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Review: Billy Currington kicks off the Florida Strawberry Festival



This seems like a good day to ponder the future of country music.

On one side of Tampa on Thursday night, country's newest pop princess, Taylor Swift, was dazzling a sold-out crowd with her shiny dress and shinier hooks on her first U.S. tour stop of the spring. (Click here for a review and photos.)

On the other side of town, in Plant City, scruffy Georgia singer Billy Currington was headlining the first night of the Florida Strawberry Festival, which also happened to be his first concert of 2010.

Playing the Strawberry Festival is something of a rite of passage in the country music world; you'd be hard-pressed to find a country superstar who hasn't done it. Swift herself played the Strawberry Festival only a year ago.

You would think that all the shrieking teenage girls in Tampa Bay would be at Taylor on Thursday night, leaving all the "real" country fans free to brave 50-degree weather to eat strawberry shortcake and watch Currington, one of country music's up-and-coming young bucks. (Although he had his share of shrieking teenage girls in the crowd, too.)

But the truth is, while fans in the crowd responded the most to Currington's "country" hits, like People Are Crazy and Good Directions, his show, like Swift's, had the feel of a roots-rock concert, complete with jammy covers of songs by Tracy Chapman and Stevie Wonder.

So who's a better representative of Nashville circa 2010, Taylor Swift or Billy Currington?

Currington had one country bona fide going for him that Swift probably didn't -- at the beginning of the show, the emcee reminded audience members to remove their cowboy hats so people behind them could see. Then the singer was introduced by this year's Strawberry Queen and her court.

If you've never been to a concert at the Strawberry Festival, you're immediately struck by how massive the stage is -- it's a monolithic block that practically dwarfs the performer. There are also a few big video screens for people in back. So if you're wondering whether to pay for close seats or sit in the back for free, you're probably not missing out on much if you opt for the free seats.

Two of Currington's first three songs were total country-crowd pleasers -- the car-soupin' That's How Country Boys Roll, which name-drops "mama and Jesus and Jones"; and the corn-whiskey-sippin' I Wanna Be A Hillbilly ("Subdivisions are silly / I wanna be a hillbilly"). When he played Must Be Doin' Somethin' Right, he invited the crowd to run up to the stage, which they did in a heartbeat.

But after that, Currington's country side got a little quieter, and his inner rocker piped up. The slick, soulful jam Everything could be a John Mayer B-side. On a solo acoustic cover of the Bellamy Brothers' You Ain't Just Whistlin' Dixie, he sounded just a touch like Jason Mraz. On rockers like Don't and the rootsy, outdoorsy Swimmin' In Sunshine, he channeled Crowded House's Neil Finn, Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody or Kings of Leon's Caleb Followill.

In fact, if you'd told me that Currington was a rock singer who decided to turn country, like Darius Rucker, I'd believe it. He doesn't have the best voice, but it's a good voice for rock -- not too polished, not too twangy. Maybe he should pull a Reverse Rucker and record a rock album.

Currington pulled out a few pop-rock covers in the encore -- Tracy Chapman's Give Me One Reason and an extended jam on Stevie Wonder's Superstition. He also played some country favorites -- People Are Crazy and Good Directions and the unreleased but excellent Modern Day Country Boy -- but it was his laid-back, rootsy stuff that dominated the second half of the show. Like Jamey Johnson and the Zac Brown Band, he seems to be pulling country music into an earthier, sunnier direction, one that could win over more than a few mainstream pop and rock fans. 

Which brings us back to Swift.

Sure, she's immensely popular now, and she plays a guitar, and she even writes her own songs. (Currington doesn't, for the most part.) But she's also the poppiest country crossover artist since Shania Twain. Has she already reached her full potential? Where do you go after playing arenas? More arenas? How soon until she goes completely Hollywood? Is she already there?

Currington, singing at the Strawberry Festival, still has the potential to grow. If Nashville is banking on a new crop of easygoing dudes to own the 2010s, he'll be one of the guys at the forefront.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:17pm]


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