Old dogs can learn new tricks. For my latest trick, I attended my first country music arena show, and I’ll be hornswoggled if it wasn’t a grand ole time.

I’ve listened to my share of country music over the years, of course, and I’ve seen country music performed live in bars and such, but I’ve never seen country artists who needed an arena to fit all their fans.

Honestly, I haven’t seen all that many arena rock shows, either, but it’s just weird that I’ve made it this far in life without ever going to see Brad Paisley or Martina McBride or Loretta Lynn or Willie Nelson or the Dixie Chicks. The biggest gathering of people I’ve been with that involved a pedal steel guitar was the Dale Watson show at the Cavalier Theater.

It’s also weird that I decided my first big-time country music show should be Chris Young. I really had no idea who he was, let alone who opening acts Kane Brown and Morgan Evans were. I just knew Chris Young was kind of a big deal, and I figured it’d be fun to get together with a big room full of people — 5,200 of them, it turned out — on my birthday and listen to some music.

Getting up to speed on Chris Young’s work ahead of his show at the La Crosse Center last Saturday, I realized that I should have been aware of him. I mean, he’s been called “one of his era’s finest traditionalists” by The Associated Press, and Young has had 10 No. 1 country singles, including one as recently as February with “Losing Sleep,” the title track from his seventh and most recent album.

Young is on a roll with his Losing Sleep World Tour, selling out arenas twice the size of the La Crosse Center on his 55-city journey around the globe.

At the show, it was plain that Young — he’s only 32 … a pup — had amassed a lot of dedicated followers in a relatively short time, plain because I heard a peculiar sound. Much of the audience was singing along with his songs, even some of the new ones. They loved this guy, and I got a strong sense from Young’s performance that he returned that love and then some.

Young isn’t one of those muscle-bound, bro-country hunks, but with a voice like his he doesn’t need to be. Young put on a riveting performance from the moment he appeared by himself on stage out of the darkness to his disappearance through a hidden door at the back of the stage to end his regular set to his rousing two-song encore, capped by “I’m Comin’ Over,” perhaps his biggest hit.

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Young’s easy charm and regular-guy demeanor made me like him, and after seeing him live I could see wanting to explore his back catalog. His songs weren’t the jingoistic, cliché-ridden twang fests I feared they’d be. Like Donny and Marie Osmond, they were a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll, a lot closer to, say, 1990s adult-oriented pop rock than to the roots of country.

Before going to Saturday night’s concert, I was reminded that the blurring of lines between rock, pop and country isn’t such a recent phenomenon. That afternoon, my wife and I joined our trivia league team for the state season championship event at Snuffy’s. One of the questions we got wrong asked us to identify the artist named by Billboard magazine in 1955 as the most promising country singer.

We wracked our brains and decided on Patsy Cline, which turned out to be at least in the ballpark, chronologically, as she was just getting her recording career going in 1955. But no, it was Elvis Presley.

Young might be labeled a traditionalist, but there was not a cowboy hat, fiddle or banjo in sight. He did pay tribute to the late Keith Whitley with a tender solo version of “When You Say Nothing at All” during a short break for his tight and talented band, but his show didn’t seem backward looking in any sense. Maybe he’s traditional in the way he focuses on well-written songs — lyrically, melodically, thematically — and his unaffected, timelessly straightforward way of singing.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Young, but Morgan Evans, the opening act, was maybe even more of a surprise. This young Australian came out on stage by himself, armed only with an acoustic guitar and a magnetic personality and put on a short but captivatingly memorable performance. Thanks to his masterful use of looping pedals, he constructed relatively elaborate arrangements of his catchy songs, complete with vocal harmonies and percussion, and he made it look easy — and fun.

Saturday’s concert was a great way to celebrate another trip around the sun and a reminder that I’m not getting any younger. I might be running low on time to try new things, so I should do that more often.

Rock on …


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