Barely more than a month ago, LP Field, Riverfront Park and just about every downtown block up to Fourth Avenue were plunged under murky waters. Very soon, some 60,000 country music fans a day will fill all those spaces during the 39th annual CMA Music Festival. And a faithful, hardy bunch they are. No genre on earth has a more enduringly engaged fan base — or more fan clubs — than country music. Fan Fair, the name the festival went by for its first three-or-so decades, really drove the point home.
The Country Music Association lost no time after the flood getting word out on the organization's website that the show — or shows, rather — would go on as planned without shedding a single event. GAC took only two weeks to put together a star-studded telethon. The country music community seems in its element responding to the flood aftermath: No matter how broad the genre's listenership, or how big its market share, there is still a strain in country music that proudly embraces resilient underdog identity.
Brad Paisley is one of the country musicians who lost a heap of gear at SoundCheck when the waters rose, and one of the ones who became a sort of celebrity correspondent for the national media, talking with Anderson Cooper, penning an op-ed for Billboard and the like. Fittingly, considering the attention last year's American Saturday Night has gotten, he's also one of the CMA Fest headliners Sunday night. A particular winking, upbeat, meant-for-summer song from that album was on the charts when the flood hit. Afterward, that song, "Water," and its video (which shows Paisley and band splashing around with their instruments in a pool) took on both an ironic and a determined tone — Paisley's H20 Tour, after all, is trucking on.
One of country music's steadiest figures, Alan Jackson, headlines LP Field Thursday night. Three months ago, he released his equally steady — and contract-fulfilling — 18th album, Freight Train. Two others playing the stadium — Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, a country star couple who seem like they'd be fun to toss a few back with — are at earlier points in their careers than Jackson, and known for speaking their minds more. Last year's Revolution established Lambert's taste in songs of substance, in addition to attitude, and this year she's commuting between CMA Fest and Bonnaroo. While Shelton's no slouch as a singer, he seems to be especially enjoying a media-savvy-good-ol'-boy phase in his career, experimenting with releasing music in a shorter, cheaper format (he calls it a "Six Pak") and Tweeting to — or at — fans all day, every day in riotously unfiltered fashion.
New iterations of authentically country identity are never in short supply. But two of the festival's most noteworthy are Chris Young — who's a bona fide local boy and put out his second album, The Man I Want to Be, last year — and Easton Corbin, a new face who just released his self-titled debut. Young's got a rich baritone, and he put it to fine use, among other places, on his album-closing cover of Tony Joe White's country-soul classic "Rainy Night In Georgia." Corbin's natural, easygoing delivery has been justifiably attracting George Strait comparisons.
There are some distinctive female voices playing the smaller stages. One is Elizabeth Cook, whose new indie album, Welder, is full of brilliantly detailed songs with hard country-meets-garage rock spirit. Sultry blue balladeer Julie Roberts and plucky honky-tonk singer Sunny Sweeney have both been quiet on the new music front for a while, but are reportedly working on albums.
And, maybe it's because Lady Antebellum — who are also headlining — have proven how phenomenally successful the coed trio can be in country-pop, but at Riverfront Park and elsewhere, there's a small army of new, young, harmony-singing groups, a lot of them with coed lineups, or family lineups — or both. The Harters — siblings Leslie, Michael and Scott — are robust singers with a sound influenced by West Coast '70s country-rock. The opening mandolin lick of their song "Jenny," though, conjures Duran Duran's "Ordinary World." The Band Perry — another sister-brothers trio composed of Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry — made their chart entrance with "Hip to My Heart," a youthful, effervescent song, whose virtue is its embrace of pure pop, unclouded by any attempt to present it as a more serious thing. And the McClymonts — sisters Brooke, Samantha and Mollie — are Australia's Dixie Chicks, perhaps unknown here, but already big in their native land.
Besides all the music, and acres of family entertainment — magic shows, dog shows, cooking shows, dance contests, inflatables, giveaways, consumer product booths — the Fan Fair tradition of waiting in line to get performers' autographs is also still alive and well. The proceeds from this year's festival will be split between the usual beneficiary — the Keep the Music Playing program, supporting music education in schools — and flood relief, through the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. It's the first really big, really good thing to hit downtown Nashville since, well, you know. And, as a city, we've learned not to take such things for granted.
8-8:15 third kind
8:30-8:45 the shapschenk restagtion
9-9:15 lazer slut
9:15-9:30 tim carey
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