For the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's fourth Pops show of the 2015-16 season, they've decided it's time to give the Gaillard Center a good-ole down-home feeling. After saluting Latin music, Louis Armstrong, and holiday classics, the CSO is going country with a special Country Legends concert, saluting the icons of country music, along with a few surprising choices — ack, Billy Ray Cyrus.
The entire affair will kick off with the theme from the legendary Western The Magnificent Seven, courtesy of the 24-piece CSO, under the direction of Maestro Ken Lam. After that, Lam and company will take the audience on a guided tour of country music history, from Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" and Marty Robbins' "El Paso" to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" and Faith Hill's "Breathe." Along the way there will also be songs by Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, John Denver, and, the Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers.
"We're trying to provide a show that's got a little bit of something for everybody," says the CSO Artistic Director Kyle Lane. "We have a very robust classical audience that likes to come see the orchestra do the works of Mozart or programs like that, but for the Pops we kind of have a different audience."
For this show, the orchestra will be joined by two featured vocalists: Patrick Thomas and Rachel Potter. Thomas was a finalist on Season 1 of NBC's The Voice, and Potter was a finalist on Season 3 of Fox's The X Factor.
"They're both really talented singers who specialize in country music," Lane says. "We're excited to bring them in, and along with the orchestra, they're going to play some of the great country classics in pretty chronological order, which I didn't realize until I started looking at the tunes. It starts out with the artists you'd think of as classic country, Dolly Parton and artists like that, and marches forward to today with artists like Carrie Underwood."
Rather than simply have the orchestra serve as background accompaniment to Thomas and Potter, however, Lane says the CSO has sought out ways to be an integral part of the show. "For a lot of these songs, we've found a way to weave the orchestra into them," he says. "For example, on Charlie Daniels' 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia,' our concert-master is going to play the violin solos. That's one of the easier ways we figured out, but there will be some creative arrangements with things like 'Breathe.' We're mixing the classical and country styles to deliver something that's a little more unique."
But there's another factor that will figure in to the Country Legends show, one that brings some local talent into the mix. "The secret sauce between the singers and the orchestra is a country band we're bringing in, all of whom are musicians from our area. We'll have a pedal-steel guitarist (Brian Graham), a banjo player (Joe Marlow), a bass player (John Kennedy), a drummer (Josh Hoover), and a pianist (Ghadi Shayban) and also three backup singers (Haley Mae Campbell, Lauren Cahill and Dwight Huthwaite) to support the soloists up front."
Since Thomas and Potter are touring with a similar country-music-with-orchestra package around the Southeast, they won't actually be able to rehearse with the CSO 'til the day of the show, which Lane says has meant some tight schedule-juggling. "It's taken a fair amount of coordination on our part," he says. "We have two more rehearsals with the band and the backing vocalists, and that's before the orchestra even comes in. The orchestra will then meet with the band once to go through the parts and make sure everything works logistically. That same day, the vocalists will come in and meet with the band to make sure everything lines up, and then we've got one more dress rehearsal and then the show. So it's kind of a ballet of getting everything together."
Lane says that ultimately, the reason the CSO wanted a show like this was to expose a new audience not just to the orchestra, but to the Galliard Center itself. "We want to find ways to get people into the Center because it's a fantastic space," he says. "Not only is it beautiful, but acoustically it's amazing. We want to find ways of getting the word out to people who are country music fans, or to people who might feel like classical music might not be their thing, and this is a way of giving them something that's going to be a lot of fun, that isn't as hard-core classical."