CMA Music Festival 2009: Memory Grab Bag

dsc000011I 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.


  1. I too am finding it hard to condense 4 days worth of music and mingling with thousands of other country fans into one post. This year was my first CMA Fest and I was a little disappointed with the lack of personal interaction by the artists with their fans. But I plan to return next year armed with experience.

    Nice write-up too.

  2. This too was my first CMA Fest, well I was only there for Monday thru Thursday’s events, including Carrie Underwood’s Party. It is very hard to even sum up my limited stay, I can’t imagine for those who were there for the whole thing. I will try later.

  3. You guys are soo lucky to attend! I’ve always wanted to go to the festival since I was a little kid! To quote Taylor Swift in the CMT Awards opening: “It’s my dream.” I would love to take in everything the festival has to offer from fan club parties, to the nightly stadium shows, to the Riverfront stages, to the autograph booths at the Convention Center, to attending the Grand Ole Opry, and attending the Celebrity Softball Game (probably the one thing I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid). I, like you said, would also feel like a kid in a candy store. Hopefully I’ll get to experience it next year.

    Great write up!

  4. Well I will most definitely be going for the whole week next year that’s for sure. I suggest any country or any music fan for that matter go and experience it. They really should go back to the name Fan Fair, cause that is exactly what it is the ultimate fan experience.

    My week started out at Carrie’s party and let me tell you there is huge difference between seeing an artist in concert then seeing them with about only 800 others. It was very intimate, and she was so candid and this may surprise sum but she was real funny (I was). She pulls out all the stops for her fans, a gift bag of all her favorite things. *sidetrack- I knew there would be an exhibit at the HOF with her dress and it said her accolades. Saying that when I walked in the Opry and saw her awards there I totally thought that case would be making its way to HOF afterwards, but no I was wrong she brought them to show her fans what they helped accomplish. There was one of each major award, and to see CMA, ACM, and a Grammy up close is something else, they are beautiful.

    She then came out slammed Ever After took a drink and said “I love you all, but right now not so much, you pick the hardest songs possible for me to sing, and I haven’t sung in two months, but we’ll get through it”, very light hearted. “Stand By Your Man” the people just went crazy for it and yes got a huge roar when she said she would like to record an album full of similar songs one day. What blew my mind was “How Great Thou Art” now that is when you see her vocals shine and it is spine chilling how good she did. After the songs which I think she did nine or ten, came and Q&A with Lance Smith, with submitted questions from the fans. When asked about winning the Entertainer of the Year she seemed to get rather chocked up. Then came a game with some huge give aways. We left there speechless.

    It was back to the Opry at night to see a magnificant show. Trace Atkins was great, that was my first time seeing him, but it was the Opry greats that did it for me. Ricky Skaggs was real good. Everyone seems to be really at home when they perform there. It really is a special feeling seeing a performance there and I can’t wait to go again.

    You read above about the two hour rain delay but it was well worth the wait for the 40,000 some odd who stayed. Brad finished his set at 2:40am, and nobody minded. He said “you know they told me to only sing four songs, cause it will be 2:00am, what do you guys think”? To the fans roar he performed another three songs. I was a little disappointed that Rascal Flatts didn’t stick it out, apparently they had a show the next day, but what got me was Darius Rucker is their opener and he stayed and performed after the rain delay.

    All in all like I said I will be going for the whole week next year, and I am not going to miss a thing (already booked last week, you need to or you will not get good seats!)Actually I think I will skip the pandamonium that is the Convention Centre for autographs, as I did this year. There were stories of people on the news camping out the night before, people getting trampled on, broken and spraind ankles, that’s just not for me!

    Everyone should really experience it at least once!!!

  5. It was an amazing festival and I was only there to work the Roughstock booth. Last year I went to stuff as a media member/fan and it was an…experience. I think many of the artists DO interact with their fans, even if it’s in the form of booth autograph signings.

  6. i love how at the opry show trace adkins and carrie underwood were totally fooling , flirting, teasing with each other it was so much fun!!

  7. I got to be a kid in a candy store this year! I’ve been asking my wife for 8 years to go, and we finally did!

    Here’s my take:

    The Convention Center was great if you avoided the mob of people trying to get in early. I showed up about 15 minutes after it opened every morning, and it was never even that crowded.

    I got to Nashville Monday night and went to the Global Artist Show. The highlight was Victoria Banks. I think she is nominated for 7 CCMA awards. She wrote “Saints & Angels” for Sara Evans. Anyway, she was great!

    Tuesday night, I went to the Nashville Navy Show. I got their about 15 minutes late and missed James Otto’s surprise performance. I did get there in time to meat him though. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy.

    Wednesday was packed. We got up early for the GAC breakfast, which was my highlight of the week. We got intimate performances from Darius Rucker, Eric Church, Mark Wills, and others and also got to meet them after the show.

    My 4-year old son really enjoyed the parade later that afternoon, and we watched Trent Tomlinson at the block party before going back to the hotel to get ready for the softball game.

    The softball game was kind of fun, but I don’t think I would need to ever go again.

    I never once made it to the Riverfront Stage. I spent most of everyday going back and forth between the Chevy Stage and Hard Rock Stage. Bomshel, Julie Roberts, and Bo Bice were the highlights of the Chevy Stage. Her & Kings County and the Amber Leigh band stole the show at the Hard Rock Stage

    Sugarland and the Zac Brown Band highlighted the LP Field shows for me. I didn’t see most of Saturday night’s show since I took my son back to the hotel so my wife could enjoy Martina and Trace.

    I loved the convention center. I’ve met very few celebrities, and I though it was a blast! Rhonda Vincent was very sweet, and so was Rachel Williams (who is she? check her out

    Anyway, I hope to go back next year!

  8. I love Fan Fest! (That’s a compromise between “Fan Fair” and “Music Fest”.) Before I moved to Nashville, I came up a couple of years when it was at the Fairgrounds. I love it downtown as there is more room to roam and much more to see and experience.
    As a “local”, I love just walking amongst all the fans and festivities, and this year the Riverfront shows were free so that was nice.

    Some locals may not like all that company in town at once (that’s their prob, tho!) but I love it. It’s great to see ALL that music and ALL those fans converge for a great time.
    As far as music-wise, I did take in the free Sara Evans show Sat. evening and then the Gatlin Bros on Sunday morning on the Riverfront. Good stuff!
    See y’all next year!

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