No offense to the big stars on the big stage at the daylong Country Throwdown steam bath and show, but the big buzz at Ford Amphitheatre on Friday came from a small setup outside the shed. This is where the future of Nashville presented itself as loud, raw and reckless. Yeehaw, and pass the bail money.
Long before Montgomery Gentry and Little Big Town played for several thousand fans seeking shelter from the heat, Ryan Bingham and Eric Church thundered out cruelly short midafternoon sets for several hundred hell raisers — shirtless cowboys, Daisy Duked cowgirls in kicky boots— baking their youthful abs in the unrelenting 90-degree swelter.
"Outlaw" is overused in country music these days — mainly because it's applied to anyone who's not as purty as Tim and Faith — but rest assured Waylon and Johnny would have loved Bingham and Church, who were just two of 12 featured acts on the sprawling Country Throwdown lineup. (Keep an eye on the Eli Young Band and the Lost Trailers, as well.) This was the opening date of the tour, but there were already grumbles about who's earned his place on the main stage (Jamey Johnson) — and who hasn't (Jack Ingram).
As for Bingham and Church, they'll get there soon enough. An Oscar-winner for his work on Crazy Heart, the 29-year-old Bingham and his Dead Horses band draw inspiration from Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline: lyrically serpentine confessions, dark nights of the soul, crack musicianship. That analogy is also convenient because Bingham's beautifully broken voice is not unlike Dylan's — that is, if Bob spent a long night gnawing on flat head nails. Oh, yeah, the kid is bronchial. As a result, the New Mexico native is more alt-country than his peers, but no matter: Dude is good.
Bingham's songs don't come in cozy packages, but that doesn't mean they're not melodic. On the cocaine-and-trains tune Southside of Heaven, Bingham started on acoustic guitar and harmonica — "I've been a desperado in West Texas for so long, Lord, I need a (bleepin') change!" — but ended with a furious tempo change. That propulsive thump, plus the Pettyesque grind of Hard Times, was unlike anything else heard at the Throwdown.
(By the way, tour organizers really need to lengthen set times for the small stages. Bingham was ushered off before he could do The Weary Kind from Crazy Heart. There were more than a few dropped jaws from that omission. Even he seemed surprised by his set's brevity.)
A cross between Kid Rock and Zac Brown (and maybe a little David Allan Coe for R-rated measure), the beer-swilling, cigar-puffing Church has developed a cultish following through work ethic and party ethos. His nasally delivery and punchy songwriting kept crowd pleasers such as Pledge Allegiance to the Hag and Smoke a Little Smoke just short of novelty. He's also a full-contact entertainer: He called audibles on the set list, took requests and delivered each lyric, lascivious or not, as if it were gospel. If his worshipful throngs are to be trusted, Church is best enjoyed with a beer, a patriotic bikini and a defiant finger raised to the sky.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.