SUNDAY, JUNE 12:
The last day of CMA Fest is usually a bit of a bummer, as the circus prepares to fold up its tents and leave town. But this year, Sunday was busier than ever. At Fan Fair X, Maddie & Tae, Canaan Smith, Darryl Worley, Mark Collie, Lance Carpenter, Exile, Olivia Lane and Jack Ingram were all greeting the fans and/or autographing. The longest autograph line by far belonged to Chase Rice.
Enchanting newcomer Lacy Cavalier was one of the highlights at Radio Disney on Sunday. This stage was consistently intriguing throughout the days of Fan Fair X. In the booths, I had a reunion hug with Ashton Shepherd, and we took a photo together. She gave me a copy of her new, self-penned CD, Out of My Pocket. I also met and posed for a snap with rugged stud Travis Rice, the singer of “Women, Water and Beer.”
“I know everyone in the industry is tired and just trying to get through this last day,” said Travis. “But I want it to go on and on. It’s my first CMA Fest, and I got to be here as an artist.”
On the Durango Stage, Sweethearts of the Rodeo were closing their set with the rockabilly tune “Gone to Kentucky.” They played to a full house. “Thank you, again, for being our fans,” said the duo’s Kristine Arnold while sister Janis Oliver strummed the opening chords of the song.
The Song Suffragettes were enthralling a crowd with their acoustic performances at the CMA Close-Up Stage on Sunday afternoon. This rotating cast of female tunesmiths plays weekly in Nashville on Mondays at The Listening Room Cafe.
As the afternoon drew to a close, Sylvia performed with a guitar accompanist on the Durango Stage. She shared songwriting stories with the crowd and sang with grace.
Outside, the temperature was a replay of Saturday, and the air quality and the humidity were no improvements, either. The Riverfront Stage booked a terrific finale lineup – Cam, Phil Vassar, Tyler Farr, Old Dominion and LoCash. Dennis Banka of WUCZ, as well as Tennessean photo journalists George Walker IV and Shelley Mays, were on the scene.
Cam was a complete delight. “Let’s show everybody there’s still love in the world: Put your arms around each other,” she said. At one point, Tyler unfortunately jumped off the stage and then couldn’t get back on, at least not gracefully.
LoCash became the first act to directly address the day’s tragedy, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. At least 50 were slain and more than 50 were hospitalized after a man with an assault rifle opened fire in an Orlando gay dance club called Pulse.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to Orlando,” said the “I Love This Life” singers Chris Lucas and Preston Brust. This prompted a spontaneous outburst of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.” chanting from the audience.
I spent most of Sunday with the fans at the upper end of the fest. Keith Anderson drew the best crowd I saw at the Chevy Cruze Stage all weekend. He had the fans singing along with his melodic “Every Time I Hear Your Name,” as well as to a funky version of “Pickin’ Wildflowers.” He was followed by the equally energetic J.T. Hodges and the stone-country Margo Price.
I cruised through Honky Tonk Alley to the strains of a cover band featuring Kelsey Hickman (she’s regular on Lower Broad at Rippy’s). Then I ducked into the Country Music Hall of Fame, where the gift shop was doing very brisk, last-day business.
Song Suffragette Kalie Shorr was singing sweetly at the Music City Stage. My last daytime show of this year’s CMA Fest was, happily, one of my fondest memories of the weekend. It was a capacity-crowd gig at this same venue by Brent Cobb, who writes like a champ and sings with authentic, Dixie-fried soul.
“To be a songwriter in Nashville, all you gotta do is believe in yourself,” Brent told the crowd. “So that’s what I do, believe in myself.” He talked about singing his song “Down Home” on the new, multi-artist Southern Family CD. After performing his homesick weeper “Sad Ol’ Rainy Days,” he brought his dad on stage to sing Everly-style harmony on “Country Bound.” The song will appear on Brent’s album being produced by his cousin Dave Cobb. It is due in October. Can’t wait.
Out at Nissan Stadium that evening, the mingling fabulons in the hospitality suite included Lisa Harless, Bill Simmons, John Esposito, Krista Darden, David & Susana Ross, Jeff Stevens, Tammy Genovese, Victoria Shaw and B.J. Hill.
And can I get a witness for those daily and nightly hosting CMA staffers? Folks like Brandi Simms, Melissa Maynard, Aaron Hartley, Brenden Oliver, Amy Smartt, Angela Roland and, of course, boss lady Sarah Trahern always keep the fest ball rolling. By the way, the CMA’s moving day on Music Row is June 30.
On Sunday night, there were several moments memorializing the victims in Orlando. After greetings by CMT personality and host Cody Alan and the national anthem performance by Ray Stevens, the legendary Exile took the stage.
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the band tore through “Give Me One More Chance,” “Super Love” and “It’ll Be Me.” Then the group paused. “We know that there are a lot of lives that need healing and prayers,” said Sonny LeMaire. Exile then harmonized on the spiritual “People Get Ready.” As dusk gathered, the group closed with “Kiss You All Over.” The last chorus belonged to the fans, who sang it with gusto.
Little Big Town also took the stage with a barrage of hit favorites, then paused to address the tragedy. “Tonight, it would not be right if we didn’t sing this next song for our friends in Orlando, who are healing,” said Karen Fairchild. “We need a change. We need a healing. And love is stronger than hate. Show Orlando all the love you have!”
The song was “Miracle.” On it, the group sang, “Hear me in the trouble… I could use your helping hand. I want some peace, some sweet release…Send out some healing for this heart.” Seemingly out of nowhere, the song’s producer Pharrell Williams appeared on stage to sing with LBT. Ripples of applause responded.
On “Girl Crush,” 60,000 fans sang every word, then gave the group a huge ovation. “Boondocks” was the electrifying set closer. “We loved playing for you tonight!” shouted Karen. “Take care of each other.”
Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge offered a duet version of “Vacation.” During their own sets, Rhett played “Die a Happy Man,” “T-Shirt” and more hits. Then Eldredge stepped up to the plate for his own set of singles like “Beat of the Music.” These two will be co-hosting the CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock ABC-TV special about the festival, which airs on August 3.
Following a surprise appearance from Billy Ray Cyrus to promote his new CMT series, Keith Urban and Luke Bryan closed out the 45th annual CMA Music Festival. Celebratory fireworks lit the sky at 12:30 a.m.