In the 1980s, before they were declared hipster heroes by Rick Rubin and Jack White, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn were more or less ignored by non-country audiences as they served out the tail end of distinguished country careers, playing mid-sized halls and competing against youngsters such as George Strait and Reba McEntire. Now Strait and McEntire are in a similar position, competing against youngsters such as Dierks Bentley and Taylor Swift as they work the circuit and await their own coronation as living legends.
They deserve such a crown. Strait and McEntire may not have the outlaw cred of a Cash or Merle Haggard, but they have the sterling voices and deep roots of a Lynn or George Jones. You can see them now while their voices are still in great shape or you can wait another 10 years until Rubin or NPR discovers them and they are repackaged for non-country audiences after their voices have already started to decline. It's your choice.
They were in Baltimore last Friday for a marathon show that began at 7 p.m. with Lee Ann Womack and extended past 11 p.m. with Strait still mining his enormous catalog. The stage was a diamond in the middle of the First Mariner Arena's floor; the bands formed a circle in the middle, and the singers strolled from corner to corner, giving each side of the arena a close-up view alternating with a view of the singer's backside seen through the drummer's cymbals.
With a black cowboy hat, cinnamon cowboy boots, and a jaw seemingly chiseled out of marble, Strait kicked off his set with Jim Lauderdale's "Twang," a song that celebrates its own sound, one perfectly suited to Strait's miraculous tenor. He's as good at phrasing to the swing of a two-stepper like "Honk If You Honky Tonk" as he is at crooning creamily over steel guitar on a ballad like "Where Have I Been All My Life," the kind of clever pun that he frequently transforms into something more. No matter what the genre, singing doesn't get much better than this.
Reba (she dropped her last name when she launched her one-name TV show in 2001) is less committed to the country tradition than Strait; a good portion of her show was devoted to bombastic numbers that recalled Ann Wilson more than Lynn. But there was no disguising the Oklahoma twang in her alto, and when she got a rootsy number that fit that voice, she reminded everyone that she's not just one of the best-selling female vocalists in country history but also one of the best. When she sang Ronnie Dunn's ballad, "Keep on Loving You," or Kim Fox's crackling rockabilly romp, "Nothing To Lose," both from her new album, all the show-biz trappings fell away and she was an Okie ranch girl once again.
The evening's best set, though, came from opener Womack. Wearing a shiny purple dress and propped up on four-inch stiletto heels, she established her rural Texas background by swinging her way through Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose." But she reminded everyone of her own important contributions to that legacy by belting out "Last Call," the anguished lament of a mistress who is always her lover's last resort. Womack concluded her short set with a rocking, wailing version of Rodney Crowell's "Ashes By Now," the confession of a woman consumed by love and glad to be so.
It was an evening not just of great singers but also great pickers. Each of the three artists brought along a terrific band. Reba's was highlighted by Bruce Bouton, one of the world's great pedal steel guitarists, and Strait's by Gene Elders, one of the best hillbilly fiddlers who ever lived.