"Where my rednecks at?" yelled Luke Bryan, rousing the crowd to sing his chart-topping hit for Billy Currington, "Good Directions." He found 'em. The inaugural Big State Festival was nothing if not a gloriously celebratory 'neck fest, mixing radio superstars, country legends, and classic rock to impressive effect. Austin's Mice & Rifles kicked off Saturday, stomping out dusty ballads from upcoming sophomore EP Beginners Luck as the crowd trickled into the Speedway infield. Ninety minutes later, Leon Russell served up a rolling blues-boogie with his white beard wisping in the breeze behind his keys. Bluegrass patriarch Charlie Louvin was rough-voiced on "Great Atomic Power" though aided by Bad Liver Danny Barnes, who electrified on banjo later with Robert Earl Keen. Los Lonely Boys finally unleashed the rock, guitar theatrics lighting the stage as smoke from the huge car fire in the parking lot billowed behind the stands, but Billy Joe Shaver turned in the best performance. Dancing and boxing across the stage, Shaver pitched folksy one-liners between the irreverent ("That's What She Said Last Night"), classic ("I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train"), and crushingly poignant (an a cappella "Star in My Heart" dedicated to his late son). Robert Earl Keen played to the hometown College Station crowd with "The Front Porch Song," while Dierks Bentley pulled the American Sign Language interpreter onstage to dance through "Come a Little Closer." Contemporary country music may have best been summed up in Chris Cagle's "Wal-Mart Parking Lot," but Miranda Lambert injected some fury with her powerful pipes on a hard honky-tonk version of Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll." Unfortunately, Lyle Lovett's closing set was completely blown out by Lynyrd Skynyrd, despite his 13-piece, tuxedoed orchestra. The cello-solo opening, "Cowboy Man," couldn't compete with "Gimme Three Steps." With only two original members and helmed by Johnny Van Zant, Skynyrd reveled in its legacy with projected vintage footage though still offered stellar versions of the expected classics.
Sunday dawned with sparser attendance but a cool breeze that matched Kelly Willis' equally quenching set, while Kevin Fowler fired up and flirted with the crowd, unloading "Beer, Bait, and Ammo" and a raucous cover of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." Charlie and Bruce Robison traded tunes as dark clouds rolled in, including "New Year's Day" and a second helping of "Wrapped," covered earlier by Bruce's wife, Willis. Following the weekend's final stock-car race, Willie Nelson ushered in a spitting rain with a catalog that topped the festival, an appropriate contrast to Trace Adkins' ridiculous "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" across the field. The Flatlanders excellent set met a disappointingly thin crowd and the Drive-by Truckers faired no better in delivering The Dirty South, most fans packing in for headliner Tim McGraw, who oddly opened with Steve Miller's "The Joker." Shirt undone to his navel in the rain, McGraw delivered hits that proved radio still matters somewhere, as fans sang along full-voiced despite the weather. Best surprise of the weekend: ATXers the Gougers, with Jamie Wilson's gentle twang matching Shane Walker's darker sneer. No doubt, Big State got-r-done right.
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