Country music is often linked with sad stories and has given the world some of the most iconic examples of any art form a woman standing by her deadbeat husband, a man who shot someone in Reno just to watch him die, a cowboy who's so lonesome he could cry.
But ever since Garth Brooks made a spectacle of the genre in the 1990s, selling a gazillion records by bringing pop to the Opry, country has become something different.
Friday night at Coca-Cola Field, the 13th annual Taste of Country made you want to celebrate with a six-pack, instead of drowning your sorrows in one.
The five acts that comprised the wildly popular festival had their work cut out for them. The conditions were miserable -- gray skies, relentless rain and a threat of thunderstorms that had the venue announcing evacuation plans, just in case. But the joint was still packed with poncho-laden fans who seemed to care less, determined to tough it out rather than miss headliner Eric Church.
The crowd was already a force for the opening set from Casey James. The nonthreatening blond locks and easygoing tenor that served James well on "American Idol" also translated here, as he delivered a set of pleasant party tunes that fit the modern country template just fine.
Next up was the equally green Dustin Lynch, who opened with a slab of bar band boogie that got our priorities straight -- who cares that you're getting soaked, "I got a beer in my hand." Lynch's hit, "Cowboys and Angels," is awfully trite, but his voice was pretty enough to make me not care. And the closing "She Cranks My Tractor" showed that this guy has graduated from the R. Kelly School of Ingeniously Stupid Innuendo.
The third act was the Eli Young Band, whose brand of country was a bit moodier than the rest of the bill. "When it rains/I don't pretend to be happy" went the chorus of its opening song, an alt-country beauty full of floating pedal steel. Then came the equally poignant "Always the Love Songs," which marveled at the specific kind of power romantic songs can have.
But the Denton, Texas ensemble just wasn't the best fit for this night. The tired, damp crowd was in no state to hear thoughtful, plaintive music, no matter how beautifully it was executed. And it didn't help that the one attempt at lifting our spirits -- a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" -- came off sloppy.
Joe Nichols, the penultimate performer of the night, didn't have these problems. But he did have some different ones to start -- some technical snafus made it impossible to hear his voice, and turned the rhythm guitar into an intermittent squawk machine.
Once they got everything ironed out about four songs in, it became clear that Nichols and his six-piece group were on a roll. Thank God we got to hear "She Only Smokes When She Drinks" in all its glory. A clever ballad with some spine-tingling chord progressions, the tune gives a Sherlock Holmesian analysis of a woman smoking a cigarette, one that only somebody who broke her heart could pull off.
Deadline restrictions prevented me from catching Church, unfortunately. If he performed like he did the last time I saw him, that long-suffering crowd's troubles were washed away with waves of hard rock shredding and smart-alecky outlaw country.