One of my neighbors asked me last week, “Does it feel like there are 60,000 people downtown?” Actually, yes, it did. The official estimate says that there were, in truth, 80,000 bodies wandering around daily at this year’s CMA Music Festival. Naturally, the party boy had to plunge in and be among them.
FRIDAY, June 7
For Friday’s walk through the fest, I changed direction and went from outdoors to indoors, the reverse of my usual pattern. It turned out to be a good idea, since rain began to fall around 2:30 p.m., just as I was headed for Music City Center and its Fan Fair X inside. I began my stroll at Hall of Fame Park where Phoenix Stone was delivering an energetic “Take Me Home” on the Transitions Stage. Several military guys in fatigues were in the crowd.
MusicRow’s Independent Artist of the Year, Eric Lee Beddingfield, was delivering the well-written “I Just Wanna Play” at the Chevrolet Roadhouse across the street. It was a cool acoustic set, featuring three guitars and a conga. Next door, crowds were lined up to get inside the HGTV Lodge for David Nail, then Phil Vassar. For me, the Friday highlight at the Buckle on Broadway was the sweet-singing Lennon & Maisy (Stella). They portray the daughters of Connie Britton’s Rayna Jaymes character on ABC’s nighttime soap Nashville. At this stop, I encountered a flurry of fans whose matching red t-shirts read “Holland” and pictured the Dutch flag. Some of them spoke only halting English, but they were clearly having a blast. Nearby were a trio of women from Northern Ireland and a fan from New Zealand. Registrants from 27 different nations were at this year’s festival.
When I got to the Hard Rock, Daisy Mallory was doing a dandy acoustic set on the side stage. Then an electrified Alex Hall rocked the house on the main stage. Although small, these stages were among the best sounding ones at the fest. Others booked there on Friday included talented Mallory Hope, Brent Cobb and Ray Scott. Down at Riverfront, multi-tattooed Aaron Lewis was turning in a country-rock set. As I headed back up Broadway, the rain began. Nobody seemed fazed. Nobody melted. I arrived at Bridgestone Arena’s Bud Light stage while the triple-treat lineup of Andy Gibson, Chris Stapleton and Frankie Ballard was in progress. I ducked into the Clydesdales tented paddock, partly to get out of the rain and partly to revisit those gentle behemoths. Outside on the Transitions stage, Danielle Peck and then Julie Roberts were singing their hearts out, rain or no rain.
Onward to the Music City Center. In the Fair Fair X exhibit hall, fans erupted in shrieks as Blake Shelton entered at 3:20 p.m. He wasn’t the only attraction. Also on-hand to greet the masses were Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Kix Brooks, The Eli Young Band, Josh Thompson, Craig Wayne Boyd, Wynonna, Mustang Creek and former Halfway to Hazard member Chad Warrix. The “80s Heritage Panel” at the CMA Close-Up stage drew a really large crowd. Larry Gatlin, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood and The Oak Ridge Boys were reminiscing and telling stories. Over at the ever-popular Durango Stage, fans were awaiting a day-closing set by Dana Romanello. She performs what she calls “Sassy Grass” and is a former Tennessee Titans cheerleader. Speaking of the Titans, among those signing autographs on Friday was the man with the golden toe, star kicker Rob Bironas.
Industry folks I encountered around the fest on Friday included Gator Michaels, visiting Texas singer-songwriter John Arthur Martinez, Jonathan Martin, Craig Campbell (the publicist, not the same-named artist, who was also performing that day) and another visiting Texan, Stacy Dean Campbell, who had a TV crew in tow. A big thunderstorm erupted at 5 p.m. But by the time Miss Mary and I headed for LP Field, two hours and a quick nap later, it had become a mere sprinkle. In many ways, Friday was Blake Shelton’s day. In addition to creating pandemonium in the exhibit hall, he was the subject of a double No. 1 party and was that night’s closing act at LP Field. Blake’s double No. 1 party took place at LP Field’s Club Level in the afternoon after his sound check. It was for “Over,” drawn from his Red River Blue CD, and for “Sure Be Cool If You Did,” drawn from his current Based on a True Story CD.
Publishers, songwriters and performance-rights folks all lauded the tall star. Attendees included Charlie Chase, Lee Diamond, Alan Frio, Deborah Evans-Price, Keith Urban, Scott Hendricks, Paul Jenkins and Craig Shelburne. Blake pronounced himself, “itching” to perform that night. He had to wait. First came “The Star Spangled Banner,” performed in a nicely harmonized arrangement by Gloriana. Next up was Randy Travis singing a few of his hits. He executed a George Jones-like vocal curlicue on the final “amen” of “Forever and Ever Amen.”
