TAMPA — When it comes to Nashville stars, safe and easy trumps wild 'n' sleazy. Yes, country songs can get ornery, and country fans can get Gasparilla-y. But you don't have to party like a rock star to stay hot on Music Row. You just have to be honest, kind and maybe kick a tire now and then.
How else to explain the awesome endurance of King George Strait and Queen Reba McEntire, who together have amassed more than 90 No. 1 hits? They give great twang and flash killer smiles, but they're as edgy and exciting as a Big Mac and fries. Still, who doesn't love Big Macs and fries?
That's the true beauty of country. And at the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday, 15,365 fans — many of whom were still beaded from the pirate invasion earlier in the day — celebrated the steady pursuit of excellence.
My mama calls Reba a "neat lady," and she's right about that. The 55-year-old multimedia star (loved you in Tremors!) has an Oprah-like ability to rake in millions and still be relatable to the rest of us. Although her songs can get sad — For My Broken Heart was devastatingly good during a tight 90-minute set — she never plays the victim. Ol' Red fights back.
When opening act Lee Ann Womack joined the co-headliner for classic mistress lament Does He Love You, the duet pushed Reba and her nine-piece band to an explosive take-that finish. Although she's written more than a few cuts, Reba is also a tremendous interpreter of the pop canon. When Beyonce sings If I Were a Boy, it's chilly, almost plotting; the country gal turned the hit into a clever slow-build accusation with a gut-check finale.
The Oklahoma native always made sure to entertain, including bringing on nutty blond Melissa Peterman, co-star of her Reba sitcom, for some genuinely funny schtick. For the encore, a red-dress-struttin' Reba rode a taxi to the stage for an over-the-top take on Bobbie Gentry's Fancy.
That wasn't an easy act to follow, but something tells me Strait wasn't too worried. He's an easy-going neo-traditionalist, and has been for the span of 57 chart-toppers. Backed by his venerable Ace in the Hole Band, a pedal-steel-infused 12-piece that excels at modern honky-tonk, the behatted 58-year-old uncorked almost two hours of hits, rotating to all four corners of the in-the-round stage to please as many folks as possible.
With the exception of name-checking his band and saying thanks, Strait kept pretty much mum. Instead, he kept pumping out know-'em-by-hearters he's been stockpiling since 1981: Ocean Front Property, I Can Still Make Cheyenne, Check Yes or No. He's best when he drops that baritone to its richest, loamiest level, as he did on set highlight The Breath You Take.
If King George wasn't as purely entertaining as Reba, he was efficient, making sure everyone heard what they came to hear. Me? I was there for Blue Clear Sky, and he provided just fine. 'Cause that's what a pro does. He may not be the most thrilling cowpoke, but you wouldn't want him any other way.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.