Real Country Music
I decided at the last minute to attend the CMA Fest, billed as the 41st annual fan fair. For years, I have heard that it is a “must do” for any country music fan. Granted most of these reports were about the old fairgrounds based version of the event. Regardless, I thought (never having gone to the old event) I would still be able find something to my liking. There were no assignments waiting for me, no interviews arranged, no precise itinerary, just me as a fan attending for the first time. I guess you could say I went for no other reason than going. Upon returning, I could say that I went.
I arrived Tuesday evening too late and too tired to do much of anything but rest. But that was fine; the first event I planned to attend was the ROPE breakfast at 9am the next morning. ROPE, short for Reunion Of Performing Entertainers, hosted a Breakfast With The Stars. About thirty “stars” had committed to attending the breakfast with a smaller number slated to perform. Those in attendance, but not performing, included Freddy Weller, Mac Wiseman, Brenda Lee, Jean Shepard, Jan Howard, Razzy Bailey, Dickie Lee, Exile, and Mel Tillis. I did take a break from the biscuits and gravy to shake a few hands. I was impressed with lineup of attendees, and a bit sad that the years have begun to reach us all. As was evident when my group was asked, “Who is that?”, by someone pointing towards the relatively unchanged Mel Tillis.
And admittedly time has passed since many of the performers enjoyed the brightest of spotlights, but for a fan of the genre, it was priceless to hear Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius, the always great Leona Williams, the still hard working George Hamilton IV (with George Hamilton V), Moe Bandy, and the unrivaled Charlie McCoy. Other performers included T.G. Sheppard, Ronnie McDowell, Bobby Lewis, Robyn Young (son of Faron Young), and Rattlesnake Annie. Decades of Country Music's history were represented as far back as the fifties, with Johnny Moore turning in a able version of his hit “Come In Like a Lion and Out Like a Lamb”. And as could be predicted, Jett Williams also performed.
Having the one planned event out of the way, it was time to start deciding how to spend the next few days. After a quick stop at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop off of Music Valley Drive, I ended up on Lower Broadway. I thought this would be the ideal place to sit and and plan the rest of the day. However, somehow, I managed not to leave the area until closing time. Of course, not wanting to admit any self-will, I blame Rachel Hester and The Tennessee Walkers and Sarah Gayle Meech for this loss of time. Both acts put together a rather nice listen to sets combining originals and classic country covers. Both are well worth seeing and listening to but, if you are one that already rotates Ray Price, Don Gibson, and/or Charlie Walker in and out of your player you may find the covers a bit obvious.
After spending Wednesday engrossed in classic country, it was only fair to turn my attention to the present day. Thursday was spent in full CMA fan fair mode with a stop at the AT&T and Cisco Fan Fair Hall (Nashville Convention Center), the Chevrolet River Front Stage, and LP Field.
Well, that's not entirely true...I did catch a bit of a set by Dave Cox at Roberts Western World where he played covers....his albums of originals can be quite good. And I did stop at the Bud Light Stage in the plaza of Bridgestone Arena to hear Moe Bandy and Janie Fricke do a nice version of “It's A Cheatin' Situation.” Other than that....the day was fully CMA related.
Inside the Fan Fair Hall, different booths were arranged to allow a decent chance to maneuver in between the vendors and artists. Sadly, several artists required fans to prearrange the opportunity to shake their hands and say hello. For instance all of the artists to appear at the Roper Apparel booth, including Joe Nichols and Bill Anderson, required wristbands for those in line. Also sad to see were people holding signs stating “end of the line”. I understand crowd control is an issue at events such as this, but to have artists turn people away seemed against the legendary spirit of Fan Fair. We have all heard how Garth Brooks signed for hours and hours and stayed until the last fan was gone, but now I have seen Craig Morgan, with no more than fifteen people in line, honor the sign held by the last person in line.
Josh Thompson and Craig Campbell gladly smiled for any photo and seemed happy for the experience of participating in Fan Fair. In fact I saw these two artists more than any others during the week. They appeared at booths in the hall, appeared at several booths in Fan Alley (arranged booths, vendors, and stages set up in the streets near the hall and the river), and were spotted milling thru the crowds several times. I will readily admit watching these two put in the effort has encouraged me to re-visit their albums and listen in a different light. Also it was nice to see booths, and lines, for artists as varied as Manuel, Donna Fargo, Lynn Anderson, and The Kentucky Headhunters.
