Country music star Rodney Atkins performed both old and new songs at the WMZQ 2011 Winterfest at The Patriot Center. (Marlon Correa/TWP)
Rodney Atkins

How do you ensure a standing ovation before you start your concert? Rodney Atkins is no fool. A recording of the national anthem started blaring right before the country singer took the stage at WMZQ (98.7 FM) Winter Fest, sending every person at the George Mason University’s Patriot Center scrambling to their feet. And they stayed put as Atkins appeared and immediately segued into “It’s America,” with his image on two giant screens superimposed over an American flag.

General sweeping patriotism and hometown pride has long been the focus of Atkins’s muscular twang, and his set Saturday night was no exception. Atkins, the headliner of the music festival, got through less than a dozen songs as he took extra time to personalize the show for the Washington area crowd, which filled the floor seats and lower sections at the arena but was noticeably sparse in the upper levels.

Some gimmicks were more effective — Atkins invited a young boy onstage when he sang “Watching You,” a sentimental song about a dad determined to be a better role model. And many people showed off their vocal skills as Atkins tossed the microphone to various concertgoers during the chorus of “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows),” trusting that they would throw the mike back.

When noting that the temperature in the arena was rising, Atkins credited “all those D.C. and Fairfax farmers’ daughters.” A fitting intro to slow jam “Farmer’s Daughter,” but the shout-out didn’t exactly translate.

Strumming through “Take a Back Road” (recently named Billboard’s No. 3 country song of 2011), “Tell a Country Boy” and “These Are My People,” Atkins said that he doesn’t write many romantic tunes — with a few exceptions. “Here’s your love song,” he declared, before breaking into “Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy),” a father’s friendly reminder about his weapon collection to his daughter’s new flame.

Much more suited for the love songs was the duo Thompson Square earlier in the evening, as the married couple traded off being stationed at the microphone and working the crowd. Shawna Thompson gazed adoringly whenever her husband, Keifer, belted out a solo, and the likable pair lit up the stage when performing the sweetly shy love song “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not,” recently nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Meanwhile, Kellie Pickler, one of the few “American Idol” contestants with a prominent career, proved not much has changed since her stint on the reality show five years ago, as she made up for her lack of vocal power with an infectiously bubbly persona. “I’d be lying if I stood up here and said I wasn’t a bucket full of crazy,” she beamed as she talked about life as a newlywed and sang tributes to her musical heroes, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.

Missouri native David Nail included some new, up-tempo songs in his set, but his rich, soulful voice was put to use best on aching ballads “Red Light” and “Let It Rain.”

— Emily Yahr