I am always impressed with how easy-going, fun-loving, non-complaining, mellow, polite and indefatigable the CMA Music Festival goers are.
No matter how much walking is involved. No matter the heat or the humidity. No matter the costs. These people have a wonderful time. They never seem to be cranky.
I used to think this was because of the bond between hit country singers and their audience. Over the years, I have come to realize that what the fans really like is being with each other.
Some attendees reserve the same hotel rooms every year. Some have annual reunions with people they only know as friends they made at previous fests. Some have fallen in love at the fest or been married at the fest. Some are groups of gals looking for guys. Some are groups of guys looking for gals.
Yes, the CMA Music Festival is about the unique relationship between country stars and their fans. But in a larger sense, it is all about a community of love.
I am also always impressed with how cross-generational the festival is. In country music, we don’t care if you’re 9 years old or 90. If you love us and our music, we love you.
Nonetheless, I was concerned that the Jean Shepard signing session for her new autobiography would be a bust on Friday (6/6). Au contraire. The 80-year-old Opry matriarch arrived at the Country Music Hall of Fame at 1 p.m. and sold 75 books within her first 15 minutes there. Upstairs in the Rotunda, there was a line of 50 multi-generational folks at a time waiting for her to sign copies. I bet they completely sold out of the book, Down Through the Years.
The fans love whoever is willing to chat with them. Doing that in mid-afternoon at Fan Fair X in the Music City Center were autographers The Swon Brothers, Brantley Gilbert, Josh Thompson, Jill & Julia, Lulu Roman of TV’s Hee Haw, Brandon Chase, cast members of TV’s Nashville Wives, Rachel Potter, David Ball and Ashton Shepherd. “I can’t stop smiling,” said Ashton in between posing with fans. “Plastic surgery can fix that,” I replied.
One of the liveliest autographing gigs was staged by Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman show. Stars Ernie “Turtleman” Brown Jr. and Neal James delighted fans with both banjo picking and signing.
Speaking of TV, downstairs from the exhibit hall there’s a room in the Music City Center (#201) where they screened Billy Ray Cyrus’s Like a Country Song movie, the upcoming LeAnn Rimes reality TV show, the Big Smo series, Mark Collie’s The Mountain film and the like.
The Durango Stage at Fan Fair X is one of my favorites. When I dropped by on Friday, Kelly Lang was followed by her hubby, T.G. Sheppard. He waded into the capacity crowd singing “Do You Want to Go to Heaven,” then invited Kelly back to the stage to sing “Golden Ring” and other duets from their new CD.
Over at the AT&T U-Verse Showcase stage, I caught a swell set by Muddy Magnolias, a black-white female duo with a sweet, bluesy, acoustic sound.
Outside, at the Samsung Galaxy stage in Walk of Fame Park, Stephanie Quayle introduced her new single, the throbbing “No Parachute.” She was delighted by two eccentrics in attendance. There were twin diminutive men sporting long hair and moustaches doing synchronized dance moves in front of the stage wearing orange day-glo t-shirts reading “Bang This.” The photo-snapping fans loved it: Jeff Walker looked kind of aghast.
Over at the Bud Light Stage in front of the Bridgestone, Big Smo came out rockin’, rappin’ and bellowing. “Are y’all ready to show ‘em how we kick it in Tennessee?” he greeted the crowd. Boy, was he loud.At the Fan Alley Chevrolet Roadhouse Stage, vivacious Rachel Holder concluded her set with a song, “for anybody with big dreams,” her anthemic “Unstoppable.”
Mighty voiced Collin Raye was holding forth at the Riverfront Stage. He paused amid his hits for a wailing treatment of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
Half a dozen boaters floated behind the stage on the Cumberland River. A large group gathered for an even better view from a patio on the roof of one of the 2nd Avenue Victorian warehouses.
Collin warbled the lovely ballad “Love, Me,” and the fans sang along sweetly. But he couldn’t resist leaving them with a rouser, Bob Seger’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets.” Collin was arguably the day’s best Riverfront set since roaring Craig Morgan opened the stage that morning.
Back at Walk of Fame Park, David Bradley serenaded couples lounging and/or napping on the many hammocks. The ever-popular Blue Bell ice cream giveaway was underway.
Next door on 5th Avenue, the Budweiser Clydesdales were a popular attraction, whether in harness or in their paddock. The balloon-animal man was busy on Lower Broad. That silver-painted, human-statue cowboy guy was there on his pedestal. Every now and then he’d suddenly move and get a shriek out of a passing female.
I found a couple of new music venues just off the beaten track. On 3rd Avenue South, there’s a Texas On Tour stage with music. On the plaza in front of the new Nissan So-Bro Entrance to Bridgestone, the Jack Daniels Tavern 96 hosts folks singing for tips. Being surrounded by high concrete walls, their sound reverberates and carries. A male duo was singing “Springsteen.” Meanwhile the real Eric Church was heading to his fan club party across town at Marathon Village.
Two men were “down on the field” on Friday. Chris Young cut his hand preparing dinner Thursday night, and had to cancel his autographing. Gary Allan was felled by a respiratory infection.
The WMG roster seemed to be everywhere. Cowboy Troy (Riverfront), Charlie Worsham (Avenue, Fan Alley), Dan + Shay (Omni Hotel, Riverfront), Jana Kramer (Fan Alley), Brett Eldredge (Avenue, Omni Hotel), The Railers (Samsung), Ashley Monroe (Omni Hotel) and Michael Ray (BMI Tailgate Party) were busy folks.
Working the festival campus were Rod Essig, Byron Gallimore, Bryan Frasher, Ralph Murphy, Kerry Hansen, Jensen Sussman, Steve O’Brien and Nicole Zeller.
Across the river at LP Field that evening, Travis Tritt took the stage at 7:45 p.m. to sing a theme for the fest, “Put Some Drive in Your Country.” Considering the gentle evening breeze, his “A Great Day to Be Alive” was also apt.
“It’s refreshing to me to see so many great fans of country music all in the same place at the same time,” Tritt commented backstage. “As artists, we feed off of that.”
This evening had arguably the best talent line-up of the fest, since the show also featured Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. Not to mention Eric Church, who blazed through a set and brought on rocker Lzzy Hale of Halestorm. But his show seemed way too short.
The Band Perry blasted off with “Done.” and drew yells with “Better Dig Two” when all three of them pounded drums. Jason Aldean brought back Tritt. Miranda brought out Carrie Underwood, to everyone’s delight. Blake’s set included “Austin” and “Boys Round Here,” and he left the mob wanting more.
Grooving on the tunes were such fabulons as Hank Adam Locklin, Suzanne Gordon, Ed Benson, David Ross, Bob Doerschuk, Brett Wolcott & Lydia Lenker, Larry Vallon and Randy Himes. Serene Sarah Trahern was presiding over her first festival as the CMA’s chief. She said she’s impressed with how smoothly things run and how few problems there are. The CMA staff lodges at the Hilton Hotel downtown during the fest, by the way.