Friday at the CMA Music Festival (June 12) was a rainbow of activities.
In the morning, superstar Luke Bryan staged his fan-club party at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Which was totally appropriate, since he has a brand-new “Dirt Road Diary” exhibit in the museum. The 700 attendees got free passes to see it. Bryan also favored them with a stripped-down, acoustic concert of hits.
Romping on various stages around the festival campus were Charles Esten, Lorrie Morgan, Eric Paslay, Brothers Osborne, Deana Carter, The Cleverlys, Randy Montana, Rhett Akins, Paulette Carlson, Doug Stone, Angaleena Presley and Lauren Alaina.
Broadway belter Laura Bell Bundy was everywhere on Friday. The Kentucky-born Bundy sang in Hall of Fame Park, autographed at Fan Fair X in the Music City Center and even appeared on the 6:00 o’clock news on Channel 4. Yes, she released a new country album, too. Dennis Banka calls it her “Popeye” record, I Am What I Am.
“Trailer Hitch” singer Kristian Bush was determined to make the best of his day at the fest as well. He appeared on stages, at autograph sessions and in an afternoon Opry panel discussion. His witty fellow panelist Jeannie Seely wore a “Tomato” t-shirt, by the way. She was among many female performers sassing country radio’s deliberate exclusion of women from playlists.
A mid-day shower cancelled or postponed some activiities, but didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. It also didn’t lessen the humidity.
Perhaps the most newsworthy event of the day was the multi-artist “Concert for Love and Acceptance” at City Winery. This was the first gay celebrity event ever scheduled during the week of country hoopla.
With the Supreme Court set to rule on gay marriage this month, Catholic Ireland becoming the unlikely first nation to legalize it via a popular vote, the publication of an LGBT issue of Entertainment Weekly and the Caitlyn Jenner transgender media frenzy, the concert was certainly timely. Still, it was a gutsy move for the generally conservative country community.
“We are making history today,” said participant Deborah Allen. “In Tennessee, things are slowly changing,” added Jamie O’Neal.
“I’m proud to be here today,” said Billy Gilman, who came out as gay last November. “This is the first time I’ve come to Nashville that I’m totally me.” He added that it was not planned that Ty Herndon came out on the same day that he did.
“Ten years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself standing here,” said Jennifer Knapp, who came out as a Christian-music artist in 2010. “I’m excited that Nashville is becoming LGBT friendly,” said Meghan Linsey, who competed so memorably on The Voice this year. “Nashville is becoming an increasingly diverse city,” agreed Mayor Karl Dean. “We continue to make great strides. We’re all in this together.”
Chris Carmack, who portrays gay artist “Will Lexington” on the Nashville TV show and is releasing “Being Alone” as his debut country single, added his support. So did Crystal Gayle, Melinda Doolittle, Shelly Fairchild, Tiffany, Sarah Potenza (another Voice competitor), Stella Parton, Stephanie Quayle, Levi Hummon and more. Supportive video greetings were screened during the three-hour concert from Reba McEntire, Lance Bass and Chely Wright.
Herndon, who co-hosted with Meghan McCain, received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd when he first took the stage. “I am here to tell you from the bottom of my heart, I have never in my life…” said Herndon, pausing to choke back tears, “…felt more love and acceptance.”
“He’s a very courageous man to come out [in country music],” commented superstar songwriter Desmond Child. “I spent years when I was an artist hiding my sexuality, and it hurt me….I think people are coming to their senses. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m looking forward to the next 10 years, seeing this event grow and seeing the country-music community grow in supporting the LGBT community,” added Herndon. The show was a sell-out, filling the venue with more than 400 fans.
FRIDAY NIGHT AT LP FIELD
We headed back to the mainstream action at CMA Music Festival. That evening, we arrived at LP Field in time to hear a stirring version of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Restless Heart.
The Oak Ridge Boys are celebrating a new Rock of Ages gospel CD, the publication of the book On the Road with The Oak Ridge Boys and their 2015 election as members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. They rolled through renditions of their hits for the crowd.
“We’ve lost a great artist, our fellow inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame,” said the group’s tenor Joe Bonsall. “Jim Ed Brown died on Thursday. If you’re still in town Monday, come by the Ryman [for Brown’s memorial service]. We’re gonna sing. Lady A’s gonna sing, for a great country-music artist.”
In the middle of “Elvira,” the Oaks suddenly stopped. The group brought out surprise guests Little Big Town, who have worked up a blues arrangement of the song. Both quartets sang it, which sounded pretty dang cool.
The Band Perry came out bouncing and dancing. They unleashed a highly energetic set, punctuated with ‘80s pop funk. “This is always our favorite night of the whole year,” said lead singer Kimberly Perry, “seeing your beautiful faces under a beautiful Nashville sky.”
In just a few short months, the showmanship of youngsters Maddie & Tae has improved dramatically. The duo was charming. Earlier in the day, the gals joined Kelsea Ballerini and Hunter Hayes in announcing the launch of Radio Disney Country, a new radio outlet that will commence during CMA Week this fall.
The fun was only beginning. As the night continued, the hits of Randy Houser, The Zac Brown Band and Lady Antebellum poured forth. During his performance, Luke Bryan got a jolt when he got too close to one of his stage effects. A CO2 smoke blaster erupted between his legs and into his face, with no damage done except to his dignity. Bryan began the day singing for 700 and ended it by singing for 50,000.
This sun-up to sundown schedule of the artists is matched by many in the industry. In short, this is not a week for sleeping.
Throughout Friday, I encountered such tireless festival folks as Jon Freeman, Cindy Watts, Ed Morris, Christy Watkins, Michelle Myers, Suzanne Gordon, George Walker IV, Brett Wolcott, Dale Bobo, Greg Hill, Tracy Kornet, Larry McCormick, Jimmy Carter, Bill Denny, Chuck Dauphin, Adam Tamburin and The Boston Globe’s visiting Sarah Rodman.
Friday festival returning appearances were staged by such folks as Jeff Walker, David & Susana Ross, Paul Zamek (spelled correctly this time), Aaron Hartley, Melissa Maynard, Karen Tallier, Brandi Simms and Butch Spyridon, all of whom have been mentioned as faithful followers on one or more earlier days of the 2015 fest. So hooray for them.
On the Bobby Karl hot-dog monitor, for the first time this week, I did not have a weenie for lunch on Friday. So I made up for it by having one for dinner.