I have to start with a disclaimer: I attended my first CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, as a fan –a crazy, passionate, kid-in-a-candy-store fan– and nothing more. So rather than offer you a full review of the festival, which I don’t think I can adequately do, I instead present you with a narrow but meaningful sampling of my favorite memories from the week.
Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley rock rain-soaked stadium until 2 a.m.
After a three-hour rain delay at LP Field Thursday night, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley played well into the morning to make up for the lost time. Despite the delay being somewhat poorly handled by management, an impressively large crowd of dedicated fans, draped in ponchos and drenched in humidity, waited around until after midnight for the concert to resume.
It was well worth the wait, as Bentley and Paisley delivered outstanding, high-energy performances and reminded me once again that there is legitimate, authentic talent in mainstream country music. In a fitting closing, Bentley joined Paisley on an extended version of his novelty hit “Alcohol,” during which the tourmates played on each other’s good-natured wit and kept the crowd on its feet until the last note.
Carrie Underwood soars on “Stand By Your Man”
In 2006, Carrie Underwood performed Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” on the Grand Ole Opry stage, surprising Idol skeptics with her spot-on rendition. Three years later, she reprised her performance for the first time at her 2009 fan club party, as requested by her fans. She sang it brilliantly, with graceful conviction and emphasis on the natural “cry” in her voice, reminiscent of the female country greats.
The icing on the cake was Underwood’s admission that she’d love to record “Stand By Your Man” on a country classics album one day, along with an earlier admission that she’d been thinking about recording an album of hymns – two items high on most fans’ wish lists. Considering the other songs on her fan club party set list ranged from a rousing, acoustic “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to an impeccable “How Great Thou Art,” I think there are few limits to Underwood’s potential and depth as an artist, and I could not be more thrilled for her future in country music.
Tara falls in love with the Grand Ole Opry
I know, I know; it’s irrelevant to the festival, but the Opry was such an acutely special part of my Nashville experience that I just had to include it. I caught the Tuesday night show, featuring a wonderful mishmash of traditional and contemporary performances by artists such as the Charlie Daniels Band, Trace Adkins, Ricky Skaggs and Little Big Town.
But it was the entirety of the experience that really got to me: I was surprised to find that the Opry House itself, as a venue, is epic and intimate all at once, leaving you feeling like you’re experiencing something very grand that was crafted just for you. That personable quality, along with the Opry’s palpable energy and richly spiritual atmosphere, struck a particular chord inside me. Of all the live music venues I’ve been to, the Opry takes the cake.
The Judds reunion ends with an emotional “Love Can Build a Bridge”
I knew the rare mother-daughter reunion was going to be good when Naomi Judd joined Wynonna Judd on the LP Field stage sporting a hot pink, rhinestone-encrusted dress suit, and Wynonna turned to the audience, smirked and said: “some things never change.” And she was right, as the two masterfully charmed their way through a string of their 80s hits, ending with a poignant performance of “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
It’s a simple and incredibly sappy song, but it has timeless meaning, one that certainly wasn’t lost on the stadium crowd. The high point of the performance was the chilling chorus the entire audience sang a cappella, prompting Naomi to shed a few tears. You know ABC will never show a performance like that –one with social relevance but no 2009 pop culture relevance– on its three-hour special in August, but maybe that’s the kind of moment that isn’t meant to be broadcasted in living rooms across America.
The fans steal the show
Finally, for all its star power and talent, the CMA Music Festival really is fundamentally about the fans – the most passionate, tireless, supportive, ridiculously devoted people I’ve ever encountered, who blew me away with their spirit and unity. I’ve spent most of my life emotionally connecting to music and artists in ways that people around me don’t quite understand, so to be among thousands of fans who shared my exact sentiments was completely, overwhelmingly moving, and without a doubt the highlight of my week.
I met fans from all over the world, from Scotland to Canada to Australia, drawn to Nashville by good music and a chance to hang out with their favorite artists. To the CMA’s credit, the festival does an amazing job of fostering these reciprocal interactions between the fans and artists. I was skeptical about the festival actually feeling like a “thank you” to the fans, rather than a giant marketing effort, but I was quickly proven wrong by the genuine and even organic acts of the artists themselves.
The artists don’t have to participate in the charity events, much less sign autographs at them for hours, and they don’t have to hold fan club parties tailored to their fans’ interests. They don’t have to hug their fans or strike up conversations when they meet them at the convention center. Country artists don’t have to sincerely care about you in order to have successful careers (isn’t that evidenced by much of the entertainment industry?), but it seems most do.
