Everything is better acoustic.
Although that statement is as susceptible to exception as any other generalization, it held mostly true at Tuesday night’s Golf and Guitars charity concert at Haggin Oaks Golf Course in Sacramento, California. Preceded by a full day of golfing with — or, for those on a tighter budget, watching people golf with — celebrities in the rain, the mostly-acoustic concert started at 6pm and ran until almost 11. In that time, no fewer than fifteen Nashville acts crossed the stage, performing sets of three or four songs apiece.
The appeal of an event like Golf and Guitars is that it gives fans the opportunity to sample a variety of artists they might not necessarily make a special effort to go see at individual full band shows, all performing mini-sets under one large tent pavillion over the course of several hours. For the artists, it’s a great place to win new fans. For fans, it’s a great place to hear what artists actually sound like stripped of beefy backing and choreographed light shows. Oh, and all the proceeds benefit youth-oriented charities. Good karma.
While the concert was held inside a big tent — moved under cover in the final hours due to the inclement weather — its definition of country pitched a slightly smaller one. Roughly half of the night’s bill was comprised of twenty years worth of smooth male crooners from the pop side of country.
Larry Stewart offered solo spins on Restless Heart chestnuts “That Rock Won’t Roll,” “The Bluest Eyes in Texas,” and “Why Does It Have to Be (Wrong or Right),” with the audience doing its best to fill in the lush harmony support to which he’s accustomed. John Berry jived through “Kiss Me in the Car” and reminded everyone of what a career song sounds like with “Your Love Amazes Me.” Love & Theft offered “Wrong Baby Wrong” (a Stephen Barker Liles cowrite) and “Runaway” before being joined by Bryan White for “Amen.” White kept things uptempo in his own set (“Sittin’ On Go” and “Love Is the Right Place”), ceding part of his time to guitarist Scotty Alexander’s “Better Listen to a Woman.” After opening with “Old School,” fan favorite Chuck Wicks got swooning Conway Twitty-esque reactions with “Hold That Thought” and a new one called “The Whole Damn Thing” (sadly, this wasn’t the Those Darlins song about binging on chicken). Jimmy Wayne, whose hair is every bit as majestically feathery in person, showed a surprising amount of soul on set highlight “Do You Believe Me Now,” a song so monstrously large that it doesn’t even sound country when performed solo acoustic. Fittingly, he ended with his cover of “Sara Smile.” Just how pop is the talented Mr. Wayne’s country? Ty Herndon, who fought a flu to deliver solid versions of ’90s hits like “Living in a Moment” and “What Mattered Most,” seemed a stone cold traditionalist by comparison.
The biggest rule of hanging with these guys is that you’ve got to have a killer soul face. To illustrate this point, I made a Pop Country Soul Face™ collage to show variations of proper form:
Former Trick Pony wild man Ira Dean and recent Warner Bros. signees The Dirt Drifters brought some rock energy to the proceedings. An unadvertised late addition to the lineup, Ira Dean was a welcome surprise, with a set heavy on his familiar cowrites. He began with “Feelin’ Like That” (Gary Allan) and “One in Every Crowd” (Montgomery Gentry), then proceeded to his upcoming single “Beer or Gasoline” (a previous album cut for Chris Young) before settling into a ballad called “Still Hungover You.” It was The Dirt Drifters, though, who brought the night’s most hard-charging set, eliciting more excitement with less name recognition (their first single came out in February and hasn’t even broken into the Top 40 yet) than anyone else. Culling the best of their upcoming debut album — “Always a Reason,” “Married Men and Motel Rooms,” and “Something Better” — they literally had people singing along and dancing in the aisles to unknown songs. Their gritty country-rock sound and penchant for rural storytelling puts them firmly in the Steve Earle/Chris Knight vein, with hopefully just enough polish to sit comfortably beside Swift and Chesney. I’d like to see these guys do well. I think they might be our best shot at hearing anything like Earle on country radio again.
It wasn’t until the final two acts that the show veered toward the neotraditional side of modern country music. Jason Michael Carroll ran through his biggest hits (minus downcast “Alyssa Lies”) while working the stage and front section of the audience, posing for pictures with a seemingly unending stream of eager female fans without missing a note. He also bravely sported a faded pink shirt. Clay Walker, no slouch in the spiffy shirt department himself, subscribed more to the Strait ‘stand and deliver’ school of performing, an approach that works perfectly fine when you have a collection of hits as familiar and as infectious as “If I Could Make a Living,” “What’s It to You,” “Then What?” and the more recent “She Won’t Be Lonely Long.” The final act to take the stage, Walker was also the first to wear a cowboy hat, an impressive distinction given that he was preceded by fourteen other country acts. This never would have happened in the ’90s.
Female performers were in relatively short supply, but the ones present were well worth hearing. Julie Roberts bookended the highlight of her set, a duet with guest guitarist Chris Roberts titled “Back to Me and You,” with nice takes on “No Way Out” and hit single “I’d Sure Hate to Break Down Here.” Deana Carter hit a bit of a lull with consecutive slow songs — including a lovely version of “You and Tequila,” the current Kenny Chesney/Grace Potter single she cowrote with Matraca Berg — before leading one of the great singalongs of the evening with a more familiar Berg collaboration, modern classic “Strawberry Wine.” Meghan Linsey, joined by Joshua Scott Jones as Steel Magnolia, proved an imposing vocal presence, bringing her Tina Turner-style pipes to bear on two singles and an album cut (“Without You”) that only just managed to deserve the talents of either her or her Big Kenny-sounding singing partner. Now that we know they can definitely duet, perhaps some more memorable material is in order.
Returning host Jack Ingram didn’t perform his own set, but did mix in a song here and there while introducing other acts. With a vow to continue hosting these shows as long as he’s asked, there’s no reason for the organizers to consider replacing him. Ingram’s amiable presence, and occasional quips at the expense of the artists he’s introducing, is the thread that ties everything together and keeps the momentum up even as the show winds well past its fourth hour. As hosts go, he’s a catch.
By the time all was said and done, tens of thousands of dollars had been raised for the Morton Golf Foundation and the Keaton Raphael Memorial for Neuroblastoma. Not that anyone involved really needed another reason to feel good: The music itself would have been quite enough.
You can find larger images of all the performers on the Country California Facebook page. Be sure to ‘Like’ us while you’re over there; you never know what cool stuff we might post.