Think about it: No one has yet succeeded Reba McEntire as queen of country music.
Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill each had majestic runs but then disappeared without sustaining a reign. In recent years, three contenders have emerged: Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Nettles.
Judging by Nettles', er, Sugarland's performance Saturday at sold-out Target Center, she may have edged ahead in this three-horse race (with Miranda Lambert emerging as a late darkhorse). Sure, Swift sells more concert tickets and writes better songs, and Underwood wins more awards and looks more glamorous. But Nettles has a bravura voice, a big personality and unstoppable energy.
Making its third headline appearance at Target Center, Sugarland not only increased its crowd (from 8,200 in 2009 to 13,000 Saturday) but upped it production. This show was bigger, bolder and brassier. A curved LED wall served as the backup with a round screen in the middle for live video action. A bridge stretched across the stage from the drummer to the keyboardist. And Nettles and Kristian Bush, her dorky duet partner, roamed the stage with abandon.
He gave away an acoustic guitar to a young woman sitting near the side of the stage. Nettles grabbed a different young woman's cell phone and talked to the woman's mom before singing to her. Nettles, 36, displayed an alluring naturalness onstage, whether she was reaching out to the fans, leaning on Bush's shoulder or strutting around in a ridiculous hoop skirt during "Incredible Machine," the title track of Sugarland's fourth and current album.
Nettles showed off her powerhouse voice on "Tonight," the duo's current single, holding a high note and wailing like Whitney Houston with a twang. But she can rein in her voice and be just as emotionally powerful, as she demonstrated on "Stay," the only song in Sugarland's catalog that rates as a country classic. Accompanied only by Bush's acoustic guitar and an organist, Nettles delivered this kiss-off tune with Janis Joplin-like intensity, pleading for her lover to stay -- with the other woman, not with her.
That emotional high point followed what was probably the night's most fun moment -- Sugarland's celebrative "Everyday America" wrapped around a medley of other stars' hits, including Cee Lo Green's "Forget You," Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time," Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious."
Who in country music would go from Britney to Dolly to "Bootylicious"? The woman who also sang Madonna's "Like a Prayer" with gospelly harmonies (courtesy of opening act Little Big Town), seasoned Sugarland's own "Stuck Like Glue" with twangy reggae and will become the first woman this August to headline Detroit Lakes' venerable We Fest since -- you guessed it -- Reba.