By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SPARTA - The folks who brought the Country Stampede to Kentucky Speedway are onto something.
The big names from Saturday's edition of the three-day festival included Brad Paisley, Lonestar and Phil Vassar, any of whom would be - at their top-dollar best - big-club acts, not arena-fillers.
But collectively, and with smaller-profile artists such as Jeff Bates, Chad Brock and Daryle Singletary thrown in, the bill was a monster hit. Officials estimated Saturday's crowd at 40,000, doubling Friday's rain-soaked turnout.
Skies were clear Saturday, as 12 acts, split between a main stage and a side stage, gave the crowd about 10 hours of continuous and overlapping music.
With Paisley working the main stage and the Honky Tonk Tailgate Party (a grouping of Brock, Singletary, Wade Hayes and Rhett Akins) on the secondary one, the late portion of Saturday's program had a strong new-traditional country feel. But Jeff Bates, who preceded the Tailgate Party, shined as the surprise new-trad star of the show.
Bates' deep baritone voice was enough to make a listener stop and take notice, and he had the songs to match the singing.
Bates co-wrote every song on his RCA debut album Rainbow Man. He played several of them, including the stunning title track that Dayton native Harley Allen helped Bates flesh out about his unclearly defined family tree.
"My Inlaws Are Outlaws" was a slice of classic play-on-words honky tonk, and Bates did convincing versions of "Jailhouse Rock" and "Don't Be Cruel." But, with country radio being what it is, Bates' first hit is titled "The Love Song." The tune is as mawkish as its title, and Bates' performance of it was the crowd's favorite moment of his set.
Paisley's set was solid all the way through. His ballads were true country weepers, and his mid-to-fast-tempo songs shuffled and boogied to the ring of his lead-guitar work.
Paisley called upon Bates for a duet of Merle Haggard's "Big City," and later Paisley rolled out "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a tune older than even Hag himself.
The Honky Tonk Tailgate Party was a clever device for compiling one lengthy set from four middling performers, who each performed mini-sets within the larger one. It was not without its moments, such as Brock's Cajun-tinged hit "Evangeline" and Singletary's cover of Johnny Paycheck's "Old Violin."
Even Lonestar, a pop act disguised as a country band, seemed stricken with new-trad fever, as the group put on a spirited set that had its share of twang.
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