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From the Country Standard Time Archives

Traditionalist Chesnutt shows his stuff after stellar performance by Clark

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Astrodome, Houston, March 1, 1997

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Country music's stylistic leaning and popularity tend to go in cycles.

Country becomes really popular, and then record labels and radio stations try to further increase that popularity by catering to the new, broader audience, which, presumably, wants a less traditional, more pop-rock bent.

Inevitably, what is called country gets so far away from what drew the broader audience in the first place that its popularity declines and much of the audience leaves for another format.

Then the country industry responds by going back to its roots. Eventually, people who are disenchanted with the commercialism and lack of real emotion in other musical formats latch on to country, and the cycle starts all over again.

Right now we're in the decline stage. Country fans seem to be tiring of the crassly commercial music and glitzy stage shows of many of country's top stars, and record labels are beginning to respond by cutting many artists from their rosters and signing distinctly traditional bands like BR5-49.

When the smoke clears, only a few of today's stars will remain, but the smart money says that the singers who performed at the Rodeo tonight will be two of the few.

Take Terri Clark, for example. Some might look at her cowboy hat and dismiss her as a traditionalist wannabe, but her music demonstrates that she's nothing but straight-ahead country.

On hard-core country ballads like "If I Were You" and "Just the Same" Clark's voice gets a chance to stretch out and shine. Her powerful, deep voice and great vocal control and these songs' beautiful fiddle-and-steel arrangements made them highlights of her show.

She's got the energetic, uptempo songs that get the crowd excited, too. Hits like "When Boy Meets Girl" and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" feature a big, electrified sound, but Clark's voice keeps them country.

Then there was "Twang Thang," a cheesy piece of country schlock with lyrics like, "It's gotta have a twang thang / It's gotta bend a heart strang." It's not worth Clark's talent, but her earnest delivery kept the song from being a total washout.

In addition to her ability as a singer and great traditional style, Clark also demonstrated an innocent, almost bewildered demeanor that endeared her to the audience.

"This is the biggest audience I've ever played for - definitely! I'm just a little bit nervous. I'm not afraid to tell you," she said with a slight quaver in her voice.

Then later, "I cannot believe I'm singing in front of this many people. I wish my mom was here to see this!"

The end result of her great performance and genuine personality was perhaps the best response to an opening act of this year's Rodeo. The crowd gave her a raucous standing ovation after her show, and she loved every second of it, waving and posing as she was driven around the Astrodome floor for her victory lap.

Few artists could follow that performance, especially in Houston, where the crowd knows real country music.

Mark Chesnutt is one of those few.

From the beginning of his career, Chesnutt has never been afraid to record traditional country music - in fact, it's what he does best. One of his earliest hits, "Too Cold at Home," featuring a gorgeous steel guitar, is still one of his greatest songs. A new ballad called "Let It Rain" looks poised to follow in that song's footsteps by becoming another huge hit.

Perhaps his best song, however, is his version of a Hank Williams Jr. record called "I'll Think of Something." Its heartbreaking lyrics of a man who would do anything to get over his lost love and Chesnutt's emotion-packed delivery made it one of the highlights of tonight's show.

Another great feature of Chesnutt's music is that he can go straight from a serious song of country heartbreak to loopy songs about a redneck who destroys a jukebox in a bar for playing a sad song that made him cry ("Bubba Shot the Jukebox") and a blue-collar worker who parties all weekend and dreads the beginning of the week ("It Sure Is Monday"). Chesnutt's sense of humor is a great added dimension to his music that too few artists have.

Chesnutt has also worked a Cajun flavor into some of his recent music, and this new part of his style suits him well. His most recent hit, "It's a Little Too Late," featured Cajun fiddle and accordion solos, and "Gonna Get a Life" was another big Cajun hit.

For several years, Chesnutt has been on the brink of superstardom, but he's never quite crossed that line. He headlined his own tour a couple of years back with generally miserable results - thousands of empty seats at most performances.

Even though he can't fill concert arenas on his own or sell at the multiplatinum level of far less talented but more commercial country stars like John Michael Montgomery and Tim McGraw, he still refuses to compromise his artistic integrity. And in Texas, at least, fans, like the 49,049 who came to see him at the Rodeo tonight, appreciate that.