WORCESTER — Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker, and Thompson Square are among country music’s brightest stars at the moment — hauling in awards, shoveling singles to country radio, selling out arenas, and moving units wherever musical units get moved these days.
They also pose a serious threat to country music. During a concert by all three Saturday at the DCU Center it was easy to hear how watered down the country influence has become in the lucrative pop-country crossover sound. Aside from occasional decorative use of mandolins, banjos, and steel guitars, these acts drifted away from country’s richest traditions of simple truths and gritty stories.
Country music was never ashamed to be hokey, but it certainly never aimed for the level of schmaltz served up Saturday.
Lady Antebellum is a finely calibrated and lubricated show band at best. Its principles — Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood — can put together catchy songs and sufficiently dress them to get on country radio. From there, as seen with “Need You Now,” the songs easily blossom into broad-based pop hits.
As with “We Owned the Night,” “Stars Tonight,” and “Perfect Day,” Lady Antebellum typically embraced commercial pop’s eternal optimism more firmly than it did country’s blue heart. And when paying homage, Lady Antebellum turned to classic rock, covering “Honky Tonk Women,” “Midnight Rider” (with Thompson Square), and “Black Water” (with Rucker); in each case, the songs were gutted and served as arm-waving singalongs.
Before Lady Antebellum let Rucker depart his guest appearance, Kelley engaged him in a version of Rucker’s old Hootie and the Blowfish hit “Let Her Cry” and afterward gushed about Rucker’s influence upon him. The moment brought sharp clarity to the Lady Antebellum point-of-view; simply put, find a back door into the pop charts.
Rucker, with Hootie, first found his way into hitsville via fluffy college rock. He reinvented himself as a country artist, and is enjoying another successful commercial turn. His show Saturday was nearly identical to the ones he performed the past two summers in area appearances, and it is getting a little stiff. Like Lady A, when Rucker wanted a rise from the audience he didn’t turn to the ranch, and instead used Steve Miller and Prince hits.
Thompson Square (who quoted Kiss and Led Zeppelin) is the likable husband-and-wife vocal team poised to be among country’s next wave of hitmakers. Just don’t look for too much pure country in the mix.Scott McLennan can be reached at smclennan1010 @gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the song, “Stars Tonight.”