Easton Corbin Reliant Stadium March 21, 2014
Perhaps in the future the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo can line up one shameless throwback entertainer per season, not some old veteran whose days of heavy airplay are long behind him or her, but a commercially viable younger artist who demonstrates that country music is not completely dominated by wannabe outlaws or well-meaning buffoons. They do still exist, and some of them are even quite talented.
Maybe it can even sign up an appropriate company like Wrangler or Justin Boots to be a presenting sponsor; since "Throwback Thursday" is such a thing these days, why not do it then? The rodeo might as well, because that's what it got Friday when Easton Corbin made his debut to a Friday-night crowd that was smaller than it should have been at 58,784 announced, but young and female enough that hopefully the 31-year-old Floridian has wedged open the door for many appearances to come.
The first sound that came from the revolving stage Friday was a fiddle, followed closely by the moan of a steel guitar. These days that combination is rare enough at the rodeo, but they were joined by the reverb-heavy Bakersfield twang of a vintage Telecaster, adding yet another dimension to the time warp. Corbin, doggedly strumming a full-sized acoustic guitar, smiled plenty while expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to play the rodeo; but if he was overwhelmed by the moment, he did a good job of playing it cool.
Oddly enough, he was one of the few band members not wearing a cowboy hat -- three of whom were from Texas -- on a night when doing so would have made perfect sense. Early on, Corbin did not seem like he had a crossover-minded bone in his body. The opening trio of uptempo shuffles -- "The Way Love Looks," "Lovin' You Is Fun," "All About Tonight" -- all could have easily come from the well-played jukeboxes at Houston's late Blanco's or Austin's venerable Broken Spoke, places where the dance floors have been (or were) polished to a high gloss by thousands upon thousands of boots across decades of heavy traffic.
I kept waiting for the moment when Corbin would zoom off onto the dirt the to slap hands and take a few selfies with the fans just across the railing, but it never came. (The audacity.) Meanwhile, the songs themselves swam in the kind of simple but sly country humor that wears as comfortably as an old shirt, in lines like "I like the way love looks, the way it looks on you" and this gem of a chorus from "Don't Ask Me About a Woman":
Don't ask me 'bout a woman That's some complicated stuff They ain't made to figure out They're just made to love
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Given Corbin's unapologetically retro sound and plain-spoken lyrics, he's had to fight off certain comparisons ever since his 2010 eponymous debut album kicked off his career with a bang, namely the No. 1 singles "Roll With It" and "A Little More Country Than That." Introducing the latter Friday, he told the crowd that while touring the country meeting the real gatekeepers, country-radio program directors, he kept hearing the same thing: "You kinda sound like someone we've heard before."
So he and the band had some fun with that at contemporary country's expense, teasing the crowd with a little bit of AC/DC's "Back In Black" and a couple of other '80s-rock warhorses (Van Halen, I think) before reaching the payoff: George Strait's "Check Yes Or No." It was all in good fun, but Corbin made his point. Even better, after the band had reached a comfortable cruising speed with "A Lot to Learn About Living," they did all of Alan Jackson's "Where I Come From" and eventually closed out with Brooks & Dunn's "Brand New Man." But it's not just his choice of covers, either. Friday, Corbin seemed both totally comfortable in his role of traditional country's heir apparent and up to the challenge of keeping that kind of music relevant.
To that end, something had to lift him out of playing dancehalls and county fairs and into a position where RodeoHouston would come calling, which was easy enough to grasp as well. Those were the handful of midtempo ballads that dotted the set, chief among them "I Can't Love You Back" and "Are You With Me." It would be easy enough to switch out steel guitar with strings (synthesized or otherwise) on those songs, but better still that no one did. As sung by a charismatic crooner like Corbin, these kinds of songs continue to get heavy radio play -- and probably always will -- because of the way they make female listeners swoon. Simple as that.
After all, it was "Amarillo By Morning" and "You Look So Good In Love" that made George Strait a huge star, not "Unwound" or "80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper." And even in 2014, Corbin's way with a good romantic tune seems to bode well for a future in which he may not quite command the share of the country-music market he deserves, but should still be plenty to ensure him a long and fruitful career.
Personal Bias: Well...
The Crowd: Swear to God, it must have been high-school night Friday. Easily half the crowd seemed like they could have walked up straight from the calf scramble earlier in the evening. A lot of them left early -- with no curfew on the table, maybe a lot of them were anxious to get to the carnival.
Overhead In the Crowd: "Venison!"
Random Notebook Dump: How did this guy slip through? Shouldn't he be in the Hideout?
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