“Are you all ready to get a little reckless out here on a Friday night?” asked LP Field newcomer Kip Moore. They were, as illustrated by their shouting “Beer Money” lustily at him. Judging by the fan tweets shown on the jumbo screens afterward, (1) Kip earned himself a lot of new fans, and (2) ladies fell in love with “Hey Pretty Girl.” During an interminably long set-up time between sets, host Katie Cook told the crowd, “I promise it’s going to be worth it.”
Heartthrob Hunter Hayes drew screams when he finally appeared. He got extra cheers when he brought “I’m Yours” pop star Jason Mraz to duet with him on “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me.” Not to be outdone, Little Big Town brought out Sheryl Crow. LBT was outstanding, moving from the center of the crowd to the big stage, singing forcefully all the while. Crow gave the fans her “Easy” country debut, then both acts led a sing-along to “Soak Up the Sun.”
Appearances by Mraz and Crow were characteristic of this year’s fest. Thursday’s concert included Tim McGraw and Keith Urban as surprises during Taylor Swift’s show. Kenny Rogers and Kid Rock both turned up during the Zac Brown Band’s set. Doubtless influenced by the fest’s status as a TV special, there were more such appearances to come. Back at Friday’s show, Lady Antebellum moved smoothly through hits in a dynamic set immediately preceding Little Big Town’s.
At night’s end came the King of the Friday fest, Blake Shelton. During his crowd-pleasing set, he was presented with a plaque certifying sales of his Red River Blue CD at six million. It was past midnight, when Blake sent the 60,000 party people on their way by proclaiming, “I love country music, and I worship country music fans!” Working the CMA hospitality suite were Ben Vaughn, B.J. Hill, Kyle Young, Jerry & Ernie Williams, Judy Mayes, Jo Walker-Meador, Jeff Walker and Donny Walker. Following the show, we emerged into a cool, misty night more like London than Nashville.
SATURDAY, June 8
The weather? Perfection. The crowd? Massive. I did a late-afternoon walk-through of the fest on Saturday and found myself in the largest mass of people I have ever encountered at the fest. You had to walk in baby steps on Lower Broadway to practically inch your way along in the throng. At the Riverfront Stage, complete gridlock was achieved. We stood shoulder to shoulder as David Nail sang mightily from the stage. Sun-worshipping boaters gathered behind him on the waters of the Cumberland.
Georgia’s Corey Smith followed Nail, beginning his set with tapes of music from East Bound and Down and The Jeffersons. I struggled through the crowd to emerge on 2nd Avenue. At the Hard Rock stages, Walker Hayes was delighting fans with an acoustic set that included “(She Can Wear) The Pants (As Long as I Can Take Them Off Her).” Abigail Rose followed on the main stage with an amped-up, country-rock set.
You could hear music pouring from all of the nightclubs on Lower Broadway and 2nd Avenue. Meanwhile, Jim Ed Brown was signing autographs in the Opry Originals gift shop, and Dierks Bentley was creating fan hubbub in the Martin Guitar tent. My favorite spot in Fan Alley near the corner of 4th Avenue and Broadway was Team Cocktail. The motto there was, “Drink While You Shop,” since it was both a bar and a t-shirt/ballcap vendor. Craig Campbell booked an autograph session there Saturday. Smart move. The finale act at the Transitions Stage on Saturday was Frank Ortega. His set included “(I Want a Woman Who Will) Treat Me Like a Dog.” Ya gotta love that.
The biggest crowd on Broadway belonged to Big Smo, who closed the afternoon on the Bridgestone plaza. His high-energy, hillbilly hip-hop set packed in a plethora of head-bobbing maniacs. The balmy weather meant that Saturday morning’s celebrity softball game was extra fun. Scotty McCreery, Florida Georgia Line, Phil Vassar, Craig Campbell, LoCash Cowboys, Maggie Rose, Chuck Wicks, Olympic skating champ Scott Hamilton and more romped on the diamond.
Those same mild temperatures meant that there were far few medical emergencies at this fest. By late Saturday afternoon at last year’s CMA Music Festival, roughly 1,400 people needed medical help, mostly due to the extreme heat. This year, I am told that only 25 people did. And that was mostly because of foot blisters. On late Saturday afternoon in the Music City Center, the Fan Fair X autographing stars included Bryan White, Lucy Angel, Bucky Covington, Joe Nichols, Craig Morrison, Leaving Austin, Cowboy Troy, Zach Perkins, Tate Stevens and Greg Bates. Vivacious Lynn Anderson was in her booth, solidifying her perfect-attendance record. She was autographing at her 42nd consecutive Fan Fair and is believed to be the only star to have been at every fest since its inception.