And that’s why country music fans willingly continue to be the heart and soul of the industry. They request songs, buy albums, create street teams, spread positive messages, attend concerts, stream music videos, write to critics, rally around causes, camp out overnight on sidewalks, make T-shirts, support charities, vote for awards, write letters of encouragement…and the list goes on. They deserve respect and gratitude, and that, at its essence, is what the CMA Music Festival offers, in a way no other genre of music does.
Live and learn. I did a lot of living and learning during my first day (ever) at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio, California.
First lesson:Don’t rely on MapQuest. I didn’t take the large black freeways on the map to the beautiful but bizarre desert retirement slash resort community that hosts Stagecoach. Or the smaller blue lines, or even the teensy red ones. I took the non-existent purple ones through the backcountry past unusual rock formations and the odd farmhouse. It was just me and the random tanker truck going mach negativo.
Second lesson:Show up early. The tanker truck and purple lines aside, I didn’t plan well. And any plans I did have were shot to h*** as soon as I arrived at the polo fields and, well, circled the fields at a crawl (which is a generous term) for nigh two hours before entering the parking lot. So, as I slowly watched the thermometer inch up towards 100 degrees on my dashboard, I kissed goodbye my plans for The Infamous Stringdusters and Lynn Anderson. I’m sorry, guys.
Third lesson: Don’t presume anything about country music fans. While I was very slowly making my way into the parking lot, I took notice of the cars around me. There was a BMW in front of me, a Porsche on my left and a Mercedes behind me. Hmmm…didn’t they hear that polo was cancelled this weekend? But no, the fancy cars were full of college kids, a large family and an old couple…all dressed in cowboy boots and hats and headed to the festival. I’d say welcome to country music, Southern California style: cowboy boots and Gucci purses, but that would cheapen the genuine spirit of those who attended the festival. While not precisely diverse, I doubt you will find a more overall wholesome group of people anywhere. You can only have organized chaos in a group this large with people like this.
Fourth lesson:Bring a chair. Who knew? As the only person not schlepping a chair around, I might as well have had “Stagecoach virgin” stamped on my forehead. The chair guarantees you a position among the sea of people somewhere in the proximate vicinity of the stage. Proximity to the stage being relevant, of course; as long as you can see the big screens, you’re fine.
Fifth lesson:Sit near a speaker. Darius Rucker and Little Big Town both suffered from poor sound (as compared to Brad Paisley, whom you could hear clearly from the parking lot). They come off as incredibly sweet people, but if they’re not going to sing or talk any louder, you definitely need a large speaker nearby. This was particularly tragic during Little Big Town’s set. While large venues may help this band garner new fans, they are a band made for intimate venues. The intricacies of their harmonies get lost in stadium sound.
Sixth lesson:Try to forget lessons one through five and just enjoy.
Darius Rucker was on stage as I arrived. He has a pleasant voice and a laid-back stage presence that goes down easy, even if neither is particularly spectacular. He comes off as a quasi-country Jack Johnson, although slightly more interesting. Like LBT, he might be worth checking out in a smaller venue. His biggest moment, ironically, came when he sang Hank William Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” He had everyone in line at the hamburger stand about a mile away from the stage singing along. I heard later on that Brad Paisley joined him on stage for that particular number. The crowd ate it up.
ize-full wp-image-905″ title=”little-big-town-fl” src=”http://www.countryuniverse.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/little-big-town-fl.jpg” alt=”little-big-town-fl” width=”108″ height=”98″ />LBT took the stage singing “Good as Gone.” I was incredibly excited to see this group for the first time. Unfortunately, I feel as if I still haven’t heard them; properly, at least. However, I did hear enough to know that this isn’t the venue to fully appreciate them as a band. Despite having songs in their repertoire that rock, like “Good Lord Willing,” this isn’t a country-rock band built for conquering tens of thousands of people. And despite being beautiful singers, their harmonies don’t stand up well in the face of a brisk wind in an open setting. Still, what I did catch of their set, which included “Fine Line,” “I’m With the Band” and “A Little More You,” left me wanting more, even as I wondered during their closer, “Boondocks,” if they’re ever going to reach those heights again.