The only artist with quite an impressive line was Martina McBride. Martina is definitely an artist with a profile high enough that to skip the event wouldn't damage sales much, but she seemed to be sincere in giving the fans some attention. The second longest line belonged to Laura Bell Bundy, a newer name, who has manged to garner much attention over the past year, primarily through quite flattering videos. I am sure fans with pictures with either, or both, will soon be finding room on their mantles for their new mementos.
After making the walk from the hall through Fan Ally, I arrived at the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage in time to catch a complete Tracy Lawrence set. A memorable moment occurred as the emcee, who I assume is some local radio station personality, introduced Tracy as having “been so successful that he now owns his own record label.” The statement was said with such much positivity that I am sure that at least some of the crowd believed that being on your own label is quite an accomplishment. This is not said to diminish Tracy at all, his set was one solid hit after another. I was reminded just how good his music has been, and how consistent his chart success has been. But the fact that I had to be reminded says a lot.
From there it was to LP Field, where the lineup consisted of Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band, and Brad Paisley. If you consider sales and airplay over the past two years, each of these artists are headliners in their own right. Tonight offered them all in one evening.
Miranda Lambert started the evening. Several of the songs seem to have found their audience. I'm sure the crowd singing along with Gunpowder and Lead could be heard a mile away. I was unaware that the song had become such an anthem. Other hits like Baggage Claim were given more of a rock edge, making quieter songs like The House That Built Me understandably absent from the set. The most country selection, White Liar, drew an enthusiastic response as well.
And do ignore the internet comments about her appearance. Miranda has not been known to be a Barbie Doll and I don't understand attacking what many find endearing. In retrospect her set was my favorite of the night.
It was with the next artist, that the evening became something less than expected. Some time ago, Jason Aldean appeared on Crossroads with rocker Bryan Adams. During a taped moment of rehearsals, Bryan mentioned that “none of your songs (Jason's) are country. There's nothing country about them.” Those words don't begin to describe what he presented.
His set was nothing but straight rock in sound and feel. Granted he has been so heavily promoted and played that the crowd was very familiar with each song. Many of the attendees in the sold out LP Field were singing along and moving with every riff. Also, in fairness, his music, for rock, is not that bad although it's been done before.
And I stand by the comments I made during his set that somewhere the ghost of Porter Wagoner was weeping. Porter gave his life to Country Music while Jason Aldean sounds like he traded his soul for an Aerosmith cassette. Somewhere Def Leppard was smiling and having a laugh. One quick trip through the Hall Of Fame would show that history was not. The argument of whether his music is any good can be held elsewhere. And I can already hear the accusations that I am just dismissing anything new, but I am certain that I am on the firmest ground in saying that Aldean's sound is not grounded in anything the CMA has been tasked to defend and promote.
Next up was Lady Antebellum, the more pop than country cross genre hit makers of the past few years. Lady A started their set with Need You Now, their biggest hit. At the moment I was surprised to hear the song so early in the set. Upon reflection it probably was the right choice to try to draw the crowd back in after the assault they just experienced. Not surprising, for this setting, the sound mix had a rumbling throb not found on the record.. The crowd seemed to enjoy hearing Need You Now, but a few started to leave after the song finished and this was before hearing American Honey, Run To You, Our Kind Of Love, and other charters. Another interesting thing about their set was that the band appeared in the fashion of the day...... men in v neck tees and skinny jeans, women in unflattering dresses. Their look was as middle of the road as their sound. My wranglers, boots, and Hawaiian shirt made be feel very non-suburban.
Honestly, the past few sets made me consider joining the ever increasing flow of people heading toward the exits. When I did leave, bus drivers outside the stadium, reported buses began running at ten. According to my notes, that was right at the time Need You Now ended.
I caught only a bit of Zac Brown Band. I stayed long enough to see extended jam band versions of some decent songs. Chicken Fried becomes a bit much around the three minute mark. The crowd was leaving even more, and my choice seemed clearer. I offered Brad Paisley a silent apology and headed for the car. Hopefully, Friday would find a way to get the bad taste of Thursday out of my mouth.
Friday began with another visit to the convention center. Today was a better day in the hall. It was nice to see the Mavericks hosting and entertaining quite a line at their booth. I'll readily admit I'm anxious to see and hear the results of their rebirth. After my colleague said a quick hello to Raul Malo, we were able to catch a bit of the still strong T. Graham Brown followed by a set from one of Nashville's best kept secrets. Why Carter's Chord is not a household name is beyond me. Fortunately, we were allowed some time to speak to Carter's Chord for a few minutes. After hearing their music both recorded and live, and now having had a quick chat, I believe even more that they possess all the qualities needed to reach any heights. Lastly, we stopped to say hello to Doug Stone, as Jimmy Fortune performed Statler Brothers classics in the background.
