Though the Country Music Association's official schedule lists Nashville's signature music event as running from June 8-11, anyone along Lower Broadway on Wednesday afternoon saw thousands of country fans and heard dozens of country songs.
A brief downtown parade led into a more than five-hour, multi-artist concert in the Gaylord Entertainment Center's courtyard, and fans watched country duo Big & Rich and self-proclaimed "hick-hop" rapper Cowboy Troy deliver a genre-melding set. The whole thing seemed for all the world like… well, like the CMA Music Festival was going on.
"Brilliant, wasn't it?" was country fan Veronica Holt's rhetorical assessment of Big, Rich and Troy. Holt, an avid line-dancer, traveled from her home in Wales to attend. She and friend Rita Nock, of Nottingham, England, wore cowboy hats to shield themselves from a hot but uncharacteristically bearable music fest sun.
Visitors have been filing in for days. Many festival attendees knew enough by Tuesday morning not to have to ask why the nightly, Thursday-through-Sunday concerts had been shifted to some place called LP Field. The early arrivals were encouraged by fan club parties that took place before the festival got under way.
Tuesday evening, country artist Joe Nichols — his "Size Matters" is in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart — was at The Factory in Franklin for his fan club's party.
"It amazes me the distance that people come to be a part of this," Nichols said, sitting on his tour bus before singing and signing for 300 fans. "Just now, I talked to a lady who's here from Australia."
That lady, Mandi Jaehne, of Adelaide in South Australia, began paying attention to the current country scene when Aussie Keith Urban reached stardom. She attended the festival last year, got face-time with artists Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton and met other fans who became American friends. She reunited with some of those friends outside Nichols' party. The women didn't have tickets to Nichols' sold-out event, but he posed for photos with them anyway.
Inside the party, 300 members of Nichols' 5,000-member fan club had paid $25 each to dine on pizza and brownies, to hear a show from Nichols and his band and to greet the singer.
Fan club parties are increasingly valued by the CMA Music Festival flock, in part because most of country's biggest stars eschew autograph tables that were the biggest draw of the festival when it was called Fan Fair and took place at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the 1980s and '90s. The parties are a chance to spend time with artists and to see them in a loose, convivial environment.
After each song he sang, Nichols fielded questions and requests from his fans, who learned that his personal favorite of all his recorded material is the Iris DeMent-penned "No Time To Cry" and who heard Nichols and band member/longtime friend Brian Spradlin perform a tongue-in-cheek, Brokeback-style version of the Tim McGraw and Faith Hill duet "It's Your Love."
"I need a vacation, and I love country music singers," said Stephanie Barker of Talladega, Ala., when asked why she was attending the festival and Nichols' party. "This is like seeing the singers in their own world."
Outside the Wednesday afternoon concert at the GEC courtyard, Betty Schultz of Bolingbrook, Ill., prepared to watch country band Little Big Town perform. Schultz ran down her personal schedule, which is heavy on parties.
"I've been to Blake Shelton, and I'm going to the ones for Neil McCoy, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins and Trisha Yearwood," she said, noting that the club membership fees can get expensive. "I quit smoking, so I take the money I would have spent on cigarettes and spend it on country music. I work hard, and then I splurge."
Schultz didn't have to splurge for the courtyard show, a free Chevrolet-sponsored affair. Police estimated that a bigger-than-expected audience of 3,000 watched and listened as Big & Rich and Cowboy Troy performed Troy's "I Play Chicken With The Train."
John Rich of Big & Rich is a member of the Country Music Association's board of directors. He said this year's nightly stadium concerts would offer value to ticket-holders in the form of big-name surprise appearances.
"People are buying tickets for one thing, and they're going to get that thing and then they're going to get something else great, too," Rich said. "People are going to love it." •