It was only fitting that several Merle Haggard recordings were played on the sound system before Randy Travis's performance Saturday night at the Nissan Pavilion. After all, when he's at his best, Travis reminds listeners of the roots of country music in a soulful, understated and Haggardly way.
Thin as a reed and sporting a stubbly beard he grew for a role in a western that's being filmed in Alberta, Travis seemed happy to be back in his own element. Even by his own lean standards, the staging was as simple as could be, a no-frills backdrop for the plain-spoken ballads, cowboy songs, honky-tonk laments and Western swing tunes that filled the air.
Except for a few jokes inserted between songs, the hits came one after another, delighting an appreciative, if hardly packed, house. Some of the tunes were colored by fiddle and guitar solos, others were stripped down to the acoustic basics, and nearly all of them, even a few purely sentimental ballads, were distinguished by the sound of Travis's deeply resonant voice.
As often as he's performed "On the Other Hand" and other familiar ballads, Travis still delivers them as if each word counts, which is why many of the old songs generated the same level of emotion evident in his performances of such recent hits as "Out of My Bones" and "Stranger in My Mirror."
Part of WMZQ's day-long SummerFest, the concert followed evening performances by Deana Carter and the Kinleys. Carter's winning combination of innocence and attitude was apparent throughout her set, and never more so than when she paired her two biggest hits--"Strawberry Wine" and "Did I Shave My Legs for This?"--at the close of the show. She also took a little time out to sing Travis's praises, giving him credit for turning her into a teenage fan of country music on the strength of his voice alone.
As for the Kinleys, the blond siblings were nothing if not energetic. But the absence of strong new material became increasingly evident as the sisters moved beyond a reprise of their hit, "Just Between You and Me," and bounced their way through a lively but forgettable performance. Punctuating the show were a few cover tunes that only hinted at the appeal of the original versions recorded by the Everly Brothers and others.