All eyes are on LP Field.
By day, the tens of thousands of CMA Fest attendees scatter throughout the city to fan-club parties, shopping sprees, charity events, tourist haunts and whatnot. But the whole flock comes to roost each evening at the coliseum, 70,000 strong.
On Thursday (6/7), that venue shimmered with the stardust of Glen Campbell, Jason Aldean, Kellie Pickler, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Lady Antebellum and more. It was undoubtedly the day’s ultimate goal and destination, yet there were plenty of diversions along the way to there.
We began our journey at the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage. Here’s the deal there: When the gates open, the LP Field ticket holders are allowed in 1/2 hour before everyone else, ensuring that they get prime spots. This also has the effect of stationing the young and nubile front and center. After that, the general public is admitted free.
When I arrived, the venue was completely full, with thousands bopping and basking in the sunshine. Jerrod Niemann was aurally seducing them with “What Do You Want from Me.” They sang it back to him. He finished with the Big Finale of “Lover, Lover.” Lee Brice was up next with his hearty and friendly vibe. Linda Davis was hosting what was otherwise an all-male, all-day talent lineup.
The big change at Riverfront is the backstage area. In place of folding chairs and open air, there is now a cool, dark, air-conditioned tent with potted ferns, refreshments, white couches, easy chairs and cushions. You watch the stage show on closed-circuit TV.
The Hard Rock Café plaza now has two stages, a small acoustic one and another for bands. The fans gather under a large, shady tent here, and can avail themselves of a full bar, as long as they keep their drinks on the patio and don’t take them out onto Broadway.
O’Shea was singing with energy when I arrived. Then Old Dominion took the bigger stage. These Nashville country-rockers have written songs recorded by Steve Holy, Taylor Swift, Randy Houser and Chris Young. They were followed by singer-songwriter Madeleine Slate.
As you proceed up Broadway, you enter The Buckle, a fun zone between 2nd and 4th Avenues. Here you’ll find Cricket karaoke singing, roulette wheels for prizes, the U.S. Marines chin-up contest and free samples of Blue Bell ice cream and free bottled water. Sony has a big trailer truck for gamers where you can enter to win a PlayStation. The Pedigree tent has doggies for petting. There are Bad Boy Buggies to sit on. ASCAP has a tented performance stage in this zone, but it was silent when I stopped by.
Turn left and you’re in Fan Alley. The Caesar’s Palace tent offered relaxation and free Shania Twain cardboard fans. Emerald Coast had a fly-casting game. Jack in the Box hosted a mechanical bull. Pause at the misting tent if you need to, then get in line for the GAC/HGTV structure called The Lodge. This is an autograph zone, but that didn’t stop the fans from asking Jake Owen to sing to them. “I didn’t even bring a guitar,” he protested. Thompson Square were signing as well. Waiting in the wings was Vanilla Ice. The “Ice Ice Baby” rapper is now a real estate rehab expert with his own HGTV show.
The diving dogs are back! Actually, they are called the Ultimate Air Dogs. Their new location this year means that they have to pass by you, to and from their swimming pool diving platform. So I got to meet Pippin the whippet. Across from that is the Chevrolet Roadhouse Stage. This new venue was featuring artists such as Amber Hayes and Matt Stillwell when I was there. The audience is also under a tent at this one, which features a huge, three-sided bar dispensing free iced tea. This venue also dispenses free Chevy t-shirts, which are actually just as nice looking as the official merch.
Hall of Fame Park is now the Bic Soleil Summer Beach. Here, you will find beach-ball tossing, a volleyball net, some small tents with couches and a “beach” of actual sand with chaise lounges. Most of the fans were listening in the sun as Jason Cassidy did his rocking “Ride of Your Life,” followed by Bush Hawg and Sunny Sweeney.
Up on 4th Avenue, The Clydesdales have a fully functional, tented “barn” set up. Each of the eight massive steeds has his or her own stall. They are bathed and groomed daily, to the delight of the fans. At this zone, you can also register to win a free six-pack of Budweiser. The iconic beer wagon, by the way, was built in 1903 by Studebaker.
The Bud Light Stage on the Bridgestone plaza was extremely popular on Thursday afternoon (6/7). A capacity crowd was enjoying T. Graham Brown belting “I Tell it Like it Used to Be” to wind up the “Classic Country Show” that also featured Moe Bandy, Janie Fricke and Gene Watson. This is another open-air venue, but the lack of shade seems to bother no one.
Fret not, Music Row fabulons: You will encounter your own kind amid the fan hubbub. At various stops along the way on Thursday, I greeted Cliff Audretch, Regina Stuve, Larry Fitzgerald, Shelly Mullins, Beth Gwinn, Leslie Roberts, Stuart Dill, Tracy Gershon, Wendy Pearl and Ryan Moore grooving on the fest.