Layla's Bluegrass Inn on Broadway was our the next stop where we caught a set from Bobby Marquez. Originally from Texas, Bobby finds inspiration in the sounds of George Strait, Johnny Rodriguez, Moe Bandy, etc. His sound is more Texas/Western than most up and comers. From the enjoyable Complicated Woman to the, according to Bobby, Strait recorded Marlboro Man, Bobby put in a set both strong and pure. After the set, we were able to lunch with Bobby. Through conversation, Bobby showed a personality fitting of his sound.
The rest of the day had us forgoing further CMA affiliated events. Instead of spending my last night in town in Nashville proper, a visit to Lebanon, TN. seemed a better choice. The first annual HillbilliesVille Country Fest at Fiddler's Grove on the fairgrounds in Lebanon offered quite a Saturday night lineup. Both my colleague and I thought a chance to see Ron Williams and Ken Mellons should be worth leaving the city for the evening. We were rewarded by a nice relaxed evening.
The covered stage provided plenty of room for a standard country band. Guitars, steel, fiddle, bass, and drums were all set to a nice level where nothing overpowered another. To paraphrase something I read recently the trick to “country drumming” is to “be right there” while being “barely noticeable”. Arguably, the same can be said of any steeped in tradition Country musician. The band backing all the artists at HillbilliesVille showed their experience and professionalism by complimenting the named acts.
To put it simply, the night was, especially after the LP experience, a treat. To sit under the stars while watching four wheelers and pickups come and go, and to see couples dancing arm and arm, provided a sense of country soul missing from the rest of the week. Seeing kids play while parents danced only added to the atmosphere.
And due to the atmosphere, and the arrangement of the grounds, I was given the chance to speak a bit with both Ron and Ken. Both were very personable, as were their families, and seemed as genuine as the music they play. Ken was able to rely on his hits (Juke Box Junkie, I Can Bring Her Back, Rub-a-Dubbin', etc) and those he penned for others (Honk if You Honky Tonk for George Strait). His set, as you might expect, was that of a solid and experienced performer. His first release was in 1994, and tonight his sound was just as refreshing. After having met him, it is clear his music reveals nothing but honesty. What you hear is Ken.
As for Ron, how could someone with a voice so purely traditional release three albums without me knowing? I assure you all three are now in my collection, and in heavy rotation on my player. If you like your music a bit Haggard, Whitley, Watson, Jackson, Gosdin, etc., you'll find Ron to your liking as well. And with a look that reminds those I have shown his disc to of Keifer Sutherland...you would think his name would be quite the draw. Another victim of the times, I guess...
All in all, I was glad I made the trip. And I am thankful that I ended up seeing more than just the CMA events. Due to being flexible, I was able to see more of a variety, and hopefully have returned with a fuller of picture of the current state of Country Music. Unfortunately, the current state might best be described in the retelling of an encounter I had at LP Field.
While buying an eight dollar beer, I was asked by a yellow shirted CMA volunteer if I was liking the show. I replied honestly, “I am pretty sure Jason Aldean is not country.”
With a bit of defensiveness, she replied, “They call it Southern Sound.”
Taking the bait that I don't believe she intended to cast, I asked , “Who's they? I don't mind a bit of Skynard from time to time, but even Molly Hatchet wouldn't claim there was anything country about tonight.”
I made her friend chuckle with the remark, but apparently frustrated my conversation partner even more, “you know, Aldean and Zac Brown, they call it Southern...but whatever...to each their own”, she answered.
I continued with, “But Zac Brown and Aldean are not that similar in sound.”
That was when a quick glare and the turning away from me indicated that the discussion had ended.
Promotional buzzwords and trends dictate what we are being served, with no regard to format or history. The trip to Lebanon reminded me that the music is not dead, while Nashville begs you not to look behind the curtain. It is true that gloss and glitter (think Nudie and Manuel) have always been a part of the industry. But looking good in the stage lights came after a display of talent. The circus ring of Nashville has the cart and horse moving in such a high speed circle that you can't tell exactly which is in the front.
So... next year, if you are making plans..... consider staying in Lebanon and visit Nashville. And to the fifteen year old (I'm guessing) guitar carrying girl that was on my flight from Nashville to Austin here's hoping that your influences range beyond Britney Spears and Taylor Swift.