By MIKE DUNHAM
September 6, 2009
The Alaska State Fair has hosted lots of well-known performers -- some long after their glory days (Jefferson Starship) and a smaller number before they became stars (LeAnn Rimes). But to have someone at the top of the business right now play in Alaska, that's rare.
So when Rodney Atkins stepped onto the Borealis Theatre stage on Saturday night and lit into "It's America," which charted number one on the country charts in May, the crowd -- which filled most of the seats and bleachers and spread onto the hill beyond -- was charged for something special.
The midnight sun shined in a warm, calm, clear sky displaying the early fall colors of the Matanuska Valley and the first dustings of snow on the Chugach Mountains in all their glory. When Atkins sang the first-stanza's punch line, "What a picture-perfect postcard this would make of America," he pointed at the 6000 foot summit of Pioneer Peak, drawing a extra surge of cheers from the local folks.
Early on he called Alaska, "The most beautiful state I've ever seen in my life." And on Saturday in Palmer it would have been hard to disagree with him. "It's an honor to play for you."
With his trademark baseball cap and neighbor boy grin, accompanied by a little Elvis hip action, he pumped out his tunes about the extraordinary dignity of ordinary people and the virtues of "Simple Things" and being happy with what you've got. His six-piece backup band was solid and displayed remarkable talent, but they left plenty of space for the main man.
For his part, Atkins showed his respect for the fans by keeping chit-chat to a minimum, letting the songs speak for themselves.
The longest explanation he gave for anything was a response to an interviewer who asked why he never wrote any love songs.
They're all love songs, he countered.
When he sings of what he loves "About the South," "A Man on a Tractor (with a Dog in the Field)," the recreational "Best Things" that have "happened to men since women," how you can "Tell a Country Boy," recounts the cautionary speech of a father to his daughter's date in "Cleaning This Gun" or role-modeling for his son in "Watching You" -- "That's a love song," he stressed.
He also said his songs are "pretty much straight out of my life."
That life must include a few cloudy times judging by "Fifteen Minutes" and "Wasted Whiskey." (Although he clarified between verses, "Technically, the only wasted whiskey would be spilled whiskey.")
He added a couple of covers marking his journey from karaoke amateur to playing for tips to number one country star, Garth Brooks' "Much too Young" and Charlie Daniels' "Long Haired Country Boy." The show wrapped up with the crowd on its feet for his anthem "These Are My People."
The people weren't ready to let it rest with that, however. They
called him back for a willing encore, his first chart-topper from 2006, "If You're Going through Hell," for which most seemed to know the lyrics.
There were few "Friends With Tractors" in the crowd, which was notably younger than for many country acts, teens and 20-somethings far outnumbered us greyhairs who know the difference between a John Deere and an Allis-Chalmers. But young and old alike craved a little close-up time with him.
So he stayed long after the show, shaking hands, posing for pictures, autographing almost anything handed to him. They queued up by the hundreds. The whole concert didn't last 90 minutes, but as the full moon rose over the Chugach, Atkins stuck around at least that long, connecting one-on-one with as many of his people as possible.
It was, indeed, a love song.