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Music City goes (Boston) Pop(s)

Symphony Hall, Boston, June 13, 2013

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Other recent concert reviews
On the face of it, the idea of top shelf country songwriters coming up from Nashville to play with the Boston Pops may seem incongruous. The idea of the venerable Boston institution and fixture on the July 4 scene, playing patriotic songs doesn't have all that much to do with country.

The idea isn't without precedent, of course. Reference point - the Nashville Sound and countrypolitan country music from the 1950s and 1960s.

For the most part, the songs offered by Brett James, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson - they were billed as the Music City Hitmakers - at the first of three shows with the Pops worked.

The emphasis was clearly on the performers and a backing band with the Pops being more effective in filling out the songs and especially in providing the string instrumentation. The backing band consisted of Nashville players including guitarist Troy Verges, who has penned many hits as well.

Many Nashville songwriters don't have any sort of track record of performing, but that was not the case with these three. Once upon a time, James actually was on a major label (Arista) in Nashville, releasing an album in 1995. In fact, James gave up on med school (he spent a few years there) to pursue country music. Sampson has released four albums in his native Canada and won the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, the Juno. Lindsey has sung backup vocals on a number of albums and does singer/songwriter shows in Nashville.

Often with the people who write the songs and still get the hits, it's easy to understand why they are better with the pen than the mic. That was not the case on this evening with James and Sampson both singing with a soulful style. The pair did a nice reading of James' When the Sun Goes Down, the Kenny Chesney hit with Uncle Kracker. Sampson just about made you forget about Kracker.

Lindsey acquitted herself quite well, doing a particularly fine take on American Honey, the song made famous by Lady Antebellum.

Yet, the hit version sticks in the listener's head as the definitive version because it was hard to not to think of Carrie Underwood, for example, when the three combined on Jesus Take the Wheel, a megahit for Underwood. They did a good job with the song, but they didn't outdo Underwood.

In reality, Lindsey could have performed an entire concert of songs she wrote for Underwood because she has recorded 21(!) of Lindsey's songs, including her current hit Two Black Cadillacs.

The night marked the nicely done debut of the song Freedom, which the songwriters composed about a U.S. soldier overseas, while his wife copes with life at home. Along with the opening song by James (It's America) of the country segment of the show, this brought home the program's theme - A Country Salute to Our Troops.

A few things could have gone better. Lindsey did not quite mesh with the band at one point on Blessed, a hit for Martina McBride.

A few times, the drums seemed to lack much punch, and the acoustics ought not be blamed because the venue is excellent for sound.

But by and large, the idea worked. Give credit to Nashville-based Charles Dixon, who was in the band, for pushing the idea and making the night come true. He was involved in presenting the idea to the Pops and after seeing James and Lindsey performer at a songwriter's night last summer with Underwood, he was sold.

When you think about it, the merging of Music City and the Pops made perfect sense. The patriotic theme runs through both. So has a merging of musical styles. Music City at the Boston Pops wasn't so strange after all.