Country-to-the-bone newcomer Ashton Shepherd kicked things off with two acoustic songs. Shepherd, performing her semi-hit, "Takin' Off this Pain," is already making waves in the music scene with her authentic classic country voice and songwriting chops. Dressed in a simple white shirt and jeans for her first LP Field performance, Shepherd, 21, brought to mind images of Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn more than many of today's pop-leaning country females and had the emotion-drenched vocals to match.
ACM New Male Vocalist Jack Ingram ran through hits like "Love You" and "Wherever You Are." With his confident swagger southern rock vocals and ace backup players, Ingram was trying hard to play the part of the star, but this crowd never seemed to completely warm up to him.
Rising stars Lady Antebellum looked admittedly nervous at first during their performance, but quickly found their footing, showing off a hard-earned camaraderie during their set. Charles Kelly definitely is the voice of the group, with Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott doing excellent harmony vocals. Scott took the lead during a few songs, but her voice seems too thin for a lead vocal, especially compared to Kelly's. "Good Time" and "All We'd Ever Need" got favorable responses, but it was their top five kiss-off song, "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" that got the crowd on their feet.
It is clearly songs about love gone wrong that got to this crowd, and Miranda Lambert had no shortage of them. In tousled hair, a dark vest, and jeans, Lambert strutted across the stage in a defiant fashion, brandishing her guitar more like a rock star than a country singer. The reflective and smart "Famous in a Small Town" was a welcome opener, but it was her bad girl revenge anthems, "Gun Powder and Lead" and "Kerosene," that got people pounding their fists in the air.
"It Girl" of the moment Carrie Underwood looked every inch the young starlet in an orange tank and white shorts, starting off with powerful vocals (and an excellent fiddle player) on "Wasted" and "So Small." Underwood soared through each song with nearly perfect pitch, although she could have done more variation with her songs to keep things interesting. Curiously, the crowd did not have the overwhelming response to her mega-hit "Jesus Take the Wheel" that was the norm when the song first came out. During current it "Last Name," she finally moved away from the mike stand a bit, stutting across the stage in the vein of Taylor Swift or Kellie Pickler. "Before He Cheats" seemed to drag a bit, but still got a great response. Although Underwood has a truly amazing voice, her live performance skills and spontaneity could use some work.
Josh Turner, with his basement-deep voice, held down the traditional side of country for the evening. Looking dapper in a vest and plaid shirt, Turner took every opportunity to say how happy he was to be at there. It is hard not to compare Turner's relaxed demeanor and easy interaction with the crowd, along with his classic bass voice, to that of his hero, Randy Travis. Turner launched into his signature song, "Long Black Train" as the crowd held up their beer cans and sang of redemption. Fans sang along enthusiastically with "Would You Go With Me," "Firecracker" and "Your Man," with the female fans hanging onto and screaming at every nuance. Judging by the crowd's reaction, this guy is here to stay.
As production crews set up between concert sets, several artists made guest appearances, including performances by Julianne Hough (a good singer, but her over exaggerated, "reach-every-person-in-the-crowd" facial expressions were comical), Jake "Yee Haw" Owens and a non-singing appearance by Billy Ray Cyrus.
Fans were treated to down-home diva Faith Hill's only live performance for the summer. Dressed simply in jeans and a white shirt, "Mississippi Girl" Hill seemed enthusiastic and in good voice for the evening, belting out a mix of her older, more countrified hits ("Wild One," and her cover of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart") and her pop hits ("Breathe" and "This Kiss"). Although Hill's vocals don't quite compare to, say, Underwood's pipes of steel, Hill has a natural presence that at times mimics Celine Dion or Tina Turner, and is at once endearing to fans and captivating.
Surprise show closer (and father-to-be) Keith Urban seemed relaxed and happy as he ran through his 40-minute set, offering his hits, "Days Go By," "Better Life," and an acoustic version of "Making Memories of Us." Urban told the audience that he appreciated fans braving the high gas prices to drive there for the concert. "We're going to give you a show worth $7 a gallon, so you'll be making $3," he said. Later in the set, Urban jumped offstage into the crowd, singing and shaking hands before signing and giving away his guitar to one lucky fan. The star-packed show ended with the usual midnight fireworks display as Urban gave an extended performance of "Somebody Like You."