by S. Pulse
Austin was treated to a top shelf tasting of country music’s finest acts at the iHeart Country Festival at the Frank Erwin Center. The popular festival was back again after being fanless in 2020 due to Covid. Bobby Bones hosted the evening which included performances by some of the biggest names in country music: Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Little Big Town, Lee Brice, Carly Pearce, Jake Owen, Chase Rice, Cole Swindell, Maddie & Tae, and Parker McCollum. Bones also performed with his band The Raging Idiots and brought in TicToc sensation, and car wash employee, Josh Woods to perform his version of Neon Moon.
Another special guest was Walker Hayes who played his hit “Fancy Like” about going on a date to Applebee’s. However, the highlight of everyone’s evening was an unscheduled surprise appearance by George Strait that almost blew the lid right off the cylinder-shaped Frank Erwin Center.
Strait Stuns Fans with Surprise Performance
Fans of the annual iHeart Country festival were about half-way into the evening line-up, when the duo of Maddie and Tae took the stage. Joining them on stage was local star Parker McCollum. Maddie and Tae performed their song “Die from a Broken Heart” and were followed by McCollum’s pleading tune “To Be Loved by You”. This showcase of young talent then took an unexpected twist when each act performed covers of George Strait songs. Maddie and Tae put their harmony-filled bend on Strait’s “Run” while McCollum offered up a fresh take on Strait’s classic “Carrying Your Love With Me”. You could see folks in the crowd talking to their friends and speculating, “Could George Strait be here?” Then, stagehands appeared and removed the performer’s stools as if readying for another act. Festival goers looked at each other as if to say, “Is this really going to happen?” With microphone in hand, McCollum addressed the crowd.
“When I was a little kid growing up I was real blessed and my family loved country music, real country music. And there was nobody in our house that was held in a higher regard than this artist coming up next. I had my first number one single back in December and they said, “How do you feel about that?” and I said “Well, I’m only 60 behind this man. Sixty number ones behind this man coming up right now.” iHeart festival, will y’all please make some noise for my idol, the King of Country music, Mr. George Strait.”
The entire crowd stood with cell phones drawn. Strait appeared and walked to center stage. People in the crowd screamed with excitement and hugged one another. The roar from the crowd was deafening. George Strait had taken the stage with his guitar strapped on and was about to perform.
Strait told the story of his grandson receiving a badge from a security detail member in New Braunfels and the substantial importance associated with wearing that badge. He then performed his latest ode to first responders, “The Weight of the Badge” and judging by the audience’s reaction, this heartfelt tribute could very well be Strait’s 61st number one single.
The iHeart festival attendees knew they had witnessed the ultimate surprise musical guest and were still on their feet when Strait launched into “Amarillo By Morning”. His still clear and magical voice washed over the crowd like a reaffirming hug as attendees swayed along to the familiar song.
Strait thanked the crowd and said good night. Of course, the concert goers wanted more, but the general vibe was that everyone was satisfied having just witnessed the ultimate addition to any country music line-up, a moment to retell to friends and family. Long live the King!
Toby Keith Kicks off iHeart Country Concert with Crowd Favorites
Toby Keith was the first performer to take that stage. Sporting a cowboy hat, Keith bowled over the audience with a slew of his classics including “Beer for My Horses”, “Who’s Your Daddy”, and “I Love This Bar”. With a mic stand festooned with a cup holder, Keith paused to take a sip from his Red Solo Cup before delivering its namesake sing-a-long tune. He slowed the song down just long enough to showcase an extended hold on a pitch perfect trill, reminding concert goers that some serious pipes support Keith’s many legendary singles. A strong backer of the armed forces, Keith ended his time on stage by setting down his guitar, standing solo in a beam of light and delivering a profoundly moving rendition of “American Soldier”.
Cole Swindell Ignites Arena with “You Should Be Here”
Opening with his upbeat song “Single Saturday Night”, the crowd could tell that Cole Swindell clearly relished the opportunity to perform on the iHeart Country line-up. Swindell was delighted to hear that many voices in the arena already knew the words to his latest single, the romantic “Some Habits”. Without a doubt, the most memorable song of Swindell’s set came during his performance of “You Should Be Here” which he dedicated to everyone who was missing someone. The singer himself recently lost his mother and his message resonated with the crowd who lit up all levels of the arena like a cell phone flashlight star-filled sky.
