Sheryl Crow and Martina McBride at Freedom Over Texas, 7/4/2013

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Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride Freedom Over Texas, Eleanor Tinsley Park July 4, 2013

Watching Sheryl Crow and her six-piece band perform "Soak Up the Sun," her second-to-last song at Thursday's Freedom Over Texas festival, I felt a sudden and unexpected upwelling of patriotism. Of course there was no shortage of more conventional expressions of pride in this country's 237th birthday on hand at Eleanor Tinsley Park. All of them were moving: military flyovers, the national anthem, remembrances of those putting themselves in harm's way to defend our freedoms.

But for some reason, most of this other Fourth of July pomp and circumstance couldn't hold a candle to being pelted with red, white and blue beach balls while watching thousands of my neighbors (mainly women of all ages) put some mustard on the lyrics to Crow's 2002 silver-linings playbook. "It's not having what you want/ It's wanting what you've got." To me those lines feel like the best of America, so the whole scene set off some little sparkler of emotion.

But for a music critic, the interesting thread is Crow's ascending profile on country radio without much of an appreciable change in her existing style. Good for her. She played a handful of songs from her upcoming album, due in September, and has already had some traction on radio with "Easy," which has to be the only single jockeying on the Billboard country charts that calls Jack Johnson "the new Don Ho." Thursday, Crow put her band's pedal-steel player to good use on both classic '90s cuts like "Strong Enough" as well as the new "Give It to Me," a pleading waltz in the same neighborhood of her fellow FOT headliner Martina McBride.

Though her other new songs were closer in style to the Wallflowers ("Call Me When I'm Lonely") or Skynyrd ("Shotgun"), she's sounding more and more like an asset to country radio all the time. And the more stations that play her stuff rather than that dreadful "Cruise" remix, the better, really.

Of course Crow already had a huge pop hit about ten years ago with a country song, Kid Rock pairing "Picture." But instead of bringing back McBride back out Thursday for what would have proved to have been an awkward duet, she just folded it into "If It Makes You Happy." And besides, McBride had already been out to sing with Crow on "The First Cut Is the Deepest."

But this really isn't anything new. Crow has long been one of the rootsiest pop-rock stars in the field, and she's really starting to own it. Many of her best songs built around swaggering Rolling Stones-style riffs -- "My Favorite Mistake," "Steve McQueen," "If It Makes You Happy" -- and she's hardly afraid of a Dylan/Tom Petty-style raveup like another one from the new record she declined to name.

Crow has come a long way from singing backup vocals for Michael Jackson 25 years ago, but overall seems like she's gone about things the right way, and like she's got a ways yet to go.

So has McBride, in a different way. Blessed with a perfect voice, she must have always had to fight off the temptation to descend into pop mawkishness. She doesn't always, but overall her songs are countrier than they have to be, and her music is better for it.

Her uptempo songs like Thursday's opener "When God Fearing Women Get the Blues" (and its great opening line, "Lock up your husbands") retain a twang more pronounced than anything else on country radio these days, except for maybe Sheryl Crow now. Her love of vintage country is evident, but not just through covers "Rose Garden" or "King of the Road" -- which let her to show off what a band of Nashville pros she'd put together -- but her own songs like steel-soaked waltz "Broken Wing" are pretty old(er)-school themselves.

When McBride's honky-tonk side starts to ebb, her other gift starts steps to the fore, one that's made her a much bigger star than her taste for Lynn Anderson or Roger Miller covers: the way she makes fans feel like she really is one of them. Her set was studded with it Thursday, from seeing someone through a serious illness ("I'm Gonna Love You Through It"), the tribulations of parenthood ("Teenage Daughters"), or just the strength some people draw from their faith ("Wild Angels").

Same for her obvious closer Thursday, "Independence Day." McBride told me recently that she didn't necessarily associate the song with America's birthday because it's so personal, but I think I might disagree. I think it's patriotic because it's so personal -- it's about standing up for yourself, and where would this nation be without that?

Personal Bias: For someone who has never even set foot overseas, I sure am glad to be born in the U.S.A.

The Crowd: Thousands upon thousands of people, more diverse in both age and ethnicity as about any other big public event I've been to in Houston, which makes total sense. A surprisingly high number of teenagers, at least for me, anyway.

Overheard In the Crowd: "There's a pile of ants over here!"

Overheard 2: "Where's the main stage at?" -- said by a man who had just walked by it, heading the other direction

Random Notebook Dump: I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering if McBride is the basis (whole or in part) of Connie Britton's Rayna James on my favorite network-TV drama, ABC's Nashville.

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