BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM
The CMA Fest began the day on Sunday (June 9) with something rare at this year’s celebration, sunshine.
In fact, by noon it was hot and humid. Maybe that’s why the Fan Fair X locale in the air-conditioned Music City Center was so popular. Ordinarily, this district is rather depopulated by the last day of the festival. Not this year.
Autographing in various booths when I arrived around 2 p.m. were Ryan Hurd, Walker Hayes, T.G. Sheppard, Tenille Arts, Mickey Guyton, Dakota Danielle and Royal South. Meanwhile, the Smithfield duo was harmonizing to a capacity crowd at the Radio Disney Stage.
On the CMA Spotlight Stage, earnest Ben Rue held forth, followed by CC & The Boys. Songwriters Kristi Manna and Jon Vezner were in the Fan Fair crowd.
This area of the fest has become increasingly dominated by retail activity. Displays of boots, jeans, shirts, hats, jewelry, purses, dresses, hair accessories, makeup, keychains, wallets and more seemed to be everywhere. On the brighter side, a record store returned to Fan Fair.
Other convention-hall stations offered games and contests – drawings for prizes, roulette wheels, batting cages, hoops and dollars in a wind tunnel. But labels have also continued to sponsor booths. This year, Sony, Universal, Warner Music, Big Machine (with vodka shots!), Black River, Tree Vibez and SSM Records were all represented.
Hardly any stars had booths. Michael Martin Murphey and Randy Travis were the exceptions, rather than the rule.
Venturing outside, we encountered nouveau honky-tonker Teddy Robb on the Chevy Breakout Stage in Hall of Fame Park. He sang to a thin crowd, perhaps due to the brutal sun. This area really needs to have some shade, organizers.
On Sunday, I did find my first true discovery of the fest. This was a woman named Faren Rachels, performing on the Maui Jim Broadway Stage on the cement Bridgestone Plaza. She was full of vim, wit and feisty attitude.
“Are y’all drinkin’ on a Sunday?” Faren asked the unfortunately too-sparse crowd. “It’s the last day of CMA Fest!”
I really liked her when she delivered “Show of Hands,” a good-natured anthem for working folks. Faren is a Nashville Uber Driver, and she had a song about that, too. I am told that this artist’s song “On Paper” has been streamed over a million times. Sounds like a good start to me.
Rain, which had been around the corner throughout the festival, returned on late Sunday afternoon. The nearby thunder and lightning cancelled several outdoor shows downtown and postponed the opening of the gates at Nissan Stadium that evening.
Noting that this was the last show on the last day of the fest, stadium host Storme Warren vowed, “We’re going to end it on a really strong note, I promise.”
Jimmie Allen began the night with a terrific, a cappella rendition of the National Anthem. Then David Lee Murphy revved up the attendees with “Party Crowd,” “Dust on the Bottle” and a medley of hits he’s written for others – “Big Green Tractor,” “Anywhere With You,” “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not” and the like.
Chris Janson was next. He is always full of manic energy and boundless elan. But perhaps he felt an extra boost on Sunday.
“This is my first time to do a full set on the stadium stage at CMA Fest,” he told the crowd. He turned in a wild performance, featuring “Fix a Drink,” his new single “Good Vibes,” a cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” the powerful “Drunk Girl,” the “Truck Yeah” hit he wrote for Tim McGraw and “Buy Me a Boat.”
During his explosive set, Chris blew harmonica, played keyboards, flailed on the drum kit and exhorted the fans to scream, to clap, to wave their arms, to sing and to pump their fists.
“Come and see us on the road some time!” he shouted in his finale. “Love you to pieces!” The crowd adored him.
The next act was arguably the festival’s most charming. To illustrate the music-education beneficiary of the fest’s profits, The Andrew Jackson Elementary School Eagle Honor Choir did a song/cheer/dance routine called “I Am the Champion.”
“They just performed before 70,000 people!” exclaimed Stormie. “What were you doing in the 4th grade?”
Everyone in the CMA Hospitality Suite smiled and cheered. Dale Bobo, Scott Couch, Steve O’Brien and JoAnn Berry were there. Engaging radio man Dennis Banka was celebrating six consecutive years of hosting CMA Fest daytime stages.
And can I get a witness for Brenden Oliver, Brandi Simms, Aaron Hartley, Melissa Maynard, Mechalle Myers, Angela Strader, Amy Smart and, natch, Sarah Trahern? These suite regulars are among the CMA staffers who make this whole annual undertaking run so smoothly.
Okay, back to the concert. Surprise guest Trisha Yearwood appeared on the mid-field satellite stage to introduce her soaring new single “Every Girl in This Town.”
Old Dominion favored the fans with “Snap Back,” “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart” “Make It Sweet” and more. Lead singer Matthew Ramsey plunged into the crowd during “Hotel Key.” Brad Tursi offered an eloquent guitar solo during “Written in the Sand.” The band also introduced its new single, “One Man Band.”
In previous years, the Sunday attendance at the stadium has sometimes been lighter than Friday’s or Saturday’s. Not so at CMA Fest 2019. No sirree. That place was packed.
A big cheer greeted the arrival on stage of Maren Morris. The petite dynamo shared her career-launching “My Church” and her big pop hit “The Middle.” She also brought out Brandi Carlile to duet with her on “Common.”
Keith Urban performed a 30-minute set spanning his hit repertoire. “Never Comin’ Down,” “The Fighter,” “We Were,” “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and “Wasted Time” were energetically offered. The venue’s lights darkened during “Love Somebody Like You,” so the fans lit up the night with their cell phones. The effect was magical.
The reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year closed his set by charging through the crowd on the stadium floor, performing all the way to the back of the venue. Fans reached out to touch him and cheered.
“Everything we do is about this moment right here,” Urban told them. “Singing and having a good time and celebrating this precious life that goes by so fast. I love you more than you’ll ever know. Thank you.”
By this time, the clock was ticking toward midnight. But there was more to come. Superstar Luke Bryan brought his romping style to the stage to bring this year’s CMA Fest to its conclusion. By the way, he was also last year’s finale act.
He jolted even the weariest fest goers awake with “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “Knockin’ Boots,” “That’s My Kind of Night,” “Huntin’ Fishin’ Lovin’ Every Day” “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” and the rest of his party-hearty tunes. Bryan closed the fest with a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” that had everyone singing along.
And that’s what it’s all about.