Country music is as much a staple at the Minnesota State Fair as butter sculptures, Midway rides and Pronto Pups.
But just as there are Pronto Pups and corn dogs (discuss the difference among yourselves), there have been two types of country music this year as personified by Toby Keith and Tim McGraw.
Last Thursday, Keith waved flags for rednecks and patriotism and sang often about beer, whiskey and weed. On Wednesday, McGraw never played the redneck card, didn’t wrap himself in red, white and blue, and referenced get-happy substances with subtlety. While Keith relied on flamethrowers and fancy video screens showing endless plugs for Ford trucks, McGraw went no-frills at the fair — for the second consecutive year and the third time in five years.
Frankly, McGraw could have used more oomph earlier on Wednesday. Not the kind of heavy-handed machismo of the blustery Keith. After all, McGraw makes country for women, like the mother and daughter from Wisconsin next to me whose husbands had gone fishin’ out West.
He needed to sing with more conviction and force. For too long — the first 11 songs, to be exact — his band seemed to be carrying the songs.
The eight musicians were energetic and animated, especially the mohawk-sporting bassist and curly haired guitarist (there were six guitarists, including McGraw, on some numbers).
McGraw, 47, finally perked up on two songs from his album “Sundown Heaven Town,” which is due Sept. 16. Sitting on the lip of the stage, he delivered the ballad “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” with emotion, especially after a fan tossed him a T-shirt emblazoned with “I (heart) Faith Hill,” who is McGraw’s wife.
Suddenly, he had renewed intensity on the ensuing “Overrated,” a riff rocker with a bouncy, almost reggae lilt. Thereafter, the superstar in the slim-fit dress shirt and tighter-than-Dwight-Yoakam’s jeans became animated, going into a deep crouch and then exploding like a rocket ship. OK, he showed no actual vertical leap on “Two Lanes of Freedom,” a dramatic faux U2 rocker, but his spirit was palpable. He was even jumping up and down during “Indian Outlaw,” his controversial 1994 breakthrough hit that was amped up like an un-politically correct Eagles.
After last year’s autopilot-like performance at the fair and this year’s indifferent start, McGraw finally got around Wednesday to displaying the kind of fierceness he’d shown at Target Field in 2012 when he upstaged headliner Kenny Chesney.
The encore at the fair was one triumph after the next, from the heartfelt “Cowboy in Me” and its a cappella start to the gimmicky “Truck Yeah” with its classic-rock guitar crunch to the soaring finale of “Live Like You Were Dying.”
By the end of the 100-minute, 21-song show, all 12,883 grandstand-goers (575 more than Keith drew) were on their feet cheering, but they were hardly as rowdy as Keith’s crowd.
The opening act may have had a little something to do with it. Keith brought hard-charging rap-inclined Colt Ford, who has made a little noise in Nashville, whereas McGraw enlisted Ryan Kinder, a complete unknown from Birmingham, Ala., who demonstrated talent but stayed too long at the fair with a 60-minute set that showed him to be a Matchbox Twenty wannabe.