93Q's "A Day In the Country"
Feat. Darius Rucker, Brett Eldredge, etc.
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
June 20, 2015
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..."
93Q's annual summer country-music festival "A Day in the Country" returned to the Woodlands Pavilion Saturday night, starring Brett Eldredge, A Thousand Horses and former Hootie and the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker, among others. But of all the songs sung by the line of acts who took the stage, it was those words from that old hymn — sung with only the help of a spotlight by Rucker — that stood out.
Now one of country music's top male stars, the Charleston, S.C. native had already launched into a couple of his newer, more upbeat hits — songs like "Lighter Up" and "This" — before taking on the hymn, with the crowd ready to party right alongside this country nice guy. But as Rucker prefaced his "Amazing Grace" with a few solemn words, speaking about the pain his hometown was feeling and his love for the city, the world, and that party, seemed to (briefly) stop on its axis. The sadness felt in his booming vocals continued to translate what Rucker meant with the song as he took us to church, bathed in the shadows from the spotlight's glow.
As a black country artist, Darius Rucker's mere presence in a genre that has historically been dominated not only by white artists, but by white male artists, has always felt important, but given the recent events in Charleston, and the brutality across the nation, it feels especially so now. Inadvertently or not, Rucker has made huge strides toward equality within country music. He is the first black artist to reach No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs charts since '83 — the last black country artist to do so was the inimitable Charley Pride — with the first single off of his debut album in 2008, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It." Rucker is the first black person to win the CMA's Best New Artist award, too. And if that's not enough, he's also only the second black person to win any award from the association.
For those statistical reasons alone, Rucker's mere presence in the genre feels, at times, like a minor miracle. But it's not only his race that makes him an unlikely hero up on that stage. It's also because with Hootie, he also recorded the protest song "Drowning," which spoke out against the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse and offended so many stars-and-bars fanatics. Rucker even received death threats for singing the song.
And when he sang that old church hymn in honor of the victims of the black church shootings in Charleston — the city that still flies that damn Confederate flag at the statehouse, even after last Wednesday night's massacre — in front of thousands of predominantly white country music fans, it was not only proof of how far we've come as a nation, but of the millions of miles we still have to go. Rucker should have never had to sing that sorrowful song for Charleston. But he did, and it was a brilliant, touching tribute.
But to be fair, most of the night — and presumably the day, as "A Day in the Country" began at about 2:30 pm with some of the side stages going — was pretty brilliant, albeit in a much more country-party type of way. Rucker has always dominated the stage, whether in Hootie or in his solo career, and luckily, his set list Saturday night still covered all of Hootie's big hits — "Let Her Cry" is just as good with a little country twang, by the way — and some hits from other artists too, including a cover of Blackstreet's "No Diggity." Throughout Rucker's hour-long set, the sound — backed by some amazing musicians, and even a sad old steel guitar — never wavered, and never grew tiresome.
And neither did the set by Brett Eldredge, the artist preceding him, albeit in a much different way. Eldredge's sound, while certainly still country music, is a far cry from Rucker's good-guy, bluesy version. Rather, Eldredge's songs about drinkin' and lovin' feel more like a grown-up version of country flirt Luke Bryan. the cousin who taught him how to down shots of Jameson at some Texas honky-tonk. Eldredge, who is young enough to have opened for Taylor Swift — let that sink in — is the epitome of "new" country; just listen to songs like "Don't Ya" for reference — but if anyone pulls off new country, it's this guy.
With his big ol' blue eyes, Eldredge sweat and flirts and sweats and flirts, making his way across the stage at a record pace while downing shots of whiskey from his piano player's hidden bar. No lie. That's an actual thing that exists, and Eldredge makes good use of it. Eldredge also makes good use of that stage — and unlike some of the newer country acts, this new addition can really sing. His voice excels on the more upbeat, more crossover-friendly tunes — the ones that make the new-country fans swoon — but he easily took on an old George Strait cover too, merely by trimming it down to his style.
Eldredge even helped out Rucker — whom he said he "looks up to," and dedicated a shot of Jameson to — at one point. Of course, a good 17 musicians — we counted — all helped Rucker out, but Eldredge was one of them. All of those artists — including an earlier act, A Thousand Horses — managed to crowd onstage for countrified version of "Hold My Hand," one of those good old Hootie hits. It was a bit like playing musical I Spy, but it was still awesome to see the continuum of country music pull together for that song.
All in all, Saturday at Cynthia Woods was a good day to be in the country. With a little bit of Rucker's sound, a little bit of Eldredge's flirting, and a whole lot of that good ol' country music, everything but the Houston weather felt quite all right. We'll take it.
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Personal Bias: As an unabashed Hootie fan from those early days, I was adamantly opposed to that Hootie-country-music thing happening. I take it back. Keep country music, Darius. You just keep it all if you'd like. Take whatever you want. You've earned it.
The Crowd: Well, it's Darius Rucker and country music, so everything and everyone but the spurs.
Overheard in the Crowd: Shouts of "Hootie! Hootie!" following the encore of "Wagon Wheel." I'd been hoping that chant would happen.
Random Notebook Dump: Did y'all know Iron Maiden has a beer? Yes, fuck yes they do, and they sell it at Cynthia Woods. I couldn't convince my date to try it, but someone really should. And then please report back. I'm not brave enough to take that on.