Bobby Karl Works CMA Music Fest, Day 3

Miranda Lambert and Sony Music Nashville staffers were all smiles Thursday for the opening night of the four day CMA Music Festival. Backstage at LP Field before her show, SMN CEO/Chairman Gary Overton & staff surprised Lambert with a platinum plaque for “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Pictured (L-R): Paul Barnabee; Josh Easler; Gary Overton; Lambert; Caryl Healey; Wes Vause. Photo: Brian Kaplan

Miranda Lambert and Sony Music Nashville staffers were all smiles Thursday for the opening night of the four day CMA Music Festival. Backstage at LP Field before her show, SMN CEO/Chairman Gary Overton & staff surprised Lambert with a platinum plaque for “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Pictured (L-R): Paul Barnabee; Josh Easler; Gary Overton; Lambert; Caryl Healey; Wes Vause. Photo: Brian Kaplan

Is it just me, or is there more music than ever at this year’s CMA Music Festival?

I took my first tour of the “campus” on Thursday afternoon (June 6), and it seemed like just about every ten steps I took, I caught another melody.

As usual, I proceeded downhill to the river. Unlike usual, this year’s tour began at the brand-new Music City Center, which is making its debut as the home of the Fan Fair part of the fest. When I saw the exhibit hall’s layout map, I was concerned that there would be audio bleed between its various stages. Not to worry: The hall is so vast that you can’t hear any music being made from one side to the other.

At the Keep the Music Playing Stage, which is on the 8th Avenue side of the hall, Alana Springsteen was holding forth. In the middle of the hall on the Korean War Veterans Boulevard side of the venue, “Thinking Problem” David Ball was giving the fans a taste of true-blue country. This stage, by the way, has some of the best bookings of the fest. On Thursday, alone, it hosted Riders in the Sky, Buddy Jewell, Daryle Singletary, T.G. Sheppard, gospel’s Chuck Wagon Gang and bluegrass stars Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, in addition to Ball and others.

Meanwhile, at the AT&T U-Verse Showcase Stage, in mid-hall on the Demonbreun side, Drew Baldridge and other BMI writers were telling stories and singing songs. Over at the CMA Close-Up stage on the 5th Avenue side of the exhibit hall, you could ask questions and get to know stars such as Ronnie Dunn, Lady Antebellum, Mel Tillis, Bobby Bare and Charley Pride without being distracted by music coming from the other stages.

That morning, Lady A had cut the ribbon to officially open the hall and were the first to sing there. As for Dunn, on late Wednesday night after the CMT Awards, he made a surprise appearance singing new songs at Rippy’s, complete with a dancing flash mob. At the CMT Close-Up stage Thursday, he revealed that he is no longer with Arista Records and is back to being an independent solo artist. Dunn first made the charts as a solo act, on Churchill Records, in 1983.

The official stages aren’t the only places to hear tunes in the Fan Fair hall. Stephanie Quail, for instance, played guitar and sang eco songs in the Tennessee Environmental Council booth. She said she was “putting the ‘tree’ back in ‘countree.’” Many fest goers are drawn to the Fan Fair exhibit-hall area because they are autograph seekers. Signing and smiling in various booths on Thursday (June 6) were The Whites, Gloriana, Lynn Anderson, Lulu Roman, Sweetwater Rain, Florida Georgia Line, Leah Seawright, Kip Moore, Sarah Darling, Sherry Lynne, Phil Vassar, Tate Stevens, The Kentucky HeadHunters, Joanne Cash Yates, Justine Blazer, The Willis Clan and the James Cameron Band.

There’s lots more to do. Ping-pong tables, basketball hoops, the Corn Hole Challenge and loads of kiddie games are in the hall. So is the custom tour bus that Trace Adkins travels in. The ever-popular diving dogs are in the hall. The Dolly Parton Collection is a large booth containing 45 of the legend’s over-the-top costumes, plus her shoes, accessories, wigs, instruments and memorabilia. One exhibit-hall wall displays the original artworks created by Steve Wariner.

The Duck Dynasty booth sells hats, books, bobble-head dolls, bandanas, cups and other souvenirs. Manuel has a booth showcasing his distinctive couture. There’s an exhibit of historic Fan Fair photos and another displaying country-star artifacts from Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, Kix Brooks, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood and others. A fellow in the kiddie area makes balloon animals. You can make a recording of your voice at the Chevy Mobile Studio.

In the Marketplace district in the hall, you can purchase the wares of woodworkers, leather craftspeople and jewelry creators. Not to mention sunglasses, barbecue sauce, honey, musical instruments, wigs and t-shirts galore. Reba McEntire has set up her Dillard’s line of clothing and luggage for sale. I found no one selling country CDs, surely a sign of the times. Thirsty? They’ve got you covered. Bud Light has a beer station. Jack Daniels has an Airstream trailer that is also serving libations. There is a beach-themed Blue Chair Bay bar with tropical mixed drinks. I’m not clear on whether this is Kenny Chesney sanctioned or if they just lifted his schtick. Which is okay, since he ripped it off from Jimmy Buffett. Next door to the newly massive Fan Fair exhibit hall (which is titled Fan Fair X, by the way) is the Registration hall. This is where you’ll find the CMA’s country-star silent auction as well as the booth selling the Johnny Cash commemorative stamps and the matching t-shirts and pins.

