Christmas came 17 days early for Linda Kennedy.
Sitting in Section 2, Row F of the $40 million Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas on December 8, the grandmother of four who lives in Rockford, Illinois, got more than a terrific show from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
On the opening weekend of the Soul2Soul 10-weekend residency by the royal couple of country inside one of Las Vegas' ritziest venues, the rare pair remained the main attraction even with the Springsteens (Bruce with Patti Scialfa) and the Hankses (Tom with Rita Wilson) reportedly in attendance.
Yet, during the first of two shows that second night, the 58-year-old mother of twin daughters and a 33-year-old son (ironically named Tim) shared the spotlight when Kennedy was called to the stage by McGraw.
Her second major brush with celebrity (the first an impromptu "date" with Tony Butala, lead singer of the Lettermen, more than 40 years ago) happened while the exquisitely fashionable Hill was making the second of three wardrobe changes.
Thirty-four minutes into their classy act, McGraw was killing some time, standing alone onstage with the trademark black cowboy hat and black Fender Telecaster serving as perfect accessories to his sharp tuxedo.
With a splendid band that included eight musicians and two backing vocalists, he gave kudos to the two guitarists who tore through the final moments of "One of Those Nights."
"Turn up the lights a little bit," McGraw said to the crew. "I need to see these guys just for a second or two here. Right there -- is that a pink sweater you got on there? Come here. Come here for a second. C'mon, don't be shy. Give her a hand."
The crowd's applause helped motivate the vibrant woman with a sense of adventure and a job as office manager of her husband's glass company.
A fan of country music, the Chicago Cubs and Rockford's own Cheap Trick, she cautiously left the sixth-row seat next to her main man Dan for a personal meet-and-greet with McGraw. After all, this was a Louisiana-born good 'ol boy with superstar credentials (and a wax figure, left, at Madame Tussauds outside the swanky Venetian) earned from a music and film career that has yet to reach its peak.
"What's your name?" he asked Kennedy. Almost immediately after hearing the one-word response, McGraw serenaded her with a few lines from "Linda on My Mind," a No. 1 song on the country charts -- by Conway Twitty back in 1975.
Now I'm lying here with Linda on my mind
And next to me, my soon to be, the one I left behind
And Lord it's killing me to see her cry
She knows I'm lying here beside her with Linda on my mind
Kennedy wrapped her arms around McGraw's neck. Asked in a subsequent email what their exchange was like, she responded the day after leaving Las Vegas, "Tim and I didn't really say too much to each other, because he was singing to me ... and I was too busy groping his shoulders!! When he was done, I was going to return to my seat and he said, 'Wait a minute,' and then he signed the guitar and gave it to me. I could only say ... 'Thank you so, so much.' "
With the other 1,800 cheering wildly inside the renovated theater previously known as the Phantom, a swooning Kennedy admitted it was to tough to concentrate on the rest of the "awesome" show with a guitar inscribed "To Linda" now in her possession. "I still can't focus!" she said, adding extra exclamation points to emphasize her reply.
On an electrifying night when Juan Manuel Marquez floored Manny Pacquiao just a few blocks down the Strip off Las Vegas Boulevard, Hill threw a few knockout punches of her own. "Cry," from the Mississippi Girl's Grammy-winning album of the same name, was followed by the pair's exceptional duet, "Like We Never Loved At All," their collaboration from her 2006 album Fireflies that earned them their most recent Grammys (Hill's fifth, McGraw's third).
At that point, they were only halfway through an 87-minute, 20-song set that was packed with powerful moments in an intimate setting with a dazzling chandelier that made everyone see the light.
The romantic husband-and-wife team (with three daughters as living proof) seem even more appealing and personable than they were during their first Soul2Soul arena tour in 2000. They haven't performed together in the U.S. since 2006, prompted primarily by Hill's second self-imposed hiatus to focus on her family.
Before getting back to the songs they sing, a seven-minute casual sit-down conversation captured their chemistry and charisma, showing why the charming couple naturally belong together. A sample:
Faith (addressing the crowd): "Good evening. I finally get to say something." (To Tim:) "Man, you've been busy out here."
Tim: "Whew! That song's high."
Faith: "So, I love that you pulled out that song."
Tim: "Oh, the 'Linda' song. Hey, thanks to Linda over there. I love Conway Twitty."
Faith: "That almost sounded like it was planned, but it was not, definitely."
Tim (to Faith): "Have a seat. You look beautiful (in a gorgeous black gown)."
Faith: "Thanks. You know, I just threw this on. It was in the closet. But it looks good."
The blonde beauty good-naturedly chided her hunky hubby for not wearing socks, but was one-upped by his reference to her hot weekly engagement on NBC throughout the NFL season.
"This being Vegas, I gotta show a little bit of leg," he said. "I mean, goodness gracious. Have you not noticed your Sunday Night Football game (intro)?"
After revealing their musical influences and the first concerts they attended (Faith was 8 when she saw Elvis; Tim was 13 when he witnessed Ted Nugent in a loincloth), the stunning Hill sounded as incredible as she looked. Her rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)" hit the musical high note of the night.
More grand slams and standing O's followed as Hill covered Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" and McGraw reached his emotional peak with "Live Like You Were Dying," the touching tribute to his late father, former major league pitcher Tug McGraw.
But one random act of kindness made this a truly memorable and endearing event for a woman who became a McGraw admirer after hearing "My Little Girl" from his film Flicka. Using her blackjack winnings from a previous trip to Arizona, Kennedy was ready on the presale date of August 8 to pay $620 for two tickets to catch her first live performance of McGraw and Hill.
Standing in the lobby after the show, a beaming Kennedy showed off her guitar while receiving congratulations and applause from other well-wishers leaving the theater, some of whom were just dying to know if the whole thing was staged as an elaborate publicity stunt.
"It was not planned," said Kennedy, whose streak of good fortune began at the Venetian on Thursday, when their three-day stay was comped upfront.
Kennedy (right) plans to add the guitar to a prized memorabilia collection in the lower level of her home that includes Rick Nielsen guitar picks and autographs by various former Cubs, including Hall of Famers Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams.
More than two weeks past Turkey Day during this holiday season, she was joyful, counting her blessings and still giving thanks, particularly to the dynamic duo who perform again December 14-15, then in January resume their residency that runs through April.
Earlier indicating that "I would sure see them again," Kennedy also wrote, "If I had a chance to speak with Tim or Faith, I would once again thank Tim for the surreal experience and I would tell Faith that I love her too!"
For all of them, it looks like a great head start to a Happy New Year.
Photos by Michael Bialas.