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.