Stage production for Willie Nelson was simply unfurling a Texas flag and launching into "Whiskey River."
But as country has moved to bigger venues in a high-tech world, the heft of tour productions and the volume of add-ons has increased. Brooks & Dunn drenched fans near the front with confetti, Kenny Chesney extended the length of his runways, Garth Brooks flew out over the audience, Reba McEntire incorporated dancers and elaborate costume changes, Brad Paisley designed his own cartoon backdrops and Carrie Underwood this past year sang from the back of a pickup that ran a loop suspended over the heads of floor patrons.
It's likely that all or most of those artists started their own concert-going experiences by attending more standard-variety country shows in their youth, then witnessing the growth in the genre's concert tech as artists from the Oak Ridge Boys to Shania Twain borrowed from pop and rock playbooks to create their visuals.
By the time Taylor Swift, born in 1989, came of concert-going age, large video screens and more sophisticated lighting systems were standard for arena-sized tours. As a result, she represents a new generation for whom massive-scale country concert productions are not just an add-on. They're a natural part of the country-arena experience.
Swift launched her Speak Now Tour in the U.S. this last weekend, playing Omaha May 27-28 and Des Moines May 29, and the two-hour production was an overwhelming experience. Lighted trees, pyrotechnics, dancers popping up from the stage, aerialists twirling above the eight-piece band, nine costume changes, multiple set changes, a floor-sweeping mime, confetti, a satellite stage and a small, gazebo-ish lift that took her over the crowd were just some of the details that turned an evening into a spectacle.
In essence, one of the genre's most ambitious acts has created one of the genre's most ambitious tours, drawing from country, pop, rock, Broadway and likely "Glee" to create an ever-changing production. Watch Swift and the backdrop changed; watch the backdrop and Swift was suddenly in a different outfit. And just when there was a lull-boom!-fireworks exploded or dancers appeared out of giant bells.
"The first time that I fell in love with performing is when I went to go see theater in my hometown in Pennsylvania," Swift said after the performance at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. "I would see it done incredibly well -- going to see Broadway plays of 'Wicked' -- things like that just really inspired me from an early age to love putting on a theatrical performance where there are storylines and characters, and you're always seeing a scene change into another scene. I love telling a story in any way possible."
Akin in pacing to a Pink Floyd concert, Speak Now flowed practically uninterrupted between songs, costumes and sets. Historically, country hasn't always matched up well to big productions-sometimes the ambitions have seemed disconnected from the music or its spirit. But in Swift's case, the end result is a fully realized concept. Swift, as a singer-songwriter, wrote all the music and conceived the show's themes and visuals, limited only by the ways in which her stage designer could fit it all in.
So while a production that incorporates snow, ballet and an Appalachian front porch could come across as hokey and disjointed in another's hands, Swift managed to pull off a certain cohesiveness.
"We spent months going over the set list and just thinking of where things would go, which ones would segue well into other songs and how we could tell individual stories," she noted. "I didn't want to tell one big story. I wanted each song to have its own story."
Swift benefited from turning her final rehearsal into a fundraiser, amassing $750,000 for tornado relief May 21 at Bridgestone Arena. That show, which came a day prior to winning three Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, went off smoothly, perhaps providing something of an omen for the opening weekend.
"We had a few costumes that weren't finished yet at that point, but other than that everything was the way the show is," she notes. "That rehearsal went incredibly well. I never expected for it to go on without a hitch, but it did and after the show we were all just jumping up and down, screaming."
It opens up a new possibility: that the final rehearsal of a tour could be routinely turned into a ticketed event.
Other artists might pick up on the idea. But Swift sounded less than enthusiastic about it.
"I have no idea if I would ever want to make it something that's an annual thing," she said. "It was so perfect for the moment. And you've gotta live life that way. When moments pop up and things pop up, take these things on a case-by-case basis."
In this case, there's an enormous amount of detail that worked to make the Speak Now Tour a sort of next step in country concert presentation, right down to the roman-numeral XIII on the bell props and the fairy dust (small bits of confetti) that dropped from her lift over the audience during "Love Story." It blended the pacing, the music and the artist's personality in a way that transfixed many in the crowd. It's a production-and an ability-that her peers in the business will continue to study.