'Back Road' in the front seat

Rodney Atkins offered the big kickoff for the fair in concert Wednesday night.

Headliner Rodney Atkins performs Wednesday evening.

Headliner Rodney Atkins performs Wednesday evening. Photo by Sean G. Parsons.

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Fans show their love with heart shapes during the main act Wednesday evening at the Rodney Atkins concert.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Barnhart

Atkins got a little help from first-grader Catie Barnhart, whom he called up on stage for "Watching You."

WALLA WALLA — If sheer volume, cheering and stomping were any indication, nearly 3,100 people agreed with Rodney Atkins — it’s good to be in America.

Particularly in the span of summer hours that bid goodbye to the blunt force of the day’s heat and settled into a picture-perfect evening.

The country western singer had the crowd on its feet for much of his hour-plus share of the Walla Walla Fair and Frontier Days kickoff concert Wednesday night. From the moment he and his five-member band took the stage at 8:55 p.m. with a lit-up rendition of “Farmer’s Daughter,” the audience seemed electrified by Atkins.

To be fair, “American Idol” winner Casey James had already plugged them in as the concert’s warm-up act, starting at 7:16 p.m.

By then the venue’s festival seating on the rodeo grounds was starting to look packed, as were the grandstands beyond the folding chairs. Mamas and daddies, teens and babies, grandparents and young adults were finding their seats and digging out cellphones for camera duty.

Cathy Witters and Nicole Clark were so eager to see James, they drove over from Lewiston, Idaho, to catch his performance. Homemade posters were at the ready to loft for the musician’s eyes.

“We’ve been following him since ‘Idol,” Witters noted. “It’s our first time to see him live.”

The women, both 28, like the singer’s sound and sincerity, they said. When asked if the blond, curly-headed James’ might be just a bit of eye candy, Witters was quick to respond. “Eye candy? Oh, a little bit! Our poor husbands.”

Across the aisle, Larissa Davenport was firmly waiting for the second half of the night. The fourth-grader had requested, and received, the concert ticket for her upcoming 10th birthday, she said, adding this would be her first fair concert. “Ever.”

Decked in purple hat and shirt (another early birthday gift from Grandma), the Milton-Freewater girl sat solemnly next to her dad, Ken Davenport, her eyes focused on the stage.

“She’s been pretty much begging for this, ever since she found out,” Ken explained with a grin.

Her favorite Rodney Atkins’ tune? ‘“If You’re Going Through Hell,’” Larissa said, responding with a quick smile and a duck of her head when asked if she’s generally allowed to say the title’s last word.

With a generous selection of county and rock, James attended to listeners for more than an hour. Vendors traversed the aisles, trailing licorice ropes and hawking sweets and sodas, while the nearby beer garden did a robust business inside the cattle-panel fencing.

As dusk deepened, Atkins and his band took to the stage with a video-smoke-and-light show rivaled only by the bright and rounded moon and carnival ride lights. Half of the group rocketed about the stage, sending out a bass vibe that seemed to regulate, then replace, human heartbeat.

With hardly any breathing room, Atkins — wearing jeans like a second skin and satiny black button-up shirt with rolled sleeves — sent out one hit after another, the happy crowd providing screaming percussion.

“About the South,” “He’s Mine” and “Friends with Tractors” all sat well with electrified concert-goers. But the 2011 number, “Take a Back Road,” hit a home run.

He’d spent the day driving in the area, including seeing Dixie, Atkins said, tugging on his trademark baseball cap. “You’ve got the most beautiful back roads I’ve ever seen in my life.” At that, the audience roared, not quieting again until the softly romantic “Cabin in the Woods.”

Atkins made one little fan’s night when he pulled 6 year-old Catie Barnhart on stage as he crooned “Watching You,” released in 2006 and inspired by the singer’s son, Elijah, according to Internet sources.

Catie, her father explained in an email this morning, hasn’t missed a local fair concert since birth.

The Milton-Freewater youngster is in first grade and already a first-class country music fan, Chris Barnhart said.

Atkins appeared to recognize that as well, asking Catie to sing the chorus with him — “…I’ve been watching you, Dad, ain’t that cool? I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you … We got cowboy boots and camo pants. Yeah, we’re just alike, hey, ain’t we, Dad? I want to do everything you do. So I’ve been watching you.”

The audience boomed approval as Atkins gave Catie his own microphone and stand before handing her back to her dad.

His child apparently understood the gesture, Chris wrote. “After Catie got off stage with Rodney, she said ‘Daddy, I am SO happy. Now I’m famous!’”

In a demanded-for encore, Atkins pulled out his 2006 platinum — and Larissa Davenport’s favorite — ““If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows)” to feed still-hungry fans.

“I guarantee this song will lift you up. We get the honor of doing this every night.”

With most everyone singing along, the night — now cool and hinting of autumn — received the song that was declared by “Billboard” as the No. 1 country song of 2006 and 2007.

Seemingly sated at last, concert attendees began heading toward the gates as the clock closed in on 11 p.m.

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