Shuffle beats. Fiddle and steel guitar up in the mix. Rodeo songs. A rumbling baritone. A medley of classics from the likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.
Sounds like the ingredients for a traditional-leaning country show. And it was, courtesy of Cody Johnson, Saturday night at Salem Civic Center.
Johnson, a Texan and former rodeo rider who has emerged from the indie music ranks, brought 85 minutes of singalong music to 3,356 in a venue configured for 3,500.
The singalongs started almost immediately. Johnson sensed it early on, and dropped out of lines here and there in set-opening love song, "With You I Am." The singalongs continued a couple of numbers later, on "Ride With Me," and really grabbed his attention during "Me And My Kind."
"Ain't no doubt we got a crowd in here tonight, boy!" he said.
That one is about a cowboy whose behavior put his ex-girlfriend off the bull riding type, "just a heartache in a pearl snap shirt," he sang.
"Dear Rodeo," from his major label debut and No. 1 country album, "Ain't Nothin' To It," was about the sport itself. He sang about it like a lost love. Johnson told the crowd that he used to think of himself as a failure because he couldn't make it as a rider, but he later figured that God wanted him in front of an audience, singing his songs.
In another monologue, before the song "Doubt Me Now," he paid tribute to Virginia State Police Trooper Lucas Dowell, shot to death on duty in Cumberland County; the thousands killed in the 9/11 attacks; and to the police, first responders and military whose sacrifices allow him to have a career.
He told the crowd he might border on "politically incorrect," then said he didn't care about anyone's politics and that he doesn't watch any news networks, because it's all too negative.
"We live in America," he said. "There's nothing negative about it, boys and girls."
He was living proof, because he made it despite many naysayers, he said. That might seem like a rosy outlook, but it was in keeping with his set, which was as lighthearted as it was energetically presented. Johnson, a fine acoustic guitar flat-picker, has a remarkable voice for his style, a road-proven band to back him up and a good ear for songs.
Another Texan, Josh Ward, and his band warmed up the crowd with nearly an hour of music that wasn't stylistically far removed from Johnson's. Highlights were "Whiskey and Whitley" and "The Devil Don't Scare Me Anymore." Ward's tenor had quality, but at times the music overwhelmed him, at least from this reviewer's seat in the venue.
It wasn't all about Texas. Some of Southwest Virginia's own were first on the bill. Crawford & Power, founded in Franklin County, has been on several big stages in the valley. Guitarist/singer Jacob Crawford and resonator guitarist Ethan Power opened for Gary Allen at Elmwood Park in September 2018 and joined Marshall Tucker Band onstage at Berglund Coliseum during that act's set, opening for Travis Tritt in April.
This time, though, the duo had a backing band. Guitarist Eric Gress, bassist Alex Alcantara and drummer T.K. Wimmer laid down steady time for Crawford's powerful and soulful tenor, and Power's stinging Dobro lines. Their set included crowd-pleasers "Moonshine" and "Play A Hank Jr. Song," and newer numbers "I'd Like A Shot" and "Dancing Alone."
The band was right at home on Saturday's bill, and continued showing its potential to move up. In fact, it could have switched places with Ward, and the hometown crowd would have been at least as happy.