Like I said, you don’t go far without encountering music. As soon as you leave the Music City Center at 5th Avenue & Demonbreun, you can hear the sounds coming from the Transitions Stage at Hall of Fame Park. When I wandered by, Jon Wolfe was singing the hard-country “It All Happened in a Honky-Tonk” there. Earlier in the day, Holly Williams and The Marshall Tucker Band had been among those at this venue.

Across Demonbreun from the park is the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. It has a full schedule of music and autograph sessions throughout the fest. On Thursday, that included afternoon music by Love & Theft and morning autographing by Lee Greenwood and Casey James. Across 4th Avenue, next to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, is the Chevrolet Roadhouse Stage. Carolyn Dawn Johnson had the crowd in the palm of her hand there. Next to that is yet another stage, the HGTV Lodge venue. But it was silent when I went by on Thursday. Moving out onto Broadway, you next encounter the tented Buckle Stage. Steven Clawson was doing a fine job there when I got to this stop on my tour.

Pass by the “Repent or Perish” evangelists with their placards and bullhorn to get your free Blue Bell ice-cream cup. Then proceed to the Hard Rock Café, which has two small “venues”. On the main stage on Thursday afternoon was Whitney Duncan, and Erin Enderlin held forth as an acoustic act.

The Riverfront Stage is where you realize there are really two different festival audiences. Adults and older attendees are in the Music City Center. The Broadway and neighboring outdoor venues attract all ages. But Riverfront is where you find the young, the tanned and the fit. On Thursday, they were treated to Joe Nichols, Mark Chesnutt, Blackberry Smoke, Craig Morgan and more.

Heading back up Broadway, you’ll find that the Martin Guitar booth has talented amateurs and/or semi-pro performers sign up to play and sing. Some of them are quite good. Not that gifted? Try singing along with a live band in a tent at the foot of Lower Broad. A senior citizen was doing a quite respectable “Folsom Prison Blues” when I was there. The Whiskey Bent Saloon posts a music schedule that is sprinkled with current record makers like Chris Janson. All of the other Broadway honky tonks also have full slates of entertainment, all day and all night. If you’re a Nashville country performer and don’t have a gig this week, you’re just not trying very hard.

An Elvis impersonator was posing with fans outside one Broadway bar. At the entrance to Margaritaville, a guy on stilts was blowing up long balloons and sending them flying down the street. At Broadway and 5th Avenue, you’ll find the Bud Light Stage on the Bridgestone Arena plaza. J.T. Hodge was performing there with vim and vigor, evidently quite pleased by the large crowd he’d drawn. Immediately preceding him were foot-stomping Drake White and the debut of Grits & Glamor, the new duo formed by vets Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan. This stage was another that drew a mostly young demographic.

Luke-Bryan

Luke Bryan. Photo: Alan Mayor

Spotted at various spots around the downtown fest were Clay Bradley, Scott Stem, Peter Cooper, Perry Howard and Martha Moore. Like me, Martha was outraged that the Music City Center’s garage was charging a parking fee of $25 IN CASH for a “special event.” Is this going to be the case for every convention booked there, or are they just out to soak the country-music tourists in particular? In any case, I smell a rat.

The CMA Music Festival crowd that fills LP Field each night is dominantly youthful and wildly enthusiastic. On Thursday evening (June 6), that enthusiasm was certainly justified. The billing was a country lover’s dream – Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Tracy Lawrence, Eric Church and the Zac Brown Band.

Again, there was music wherever you turned. Before the stadium show, there was a BMI Tailgate Party on the parking lot with Joel Crouse, Thomas Rhett and Joey Hyde. Inside, opener Tracy Lawrence said, “This is a special time of year in Nashville. How are y’all enjoying the week so far?”

“Is this a party or what?” Luke Bryan asked the throng. “Thank you so much for lettin’ me be up here. I want to thank each and every one of you for making me [ACM] Entertainer of the Year. I love you so much.” His set was punctuated by plenty of pelvic thrusts. During his “Country Girl Shake it for Me” finale, he invited several gals from the audience to dance with him. They spent more time taking cell-phone photos with him than they did actually “shaking it for him.” After the set, host Storme Warren invited Luke back to the stage to autograph a football and toss it into the crowd. Several Tennessee Titans also appeared on stage during the concert.

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift. Photo: Alan Mayor

“You’re the reason we get to do this,” Taylor Swift told the audience. “Thank you for coming tonight.” She drew wild cheers when she brought out Tim McGraw. They sang the sublime “Highway Don’t Care,” and then she drew an even bigger ovation when she introduced Keith Urban to perform the song’s guitar solo. It was a real Fan Fair “Moment,” and will doubtless make the ABC-TV special.

Gifted and passionate Eric Church worked up a lather. Fiery Miranda and mellow Zac were scheduled to close. What a night.

Schmoozing fabulons in the house included Mayor Karl Dean, Allison Jones, Melissa Maynard, Dennis Banka, Jeff Walker, Dale Bobo, Ron Cox, Charles Dorris, Brandi Simms, Barry Coburn, Tom Lord, Aaron Hartley, Alan Mayor, Butch Spyridon and Jackie Maruschka.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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