Yes, the iHeartCountry Festival offers a smorgasbord of radio-friendly singers that listeners to their nationwide network of mainstream country stations get to hear as part of one five-hour marathon concert. And yeah, an Erwin Center full of die-hard fans danced and sang along to their songs gleefully, from early Saturday evening till the edge of midnight.
But then there was 11-year-old Mason Ramsey, a last-minute addition to the bill who took the stage with a sole accompanist, an acoustic guitar and a cowboy hat almost as big as he is. Ramsey played just one song, but “Famous” — the single that’s exploded on the country charts in recent weeks — pretty much made the whole night, judging from the crowd’s joyful response to his vocal flights and playful gestures.
Ramsey’s cameo brought a smile to everyone’s faces, even if they’d come to hear the major names and rising stars. One by one the hitmakers paraded across the stage playing four or five songs each, starting just past 7 p.m. with Dustin Lynch and continuing in rapid succession with Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Dan + Shay, Sugar Land, Cole Swindell, Maren Morris, Luke Combs, Billy Currington, Luke Bryan, and finally Keith Urban.
Most of them played four songs and no one played more than six as a rotating stage allowed for quick set-changes from one act to the next. Even with that prompt pacing, the show still ran till 11:55 p.m., unavoidably: If you count Ramsey and the night’s other single-song surprise performer, 2011 “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery, the lineup included more than a dozen acts.
McCreery’s “Five More Minutes,” which earlier this year became his first chart-topping country hit, was another high point of Saturday’s show. In many respects, it’s those unexpected moments that make the iHeartCountry Fest special. The crowd cheered enthusiastically when Arlington native Morris (who’d played a well-received set of her own earlier) joined headliner Urban for a duet at the end of the night. They loved it when Luke Bryan snuck out quickly before his own set began to sing with Billy Currington at the end of his last song. And the crowd was thrilled when Houston’s Danielle Bradbery, the 2013 winner of “The Voice,” walked onstage midsong as the duo Dan + Shay were performing and pushed their hit “How Not To” up to another level.
Bradbery, who’d played the Daytime Village stage earlier in the Erwin Center’s north box office plaza, might well have deserved her own full slot at night, judging from the crowd’s positive reaction to her cameo. It also could have helped further address the reputation of the fest, and of iHeartCountry in general, as being too much of a boys’ club. Morris and Sugar Land, the duo featuring Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, kept this year’s lineup from being all men. But it was clear that the network is starting to understand the need to address the perception, given the mid-show airing of a short video addressing the question: “How important is the next generation of female artists to the genre?”
Of the guys, then, who fared best? Urban was a solid closer, even as his music is probably the most rock/pop and least country of the bunch. Bryan’s set was probably the most anticipated by those in attendance, judging from the crowd reaction, but his music has always been unoriginal, overly reliant on worn-out beer-and-truck cliches. Pardi made a strong connection early on, in part because he followed too-slick openers Lynch and Young with honky-tonk-based songs that placed fiddle and pedal steel prominently in the mix.
And burly, big-voiced Luke Combs — who’d also played the Daytime Village stage earlier — left a strong impression with straightforward songs that succeeded because of his outgoing personality. His only drawback was that he had to play right after young Ramsey’s performance had lit up the arena. Really, who wants to follow THAT kid?