At the Convention Center, the old fest moniker of Fan Fair is gradually fading away. This zone is now the AT&T and Cisco Fan Fair Hall, so that succinctly sums up the fest’s evolution.
Of its 60 booths, only three are for A-List artists – Alan Jackson, Chris Young and Dolly Parton. Another six are for “name brand” acts – The Kentucky HeadHunters, Lynn Anderson, Doug Stone, Donna Fargo, Bucky Covington and William Lee Golden. I love both Lulu Roman and Two Foot Fred, but although they were present and willing, few fans were at either booth when I went by. Fred is promoting his autobiographical book.
Only three major record companies are hosting booths, Warners, Big Machine and Universal. Of the remaining 46 booths, I counted 14 as belonging to indie artists and/or labels. That means that more than half of the booths now belong to retail entities such as Cabot Cheese, Sprint, Cracker Barrel, Jack Daniels, Field & Stream, Dillard’s, Budweiser, Chevrolet and Twisted Sister Apparel.
The dwindling star power of the autograph zone was the least of the fans’ complaints. This year, a lottery system was inaugurated. If you wanted to get a big-star autograph, you had to register on-line in May to qualify for the daily dispensing of autograph wristbands. Those who didn’t win one, clustered in a “Hopefuls” line to maybe get an extra. Plus, the wristband didn’t guarantee you’d get to the big star you desired. Boy, were they griping.
But something had to be done. If a Reba or Trace appears, the zone becomes a mob scene. And the big stars simply can’t accommodate everyone who wants them, even if they stay all day. The new system at least keeps their crowds and time commitments to a manageable size.
Besides, there were plenty of other artists to get to know. In addition to Lynn, Donna, Bucky and the HeadHunters, artists in booths on Thursday (6/7) included Leah Seawright, Josh Turner, Her & King’s County, Miss Willie Brown, Gwen Sebastian, Laura Bell Bundy, Justin Moore, Craig Morgan, Nick Cross, Cowboy Troy, Trailer Choir, Billy Gillman and Eden’s Edge.
Also, you can have a custom photo made with the iconic Jack Daniels statue or participate in a fun Dolly trivia contest. There are film screenings in the Convention Center this year, as well.
The Durango Acoustic Corner stage has moved into the exhibit hall. This terrific venue used to be in a Convention Center hallway and needed more space. The stunning, stone-country vocal blend of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on “Between Leaving and Loving You” at that stop was the sweetest sound I heard all day.
Go home. Change clothes. Pick up Miss Mary. NOW head for the mecca of LP Field.
BMI has a Tailgate Party set up on the parking lot, entertaining fans before they enter the massive venue. On Thursday, the line-up there included The Peach Pickers – Dallas Davidson and Rhett Akins. Love them.
Inside, Steve Moore greeted the throng and introduced Mayor Karl Dean. “We are thrilled to welcome you to Nashville,” said Dean, explaining how the Fest gives back to Nashville schools, thanks to the stars’ generosity. “Let’s start off this festival by giving these artists a huge round of applause. Enjoy yourselves, and have a wonderful, wonderful time.” Up in the CMA Hospitality Box, I congratulated hizzhonor on his speech. “Well, at least nobody booed,” he replied.
David Nail showcased the fruits of the fest by performing a moving rendition of “The Sound of a Million Dreams” with the Nashville School of the Arts Chamber Singers. The students then sang the National Anthem.
“Welcome to your home for the next four nights,” said host Storme Warren to the crowd. He brought on Glen Campbell, who drew a massive cheer. The roars continued as he fired off one iconic hit after another – “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” “Southern Nights.” When he lost his way in the lyrics of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” thousand of voices helped him through it. At times, he seemed agitated or confused, but his golden voice and guitar playing carried him through.
By the time he finished, Bev Lambert was weeping. “This is the last time we’ll see him,” explained Miranda’s mom. Miss Mary said she was choked up when Glen was singing about “the rivers of my memory” in “Gentle on My Mind.”
By the time Miranda Lambert and The Pistol Annies were through rocking the joint, LP Field was a full house. It was quite an inspiring sight. At the start of the week, there were still a few “nosebleed” seats available, but on Thursday afternoon, the CMA announced that the fest was officially completely sold out.
Kellie Pickler did a sweet, acoustic set on a small, high stage situated at mid field. Then Jason Aldean came out rocking on the main stage. At the conclusion of “She’s Country,” he went down into the crowd to shake some hands. The glorious Lady Antebellum was up next, followed by Zac Brown Band and Brad Paisley. Lauren Alaina provided a second acoustic moment.
Schmoozing the room were David & Susana Ross, Steve & Ree Guyer Buchanan, Herkie Williams, Tom Baldrica, Rob Oatman, former mayor Bill Purcell, LeAnn Phelan, Bob Doerschuk, Ron Cox, Charlie Cook, Steve Lassiter, John Dorris, Aaron Hartley, Tom Corley, Nancy Shapiro, Jeff Walker and Ed Hardy.