Fans were lined up to get inside the Trace Adkins custom tour bus. Kiddies were romping in the blow-up playground, plunking on musical instruments, singing karaoke and making paintings. A couple of displays I hadn’t noticed before were Steve Wariner’s 1966 Corvette and Kix Brooks’s immaculately restored 1958 ‘Vette. I don’t know how I missed it on previous visits, but the Dolly Parton Collection exhibit included a Dolly pinball machine, as well as her many costumes, wigs and shoes.
Steve Wariner, by the way, was a featured entertainer on the Keep the Music Playing stage in the hall earlier on Saturday. When I was there, the entertainment was the W.O. Smith Band. These youngsters were adorably cute playing what I guess you’d call African-American kiddie country. And sounding pretty darn good doing it. Over at the Durango Stage, Australia’s Roo Arcus was finishing up a set of Strait-ish country. Donna Ulisse then took over with her country-bluegrass sound. Singer-songwriter Erik Dylan (what a name) was holding forth at the AT&T U-Verse stage. This venue was the only one in Fan Fair X that had video screens.
The biggest Fan Fair X crowd on Saturday was at the CMA Close-Up stage. That’s where songwriters Bob DiPiero, Kristian Bush of Sugarland and Brett James were trading hits. Fans love to hear the people behind the stars’ songs. Working the Saturday afternoon fest were John Esposito, Jonah Rabinowitz, John Lomax III, Julia Bruck and Steve Moore. Plus hundreds of artists and tens of thousands of fans. That evening in the CMA Hospitality Lounge at LP Field, the fest’s industry schmoozing reached its peak. Miss Mary and I were scarcely in the door when we encountered David Ross, Frank Bumstead, Troy Tomlinson, Ed Hardy and Butch Spyridon. Within the next hour or so, Sally Williams, Bob Doerschuk, Howard Gentry, Jonathan Pinkerton, Lisa Wysocki and Charlie Cook were also working the room. On stage, Brett Eldredge began the concert by singing The National Anthem splendidly. One guy in the crowd tweeted that the performance earned Brett a “man crush.”
The finale of The Oak Ridge Boys’ set wasn’t the usual “Elvira.” Rather, the quartet performed “The Same Ole Me” as a tribute to the late George Jones. The Oaks sang on George’s 1982 hit version of the song. When the group brought out widow Nancy Jones to greet the crowd, many were teary-eyed. “I want to thank the fans out there and all over the world for helping me with this loss,” Nancy said. “I know he’s looking down and smiling right now.”
“What y’all say we crank up this party?” asked Tyler Hubbard of Florida Georgia Line. Since all of the duo’s songs are party songs, that wasn’t hard. Just a year ago, these guys were performing on the parking lot, and here they were on the big stage. Host Storme Warren introduced the Duck Dynasty characters to the audience. The next surprise was Lenny Kravitz. After some of his rock songs, another surprise artist joined him on stage: Jason Aldean and Lenny reprised their CMT Awards performance of “American Woman” for the ABC cameras. I must confess, I don’t get this. “American Woman” was written by the Canadian group The Guess Who with distinctly anti-American lyrics: “I don’t need your war machine/I don’t need your ghetto scene.” Now, it’s a sex-appeal song in the throats of Lenny (who won a Grammy with his version in 2000) and Jason.
I also don’t get rock-star Lenny being on a CMA fest bill, but that’s another story. I also don’t get ABC wanting something that’s already been aired on another network, but that’s ‘nother story. (ABC is owned by Disney; CMT is owned by Viacom). Anyhow, on we went into the night. Earnest, energetic Dierks Bentley was up next. “This is the greatest week of my life,” he said. His guest was songwriter Hillary Lindsey, who sang his new single “Bourbon in Kentucky” with him. Pop diva Kelly Clarkson continued easing her way into the country fold with her set. Jason Aldean reappeared to sing “Don’t You Wanna Stay” with her. Kelly’s surprise was Trisha Yearwood, who joined her on “Ain’t Going Down ‘Til the Sun Comes Up.”
Keith Urban provided the Saturday-night finale. His set included sing-alongs and a charismatic walk into the audience during an extended guitar solo. Then came finale fireworks.