Singer-Songwriter Chase Rice Delights with his Cover of “Cruise”
Chase Rice took the stage wearing a simple white t-shirt along with the essential hair-taming cap. While his wardrobe may seem commonplace, there is nothing ordinary about this compelling storyteller. Rice announced to the iHeart crowd that, “there is nothing more important than songs”. The singer-songwriter then performed his number one single “Eyes On You” as well as the popular “Drinking Beer. Talking God. Amen.” He also covered the song “Cruise”, a song that Rice helped write back in 2012 that turned into a megahit for the Florida Georgia Line. The iHeart crowd sang along and undeniably approved of Rice’s rendition.
Hitmakers Little Big Town Deliver Polished Performance
Little Big Town opened with “Boondocks”, a song of rural praise that trades off leading voicals by all four members (Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet, and Jimi Westbrook). Clad in bright pink dresses and armed with vocal strength, Fairchild and Schlapman took turns showcasing their singing prowess. The group’s song “Girl Crush” sent many female fans to their feet for a sing-a-long. The continued the set with big hits including “Pontoon”, “Better Man”, “Tornado” and “Little White Church”. Their set ending song “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” with its cheeky lyrics left iHeart festival goers smiling. We enjoyed the song’s shout-out to our favorite hometown spirit. “My friend named Tito, he’s my amigo. I’m gonna follow him around wherever he go.”
Jake Owen Can Follow Royalty
Taking the stage, Jake Owen exclaimed, “I never had to follow George Strait before, so this is going to be a hard one.” Knowing he was faced with the ultimate challenge, the charismatic Owen came to play. He showed off his revamped look- long hair, stylish clothes, and shoes (no more barefoot shows!). He dressed like a showman in all black with a jacket with seams piped in rhinestones. He strutted from stage end to stage end like a trained athlete engaging the crowd while flicking guitar picks. The audience responded to his energy and his voice’s deep basement tones. He performed “Best Thing Since Backwood Roads”, “Down to the Honky Tonk”, and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”, but it was the song “Made for You” that touched the souls of fans who responded with cell phone lights of approval. Owens closed with “Homemade” whose lyric “Windows down, singing every word of the George Strait mixtape that was homemade” was met with whoops and cheers; a perfect tip of the hat to the night’s main attraction.
Cowgirled Up in Her Sequin-Fringed Jacket, Carly Pearce Was Texas-Ready
Starting off her musical career at Dollywood, Carly Pearce had a surreal experience this summer when Dolly Parton herself surprised her with an invite to join the Grand Ol Opry. Meeting George Strait backstage at the iHeart Country concert was another magical milestone in her career. Known for her powerful break-up lyrics, Pearce started off her set with the warning song “Next Girl” followed by her duet she wrote with Ashleigh McBride “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”. She introduced “Every Little Thing” by saying, “I wrote this song because someone broke my heart, but it went to number one, so I’m laughing all the way to the bank”. To close out her set, Lee Brice joined Pearce for their duet version of her megahit, “I Hope You’re Happy Now” which she described as an “apology to somebody in my past”. Dang, Adele’s got nothing on this heartbreak queen and we are here for it!
Lee Brice is More than “More Beer”
Known as a masterful song-writer, Brice started off his set with his playful drinking song “More Beer”. But, we all know there is more to Brice than “More Beer” and he was about to flex. He started with a blues-driven guitar solo before launching into “Hard To Love”. Next he showcased his songwriting muscles performing “Soul”, “Memory I Don’t Mess With”, and “I Don’t Dance” before closing with crowd favorite “One of Those Girls”. And Brice is right. It’s hard not to peel off that Bud Light label.
Headliner Blake Shelton Closes Out Show With Crowd Favorite “Austin”
It was past 11 pm, when the “Sexiest Man Alive” took the stage, but concert goers were still wide-eyed and eager to see this hit maker perform. He opened with country favorite “Boys Round Here” and its infectious line “chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco spit.” Shelton continued with chart-topper “Honey Bee” before launching into step-by-step instructions for learning songs from his new album Body Language. One song that local concert goers were waiting to hear was “Austin” that Shelton claimed was “the oldest song I have”. His performance of “Austin” tugged on the communal heartstrings of the arena. The crowd waited all night for Blake Shelton and he truly delivered. A perfect way to close out the fest.