Country Jam USA returned to Eau Claire, Wis., for its 26th year on July 23. The opening day featured Lady Antebellum’s “Wheels Up” tour with Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt in tow. Granger Smith, Elizabeth Lyons and The Dweebs also performed on the main stage, while The Dweebs and Sasha McVeigh also worked the Miller Lite Stage. A third, Clearwater Stage, saw Tim Sigler perform during set changes to ensure the music never stopped. Kudos to the stage crew that dimmed the lights promptly as each artist was supposed to take the stage–and then they did.
Crossover artist Sam Hunt has seen his debut album, “Montevallo,” skyrocket to the top of the Billboard Country music chart this year. And his mainstream appeal was given a shot in the arm when he performed as Taylor Swift’s special guest at Soldier Field last weekend. He opened with “Raised on It,” and introduced his band as “his best buddies in the world.” Fans continued to swarm closer to the stage as his set progressed, with arguably the strongest participation on the day thanks, in part, to his summer anthem “House Party.”
Hunt lost the crowd during a 90’s acoustic medley and the slow-paced “Speakers” that deflated the party atmosphere at midset. However, he was able to reel them back in with the aforementioned “House Party” and “Leave the Night On” that got the crowd dancing again to finish out his 55-minute set.
Hunter Hayes followed Hunt and quickly showed that modern country music is being positively infused with youth. Hayes has matured since his eponymous debut album in 2011. With a sophomore release, “Storyline,” and relentless touring under his belt, the multi-instrumentalist has drawn comparisons to Keith Urban and Brad Paisley on guitar. However, his spontaneous jams and ability to take a live song to new heights is more apropos to John Mayer.
Hayes demonstrated his strengths early, fingerpicking on electric guitar during the opening “Tattoo,” and transitioned to mandolin for “Storyline.” He later brought out an acoustic guitar for “Young and In Love,” before switching back to electric for “Secret Love”–where he tossed in some Eddie Van Halen inspired finger tapping for good measure. The enthusiastic Hayes then bounced over to the piano for “Invisible.” The 75-minute set also focused on his newer music, showcasing “21” and “Where It All Begins,” the latter written with tourmates Lady Antebellum.
Lady Antebellum, touring in support of 2014’s “747,” made good use of the T-shaped catwalk that extends from the stage to the front of the VIP fan seating. Flanked on either side of the catwalk is a standing-room only Party Pit that allowed fans to remain close to the action. Their show included music from each of their five studio albums with smash hits “Just a Kiss,” “I Run to You” and “Need You Now” drawing the strongest fanfare. Hunter Hayes joined them for “Compass” while Hunt and Hayes assisted on Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way.”
The music continues on Friday with Cassadee Pope, Kip Moore and a headline performance by Blake Shelton. Saturday will feature Eric Church with support from Gary Allan and Jerrod Niemann. Tickets are still available via Country Jam USA.