Reba McEntire took to the stage as the sun set over the desert, and as if rising for a queen, the sea of people took to their feet. Suddenly, it felt like I was at a concert, and a country one at that. With a killer band, vocals and stage presence, I have to admit that by the time Reba launched into “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I had forgiven Mapquest and forgotten the parking situation. The best and worst part about a Reba show, is that she has so many hits, that you are inevitably going to hear some of your favorites, and miss out on others. Perhaps recognizing this, part way through her set McEntire launched into a medley of hits, including “Somebody” and “Love Revival.” Reba also played her new single, “Strange,” which didn’t sound out of place among her older material, including “Ring On Her Finger,” “I’m a Survivor” and “Fancy,” but didn’t rise to the same level either.
The thing about Reba, and to a certain extent Brad Paisley, the evening’s final performer, is that even if you knew nothing about country music, you would know they were among the genre’s stars. They both have that intangible “it” factor. What Reba has, that Paisley doesn’t have quite yet, however, is an extensive catalog. Therefore, if you’ve been to a Paisley concert in the past couple of years, you had already seen the show he put on at Stagecoach. A Paisley concert is an extravaganza built for the mainstream radio consumer. With high-tech screens in the background, it’s chalk full of radio friendly sing-a-longs, from the cutesy “Online,” “Alcohol,” “Ticks” and “Celebrity,” to the heartfelt “Letter to Me” and “Waitin’ on a Woman.” With his guitar flung over his shoulder, Paisley throws himself into both styles with equal aplomb, but I came to the realization last night that I much prefer Paisley in heartfelt mode. He’s fun on the ditties, but truly shines when he slows it down.
As it was the last stop on Paisley’s recent “Paisley Party” tour, Paisley promised at the beginning of his set to break all the rules and play until the sun rose. Being not entirely sure if he was going to follow through on that promise, and recalling how long it took to get into the parking area, I left a little early. It truly didn’t matter. I heard the rest of the concert as I spent 45 minutes looking for my car and another hour or so exiting the parking facility. Like I said earlier, Paisley had excellent sound.
Live and learn. At some point near midnight as I was crawling out of the parking lot, tired, a little cranky, wishing I had brought a chair and had one of the RVs parked in the adjoining lot to crash in, I wondered if the entire day had been worth it. My immediate answer: Reba had been worth every second, and Paisley was icing on the cake.
I swear I’ve heard this song somewhere before, but that’s probably just because every writer in Nashville already has a version of it. You know the jist: “I don’t need luxurious things, ’cause I got the sun and the moon and you, sweet baby.”
And you know, I don’t think there’s an inherent problem with that theme. It’s good stuff, the kind of mentality I definitely subscribe to personally and am willing to buy into when I listen to music.
Problem is, precious few songwriters seem able to flesh it out without resorting to the same trite, dumbed-down approach. Pretty much every song of this persuasion just throws out some examples of what is unattainable, then says, “but no worries, I’ve got…” and then throws out some examples of that. There is no room for interpretation or thought on the listener’s part; these songs are designed to feed you a sentiment rather than allow you to unpack one yourself.
So it’s no wonder, really, that the language and examples used in “Alright” could be exchanged with those in dozens of songs that have come out over the past few years; they all have such a one-dimensional approach that it’s hard to look at the details as anything but random fillings in a template. (And if you’re wondering why else it sounds like a familiar formula, check out how it rips its arrangement directly from Taylor Swift’s “Our Song.” Nice.)
The lone saving grace is Rucker’s performance, which demonstrates the kind of infectious character that could be spent making new-gen country classics instead of so many shallow forgettables. Now that he’s broken at radio and retail, let’s hope he’s given the chance to flex his real artistry next time out.
On Wednesday, February 11, the Academy of Country Music will unveil the nominees for their 44th annual awards ceremony. Last year, the usual suspects prevailed. Brad and Carrie repeated in the Vocalist categories, Brooks & Dunn claimed their 14th Vocal Duo prize and Kenny Chesney earned his fourth consecutive Entertainer of the Year award. As a prelude to the nominations announcement, here’s my projected slate for this year’s ceremony. (Favorites are in bold.)
Entertainer of the Year
Prognosis: The “no girls allowed” edict will likely be lifted. Underwood is the genre’s most prominent ambassador, and Sugarland’s rise to the high ranks has both commercial and critical support.
Note of interest: “The winner shall be determined by a combination of votes from the membership of the ACM and viewer voting.”
