Native Nashvillians though we may indeed be, The Spin has never claimed mainstream country music as our wheelhouse. But with this year's CMA Music Fest taking place on a different weekend than Bonnaroo, we finally had no proper excuse not to dip our toes into the mainstream and see what all the fuss is about. And what better way to check the haps than sitting in on what amounts to a crash-course-style sampler at LP Field, wherein some of country's biggest names dropped 30-minute sets of overblown arena country?
We're more accustomed to the intimate confines of the 18,000-capacity Bridgestone Arena, but after grabbing our $8 Bud Light, we found our way to the club level just in time for a set from the Dane Cook of country music. We're of course talking about the Academy of Country Music's 2013 Entertainer of the Year, Luke Bryan, who came out sporting his baseball cap, graphic T and booty-wrigglin' britches. Gleeful and full of slinky, serpentine stage moves, the crooner — whose songs are mostly like middle-of-the-road alt-rock power ballads — comes off like a walking, grinning ecstasy pill, singing about how corn makes whiskey and his girl makes his speakers go boom boom. But Bryan indeed seems genuinely grateful to be where he is, and his perfect storm of country-boy good looks, libidinous moves and feel-good, summer-centric Top 40 country had every tailgating dude and tan-line-sporting gal in the place singing along. He and his band even played a bit of Taio Cruz's pop hit "Dynamite." Crowd = fish. LP Field = barrel.
Then, out came bona fide pop princess Taylor Swift in her trademark hotpants and sparkling shoes, with a backing band that looked every bit the glam-emo outfit. With her affected, Stepford Wife-like stage moves and red, spangled Les Paul as a prop (later she had a banjo), watching Swift's performance was a bit like seeing someone sing into her bedroom mirror, all moves practiced, planned and pristine. It's also quite easy to see why kiddos eat it up — like, for instance, the wee one near us whose sign adorably read, "Taylor, I'm your loudest fan." Every possible moment was injected with demure poses and attitude-filled glances at no one in particular. Until, that is, she brought out Tim McGraw and they delivered their duet "Highway Don't Care." Country workhorse Keith Urban even joined in for the guitar solo. It was the first moment of Swift's set that felt spontaneous, and the crowd response was among the biggest of evening, all because something happened that no one was particularly expecting.
And then, for the first time in about a decade, The Spin went to Church. The Chief himself, Eric Church, dosed us with that hard-and-heavy, arena-rock-cribbing strain of mainstream country he's known for, mugging from behind his aviators like he was getting his boner stroked. Many of his tunes — "Keep On" especially — stick pretty closely to the pop-country song archetype best presented by Garth Brooks' "Rodeo." Church even borrowed a crowd member's boot during his song "These Boots." He sang to the boot, stroked it, caressed it. It was like a cartoon-character version of a country star. While we vastly prefer Taylor Swift's songs over Church's, he at least puts forth an in-the-moment, palpably impassioned performance. Even, you know, if the music sounds like repackaged Poison.
Decked out in leather pants and a corset emblazoned with pink flames, Miranda Lambert (the real-life Juliette Barnes if there is one) strutted and swaggered onto the stage with a fistful of songs about how shit "ain't her problem" and so forth. Lambert is an empowered and self-assured performer, and women absolutely love her — there's hardly a more relatable young songstress in the pop-country game, it seems. Bits of her aw-shucksy, happy-family banter betrayed her well-managed image, but songs like the shanty-esque "All Kinds of Kinds" and the explosive "Mama's Broken Heart" are all attitude.
As for the rest of the weekend, some of the music played at the CMA Music Fest was country music. Like that of honey-voiced nudist Randy Travis, who took the stage at LP Field Friday night as the evening's token pre-Garth country crooner. He flashed his pearly whites, played "Deeper Than the Holler" and dedicated a new song, "Tonight I'm Playing Possum," to the late George Jones. And it was great, even if on the jumbo-tron (where, later, our tweets saw some action) we'd catch ol' Randy T. giving a shell-shocked "What the fuck am I doing here" glance at the crowd of truly wonderful people.
You know how we know the CMA Fest attendees are wonderful people? They don't listen to Lenny Kravitz. That's got to be a start. Kravitz was a surprise performer on Saturday night, puzzling the crowd who tried to figure out what tacit relationship he has to country. He knows Jason Aldean? Aldean "rocked" with Kravitz on "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" And the crowd answered with a resounding no, later leaving Lenny out to dry, as his '80s semi-hit "Let Love Rule" was as awkward an attempt to inspire a stadium-wide sing-along as any in rock, er, country music history.
Anyway, here's a highlight: Kelly Clarkson opening her impossibly pitch-perfect set with "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," a killer pop song that sounded all the more epic coming out of stories-high PA stacks. If that's what they call country music these days, we like it!
But perhaps no CMA performer captured the true spirit of country as completely as Sunday night's festival headliner Carrie Underwood, who sounded more like Axl Rose than Axl Rose on a remarkably faithful cover of Guns N' Roses "Paradise City," which was especially faithful in that Underwood's backing band featured no original members of Guns N' Roses — though Brad Paisley did play with both Underwood and Charlie Daniels, and that qualifies him as the Slash of country music.
Hunter Hayes was also great. Don't get us wrong: We'd still probably rather slather ourselves in peanut butter and then wrestle with days-starved wild boars than be stuck on a desert island long enough to make it through one full listen of Hunter's record. But we agree with our Jewish mother: The kid's got talent. And he enraptured the crowd something fierce. The fact that Hayes also managed to trot out deplorably irrelevant popsmith Jason Mraz and not end up on The Spin's hit list is commendable.
Then there was the crime against humanity that is Florida Georgia Line, whose horrifying master class in douchetardom — which, musically, sounded like Def Leppard meets Uncle Kracker meets Master P, and which fashionably looked like Def Leppard meets Uncle Kracker meets Master P meets Baptist roofie dealers from the Jersey Shore — was harder to watch than an hours-long ASPCA ad.
But wait, we were talking about things we liked at CMA Fest. Let's pick up with Keith Urban, who — despite having to cut his set short to abide curfew (until Sunday night, performances consistently ran behind schedule) — made the best, most star-worthy stage exit we've ever seen. To put things in perspective, dude — who really can wail on a guitar, like, in a good way — was able to trump a Fourth of July-worthy fireworks show (which accompanied set-closing rocker "You Look Good in My Shirt") by exiting the stage via the crowd, walking down the stadium floor aisles, getting mobbed by fans, signing his guitar and handing it off to an audience member, before getting in his pickup truck and driving out of the arena via the tunnel, presumably off to go neck with Nicole Kidman at the top of Love Circle or something. It was pretty badass.
Our hard hearts totally melted when 9- and 13-year-old precocious sister act Lennon and Maisy Stella — you know them as Rayna's daughters on Nashville — made a surprise appearance to sing their cover of that uber-ubiquitous Lumineers song. It was seriously the most adorable thing we've seen since the bowling alley scene in There Will Be Blood.
Blake Shelton also performed.
There was a man named Jimmie Rodgers once.
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