that old guitar.
1. Don Williams at Black Bear Casino, 11/5/10
Back in May, disillusioned with the musical offerings of the weekend and with spring fever in full effect, I urged readers to grab a Don Williams tape and a boombox and get the hell outta Dodge. Williams had long before retired from touring, and so a boombox on a beach was the only way one could take in a personal performance of "I Believe in You" from the Gentle Giant. Spoke too soon - later in the year, Williams, long suffering from back problems, announced he would once again tour and made a couple local stops in November at Mystic and Black Bear Casino.
I almost dropped the ball but managed to snag one of the few remaining seats waaaaaay in the back of the banquet hall-styled venue up at Black Bear as well as a charming li'l room at the Royal Pines Motel just down the road, lodging amidst a sea of blaze orange the day before the deer opener. If you're a fan, heed my words, and say this prayer: Lord, I hope on some day before he re-retires Don Williams will return to Minnesota, for that day will be good. Best show of the year, hands-down, no comparison. His voice is as rich, as deeply reserved as ever. Upon hearing his first note, I've never before and will probably never again hear a roomful of middle-aged women sigh, swoon and moan in such beautiful unison.