The nominations for this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards will be announced on Wednesday, February 11, and Country Universe will have a preview next week. As announced yesterday, the blond brigade of Julianne Hough, Leann Rimes, Jessica Simpson and Kellie Pickler will read the nominations from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The Academy of Country Music, Dick Clark productions and Great American Country (GAC) announced today that for the first time ever, the three newcomer categories for the Academy of Country Music Awards—Top New Female Vocalist, Top New Male Vocalist and Top New Vocal Duo or Group—will be opened up to interactive fan voting through GACTV.com. The 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards will be broadcast LIVE from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas Sunday, April 5, 2009 at 8:00 PM live ET/delayed PT on the CBS Television Network.
Fan voting for these three categories will begin at GACTV.com on Friday, February 13, and will close on Thursday, March 5. The winner in each of the three categories will be announced March 9, and will move on to compete in a brand new Academy of Country Music Awards category, Top New Artist. Voting for the Top New Artist category will begin on March 16, and will close on April 5, with the winner being announced live during the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards.
The official website is cryptic regarding the validity of voting procedures. Under the Best New Artist categories, the Board of Directors state that winners will be determined by a vote of members and/or viewer voting, so the Academy could possibly have a hand in the voting in case inconsistencies arise.
The Academy’s voting criteria was called into question last year when the Entertainer of the Year award was a fan-voted affair, and today’s announcement continues the questionable practice of allowing the general public to voice their opinions for one of the industry’s highest honors. This year, the rules do explicitly state that Entertainer of the Year will be awarded based on both membership vote and fan participation.
Critics’ fave Jamey Johnson also suffers from the academy’s shortsighted criteria. Due to an absolutely archaic rule, Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song (current sales: 270k at 26 weeks) is ineligible for the Album of the Year category.
The Album must have attained minimum sales of 300,000 units and/or maintained an average of 20,000 unit sales per week since release as reflected by SoundScan during the qualification period. Any album commercially released prior to the preceding calendar year, but achieving its highest charted position in any accepted country music industry publication chart and greatest commercial success during the calendar year, is eligible unless it has appeared on a final ACM ballot in this category.
Conceivably, Johnson can be nominated for Album of the Year next year. By that time, That Lonesome Song will have sold over 300,000 copies and could sneak above its current chart peak in 2009 (it debuted at No.6 in August and now rests at No. 7 on the weekly chart). Understood? With record sales dwindling due to the economy and the current technological shift within the music industry, the criteria must be changed. Unless the rule is amended, only ten albums are eligible (the latest releases from Kenny Chesney,Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Lady Antebellum, James Otto, Darius Rucker, Sugarland, George Strait, Taylor Swift and Zac Brown Band). This is a small pool from which to determine the genre’s best album of the year. The current slate of criteria for the ACM only serves to dilute a meaningful country music milestone and forgo artistic value in favor of commercial prowess and internet savvy.
Fun fact: In its final week of eligibility for last year’s ACM Awards, Miranda Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sold 7,894 copies for a total of 304,999 since its May 1, 2007 debut. Lambert’s sophomore set went on to best platinum-selling albums from Kenny Chesney, Rodney Atkins, Taylor Swift and Brad Paisley to claim the ACM award for Album of the Year.As of February 7, 2009, the album has sold 679,391 copies and remains the second-oldest album on the Country Albums chart (Taylor Swift’s Taylor Swift).
In this era of rampant piracy and economic recession, things aren’t looking good for the music industry. We don’t post too often about the business side of the music business here, as we tend to keep the focus on the music. But the reality is that these numbers matter. If Little Big Town’s second Equity album had performed as well as the first, the label might still be in business.
It’s not all doom and gloom, as many artists go on to make their best music once they leave major labels. But this Christmas, you can guarantee that some artists and record executives will be bracing for the New Year, while others are embracing it.
