Sugarland's Country Jamboree

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Let's start with the highlight.

It arrived in the middle of Sugarland's Sunday evening concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion when the band performed the sad breakup song "Already Gone." Country music's chart-topping, fun-loving duo Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush delivered it with such conviction that some people in the audience (ahem) held back tears. The waltz-time ballad's intriguing lyrics ("His dark eyes dared me with danger") are set to humble strums on a mandolin.

And then came the lowlight: Just as the song's protagonist pulled away in her hand-me-down Mercury and Sugarland was about to burst into the final chorus, which is sung in a round, a young man slammed into your reviewer's shoulder on his way to vomit on the side of the cinnamon-roasted-almonds hut.

Welcome to Sunday in the Country, the annual day-long booze and country-music festival at Merriweather, sponsored, appropriately, by Jose Cuervo. By the time headliner Sugarland took the stage, some fans had been sitting on picnic blankets, drinking beer and sunning on the lawn for six hours.

Of the four opening artists, Rodney Atkins was the most prominent. The 39-year-old Tennessean appeals to country's more traditional fan base -- he uttered the words "tractor," "yee-haw" and "buckaroo" during his hour-long set -- though he didn't much look the part, with his maroon-colored baseball cap in place of a cowboy hat. Atkins ran through his roster of harmless hits, including the rallying "If You're Going Through Hell" and the overprotective father's anthem "Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)." He gave a promising preview of his upcoming third album with a joke song: "I gave up smoking, women, drinking last night/And it was the worst 15 minutes of my life."

After Atkins's set, Nettles took the stage in a fringed top and jeans tucked into tall red boots. She and Bush started with "Love," a dramatic and repetitive track (it ends with Nettles belting the phrase "I say, it's luuuuuuuuuuuuuve" eight times) from Sugarland's third album, "Love on the Inside." The now-platinum album came out in July and parked itself at the top of the Billboard country albums chart until Jessica Simpson booted it down to No. 2 last week.

From "Love," Sugarland jumped -- and with the live-wire performer Nettles, we're talking an actual jump -- into the women's empowerment hit "Settlin' " from 2006. The audience bestowed its loudest applause on the acoustic smash "Stay." Nettles, a Georgia native, can get a little twangy in her extended notes, and her "whys" in "Stay" are a good example. It won't faze country listeners but might grate on the ears of Sugarland's growing numbers of mainstream fans.

Sugarland is known for unexpected cover songs, such as the duo's polarizing performance of "Irreplaceable" with Beyoncé at the 2007 American Music Awards, and it delivered during the encore. Nettles and the bassist came out in big, cheap-looking wigs to sing the B-52's "Love Shack" with a nice 'n' shrill "tin roof, rusted" at the end.

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