A petite blonde with a mammoth voice, Kellie Pickler has often cited Dolly Parton as an inspiration, and she did so again on the stage of the Susquehanna Bank Center Saturday night.
Invoking Parton's dirt-poor childhood in the Tennessee mountains - as well as, by implication, her own troubled family history - she drew a parallel between their hardscrabble origins and the authenticity of their music. "That's what I love about country music," she said. "It's real."
That the pronouncement was delivered by a singer who came to prominence on American Idol, and whose name, when it appears in the songwriting credits at all, is inevitably accompanied by a flotilla of hit doctors, speaks volumes about the state of country. As did the other performers at the daylong festival celebrating the 25th anniversary of country station WXTU (92.5).
Headliners Big & Rich embodied country's split personality before even singing a note. Clad in a black outfit and cowboy hat, John Rich was the image of the good ol' boy, albeit with a V-shaped electric guitar, and Kenny Alphin strutted around in a top hat and drainpipe leggings like a frontier vaudevillian.
While their lyrics take on familiar themes - women, drinking, patriotism, and the like - the duo are musical magpies, borrowing from hard rock, soul, and hip-hop (although it's debatable whether the tepid raps of Cowboy Troy merit the term). "Love Train" swipes its title from the O'Jays and its riff from the Kinks' "Picture Book," to which Rich tacked on the intro from the B-52s' "Love Shack" for good measure.
Country shows and grand pianos may make strange bedfellows, but Phil Vassar banished any threat of delicacy by girding his with patterned metal more reminiscent of pickup-truck beds than concert halls. He spent as much time on top of his instrument as in front of it, even using the lid to get off a few push-ups during his set.
Vassar's melodic ballads are less aggressively hybridized than Big & Rich's something-for-everyone spread. But he still managed to get off the requisite references to six-packs and blue-collar jobs while making music that was pure pop. Without pressing his case, he managed to redraw what few boundaries country music has left, staking his claim to a small patch of undeveloped territory.