Here’s a look at some totals for albums released in 2008, ranked by total sales (rounded to the nearest thousand):
Taylor Swift, Fearless – 1,519,000
Sugarland, Love on the Inside – 1,179,000
George Strait, Troubadour – 693,000
Alan Jackson, Good Time – 628,000
Toby Keith, 35 Biggest Hits – 530,000
Kenny Chesney, Lucky Old Sun – 479,000
Faith Hill, Joy to the World – 341,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum – 337,000
James Otto, Sunset Man – 332,000
Rascal Flatts, Greatest Hits Volume 1 – 330,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live – 284,000
Julianne Hough, Julianne Hough – 260,000
Toby Keith, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy – 224,000
Jewel, Perfectly Clear – 203,000
Dierks Bentley, Greatest Hits: Every Mile a Memory - 195,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song – 183,000
Heidi Newfield, What Am I Waiting For – 162,000
Jessica Simpson, Do You Know – 153,000
Brad Paisley, Play – 137,000
Kellie Pickler, Kellie Pickler – 129,000
Montgomery Gentry, Back When I Knew it All – 127,000
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 – 127,000
Emmylou Harris, All I Intended to Be – 119,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation – 118,000
Randy Travis, Around the Bend – 89,000
Ashton Shepherd, Sounds So Good - 84,000
Jimmy Wayne, Do You Believe Me Now – 81,000
Trace Adkins, X – 72,000
Billy Currington, Little Bit of Everything – 65,000
While a number of artists from different musical genres entered into the country rodeo this past year, no Nashville newcomer was more successful than Hootie & the Blowfish frontman, Darius Rucker. His debut country disc, Learn to Live, topped the country album charts in its first week of release, in large part due to its lead single, the #1 smash, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.”
Country Universe is offering a free copy of Learn to Live to our loyal readers. To be considered, leave a comment and tell us your favorite #1 country song of 2008.
Billboard #1 country songs in 2008:
Taylor Swift – “Our Song”
Brad Paisley – “Letter To Me”
Rodney Atkins – “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)”
Carrie Underwood – “All-American Girl”
Alan Jackson – “Small Town Southern Man”
Trace Adkins – “You’re Gonna Miss This”
George Strait – “I Saw God Today”
James Otto – “Just Got Started Loving You”
Brad Paisley – “I’m Still A Guy”
Carrie Underwood – “Last Name”
Kenny Chesney – “Better As A Memory”
Montgomery Gentry – “Back When I Knew It All”
Blake Shelton – “Home”
Alan Jackson – “Good Time”
Sugarland – “All I Want To Do”
Taylor Swift – “Should’ve Said No”
Keith Urban – “You Look Good In My Shirt”
Jimmy Wayne – “Do You Believe Me Now?”
Brad Paisley – “Waitin’ On A Woman”
Jimmy Wayne – “Do You Believe Me Now?”
Darius Rucker – “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It”
Kenny Chesney – “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”
Toby Keith – “She Never Cried In Front Of Me”
Carrie Underwood – “Just A Dream”
Taylor Swift – “Love Story”
Entries will be considered until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, November 23. Best of luck!
Last night, the CMA stamped its approval on the leading contemporary country stars of today. Congratulations to Kevin for commandeering the most popular live blog in Country Universe history. Here is a series of highlights (according to me) from an otherwise staid ceremony:
Best performance: “More Like Her,” Miranda Lambert; “Just a Dream,” Carrie Underwood. With understated brilliance, Lambert shifted gears by offering her Texas twang on the stripped-down ballad, while Underwood hit all the glory notes on her dramatic tearjerker with style and grace. Often pitted as rivals and polar opposites, the two proved that country music holds plenty of room for these two prodigious talents. Although Underwood ended Lambert’s faint hopes of claiming the Female Vocalist prize, bet on Lambert winning her fair share of CMAs in the near future.
Sound off: Repeatedly an issue, the Sommet Center’s sound system had problems again this year. Also, Nashville is a town of songwriters, but L.A. is a town of scriptwriters, and some intelligent, humorous ones would be welcome at next year’s ceremony.
Nashville’s full of musicians, too: Let’s tip our hats to first-time CMA award winner, Musician of the Year, Mac McAnally.
At only twenty-three years old, Adam Gregory has been performing for ten years in his native Canada. After arriving in Nashville in 2007, he signed a recording contract with Midas Records, who then reformed last year under indie powerhouse Big Machine Records. Earlier this year, Gregory reached the Top 40 with his first single, “Crazy Days,” and last month he released his second single, “What It Takes.” His yet-untitled debut album in the United States is slated for release in Spring 2009. Gregory called Country Universe earlier this week to provide a glimpse into the life and career of the Nashville newcomer.
Who is Adam Gregory as an artist? And which artists have inspired this direction?
I consider myself as just a guy who sticks to his roots and follows his own path and tries to find meaning in every song. I’ve co-written a lot of songs on the album, so I hope to put my own imprint and give it that extra attention because it’s coming from me and who I am. We think it’s a refreshing sound. We have something new to offer. It’s not a country twang. It’s more of a modern-day sounding music. But I grew up listening to Vince Gill. He’s such a great singer, and so humble. And of course, Garth Brooks and George Strait. He (Strait) has maintained a personal life and family and still had a great career. That’s what I aspire to do.