FLORENCE – Country music in all its shades and glory was on show at Country Thunder on Saturday, April 9, from the neo-trad twang of early afternoon opener Tyler Braden to the pop-country of Canadian newcomer Mackenzie Porter, Hip-hop from rapper/country singer-songwriter Blanco Brown and a rocking twist from Hardy.
Then there was Saturday’s headliner, Morgan Wallen, whose music includes a little bit of everything from driving rock and pop to hip-hop and warped country.
The line-up represented a complete picture of what country music is today – music that spans several worlds and is attracting increasingly diverse and, frankly, interesting artists.
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But it also showed one thing that all pop music has in common: if the music is good, it shouldn’t matter which box we put it in.
On Saturday, Blanco Brown, the only African American in Country Thunder’s 2022 lineup, got the late afternoon crowd swaying and fisting to a reggae-infused ballad “I Need Love,” whose pounding beats underscored the idea that everyone, regardless of its label, we could assign love needs to ourselves.
He then got the audience, which numbered about a third of the sold-out crowd of over 30,000, to dance “The Git Up” — a little two-step, then left, then right, shoulder rolls and slides. The sea of cowboy hats that stretched across the expanse of festival grounds looked like a giant wave as they slid and dived with Brown.
Braden, a former firefighter who ran the whole Luke Combs thing from his full beard to his soulful, sharp baritone, brought an old-school country vibe to the table. Porter, who played guitar and fiddle, added the pop-country energy and enthusiasm by running onstage sprints that spilled into the reserved area while singing covers of “Scrubs” and “Strawberry Wine,” which mixed into her handful of original songs, including her new single “Pickup” and her solo version of her duet “Thinking ‘Bout You” with Dustin Lynch.
1990s singer Tracy Lawrence, who opened the night cast, was the bridge. Neo-Traditional country songs with fiddle and acoustic guitar and his nasal, mid-high baritone twang. He pulled out his greatest hits, songs that take you to lost loves in Birmingham, dysfunctional, broken-up families and a front porch where it all makes sense, and sort of sets the table for Hardy and Wallen.
The Country Thunder crowd had started chanting his name – “Hardy!” “Hardy!” “Hardy!” – long before he leapt onto the stage to driving guitars and pounding drums on his latest single, rocker SOLD OUT (WALL TO WALL), which was on the verge of screamo. Hardy, who has written songs for Blake Shelton, Wallen, Nickelback and Brantley Gilbert, is the poster child of contemporary country music. On Saturday he sang his pop-country songs ‘Truck’, ‘Give Heaven Some Hell’ and ‘One Beer’ – he brought Porter on stage to fill Lauren Alaina’s part – along with honky-tonk rockers ‘Unapologetically Country As Hell” and “Rednecker” with a few crossovers to country-tinged hip-hop.
Wallen, whose career is recovering after being sidelined last year when he was caught on video saying the “N” word, was the perfect summary of everything that happened on Saturday’s Country Thunder stage see was. He took to the stage while he performed his hip-hop-country song “Broadway Girls” with rapper Lil Durk, then sat down behind a keyboard to accompany himself on the ballad “Sand In My Boots.” He then launched into a 90-minute show that traversed his definition of country – twangy with a little hip-hop style on “Somethin’ Country” and driving honky tonk on “Country A$$ S***.” But it was the breadth of his songs, from the small-town anthems “Still Goin’ Down,” “More Than My Hometown,” and “This Bar” to the love songs “865,” “Chasin’ You,” “Silverado For Sale.” ‘ That set him apart. Wallen’s unpretentious honesty in performing with a nasal twang that can’t hide his small-town Southern roots had the audience, who filled every patch of Saturday night’s festival grounds, singing along to every word.
Country Thunder 2022 concludes Sunday, April 10 in Florence with headlining Florida Georgia Line and a line-up that includes Sawyer Brown and Chase Rice. Music starts at 2:30 with Maggie Rose.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at email@example.com. On Twitter @Starburch