Generations of troubadours have penned countless ditties about trucking through those amber waves of grain, but none can match the easy optimism of “On the Road Again.”
When Willie Nelson sang it for what must have been the umpteen-thousandth time at the Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf on Saturday night, it sounded as fresh and hopeful as the day it was recorded. At 78, Nelson has a voice that refuses to forfeit its sweetness. And he’s still flying high on the fumes of wanderlust. (At least I think that’s what we were smelling.)
Can a bedraggled concert industry get by on those same fumes? The country music icon is out all summer on “Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown,” a smartly packaged mini-festival that includes a gang of 21st century Nashville bruisers following in the headliner’s outlaw footsteps: the inimitable Jamey Johnson, loudmouth Randy Houser, louder-mouth Brantley Gilbert, Nelson’s son Lukas and others.
As the recession continues to vaporize ticket sales, big package tours like “Throwdown” are becoming commonplace. Country artists are now searching for safety in numbers, hoping to draw fans by squeezing big names onto single bills.
But where many country tours visiting the Washington area this summer feel bloated and mishmashy, Saturday’s “Throwdown” was coherent, purposeful and came with an invigorating whiff of danger — as if a big, bad biker gang had descended upon a teeny-tiny baseball stadium.
After a muggy afternoon of tough-talking openers, Nelson’s tunes felt like twilight lullabies. His 60-minute set included brisk and beautiful reads of “Whiskey River,” “Always on My Mind” and “Me and Paul” — a travelogue starring Paul English, who’s been drumming for Nelson since 1955. The latter was particularly charming, with Nelson singing his eternal surprise “to find my mind’s still fairly sound.”
And sharp. His guitar playing was nimble and inventive, and his singing was lithe and eloquent. During “Beer for My Horses,” a song Nelson released with Toby Keith in 2003, he even flirted with the speak-sing vocal style of Lou Reed.
He may have been channeling the Velvet Underground inadvertently, but Randy Houser actually played some Skynrd, man. With dueling guitar solos and plenty of blowhard gusto, his cover of Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Simple Man” stirred up the audience to the point where fists started flying in the infield. “You play a Lynyrd Skynyrd song and a fight breaks out,” Houser lamented.
Houser’s own entry to the freedom rock canon, however, sounded much better. You might have to squint your eardrums to hear the Led Zeppelin coursing through his signature hit “Whistlin’ Dixie” when you hear it on the radio, but onstage those serrated chords cleaved through the summer air with absolute authority.
Houser tried to rile the crowd between the song’s brash couplets — “C’mon Maryland!” — but the sheer volume of his band was already doing the trick.
Johnson’s set was far more subdued, but its gravity was undeniable. His superlative 2010 album “The Guitar Song” has asserted the 35-year-old Alabama native as country music’s biggest new voice and staunchest new traditionalist — something he proved during every minute of his hour onstage.
Beneath a heap of hair and beard, Johnson genuflected before the gods: Waylon Jennings (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”), Merle Haggard (“You Take Me for Granted”) and Patsy Cline (“I Love You So Much [It Hurts Me]”).
But the most devastating song of his set — and the entire concert — felt distinctly of its time.
“You can bring me down, but you can’t make me beg,” Johnson bellowed during “Can’t Cash My Checks,” a recession anthem about maintaining your dignity in a death spiral of debt. “You can take my word, but you can’t cash my checks.”
Which brings us back to dough.
Tickets for the “Throwdown” tour’s Waldorf stop cost a relatively affordable $40, yet the concert drew only 3,500 bodies to a venue that could hold 5,000.
The subtext from probably the best country show we’ll see this summer remains bittersweet: The money might not be flowing as it used to, but for now the music still is.