Nashville puts on a post-flood party, drawing thousands of fans and dozens of country artists for the four-day CMA Music Festival. USA TODAY surveys the action.
No triskaidekaphobia:Taylor Swift parlayed her favorite number into a theme for her fan event, taking over the Bridgestone Arena for a 13-hour signing event Sunday afternoon that featured not only an acoustic performance but also a peek behind the curtain of the superstar's tour trappings, such as her bus, backstage "tea party," wardrobe and set pieces. Alongside bracelets gifted to her by fans, Swift had fans write numbers on her arm marking how many hours she had been signing autographs. "It'll be interesting to see how many numbers I have at the end of the night," Swift says. "It's so much fun because they're all so nice and they say really sweet things. I'm so proud of my team for putting together an event that was exactly what I had in my mind."
Speechless:American Idol's Danny Gokey got his first taste of the fest as an artist and was left a little floored by the immensity and pace of the week. "I mean, really, wow. It's such an honor to be here, and I know that's such a cliché answer, but what else can you say?" Gokey says. "I thought (country fans) wouldn't accept me because I'm a pretty soulful singer, but (Randy Travis) said it was the thing that the fans would love, and he was right."
CMA PORTRAITS: Meet the big stars
BONNAROO: Big crowds turn out for Tennessee's other fest
Unfinished business: Power trio Lady Antebellum will seize the spotlight when they head out this fall on the group's first headlining tour, but the summer still includes opening for Tim McGraw. "It's easy to not look too far forward when we're looking onto a sea of faces every night," says Lady A's Hillary Scott. "His fans are so incredible and loyal, and he's proof that working your butt off pays off. It's a good training ground."
Playing with pain: Anybody who thinks artists have it easy needs to check out Jason Aldean's ankle. He sprained it right around the Academy of Country Music Awards in April, "and every time I made a certain move, it would send a pain from my knee all the way down through to my toes," says Aldean, who clearly doesn't have time to go on the disabled list. "So you're on stage trying not to look like you're about to start crying. It's still bothering me now."
Staying plugged in: "I discover most new music through my kids," Martina McBride says. "They're just exposed to so much more music than we were when we were kids, and they have such a wide range of tastes." Reba McEntire says she's seldom shy about picking others' musical brains. "I ask people what they're listening to," McEntire says, noting that she discovered Kings of Leon and Randy Houser that way. "I listen to their iPods sometimes."
Has it really been 10 years? Chart toppers Rascal Flatts can easily see the genre's changes since they hit the scene in 2000.
"I wouldn't have thought then that Bon Jovi or Darius Rucker would be in this genre, and I think we helped open doors for the Taylor Swifts," says singer Gary LeVox. The trio knows it has to roll with the changing marketplace every time a new project approaches. "We try to anticipate what the fans are going to want," Jay DeMarcus says. "And it's hard. It's like shooting in the dark." Adds Joe Don Rooney: "But a great, great song — people will run to it."
Team Coco invades Nashville: Once-and-future late-night host Conan O'Brien played a last-minute "secret" show at rocker Jack White's record store/performance space Third Man Records Thursday night, on the way to his Friday gig at Bonnaroo. The crimson-coiffed talker eschewed most of his comedy bits for a night of sweaty rock 'n' roll (including a rehearsed, but previously unplayed, version of Radiohead's Creep). The show was recorded on reel-to-reel and immediately pressed into limited-edition vinyl for fans to purchase.
Veteran performers The Oak Ridge Boys kicked off the slate of evening shows at LP Field Thursday night with a rendition of the national anthem, underscoring not only their near-constant presence at the CMA's annual event (originally known as Fan Fair) but also their pride in how quickly the city is rebounding from the May flooding. "We were at the very first ones in the mid-'70s," says the Oaks' Joe Bonsall. "We know how much it means to this city, and it's a little more emotional this year because of the flood. To look out on the crowd and realize that a few weeks ago that was all underwater, to see this place packed full, the streets packed full, the bars and restaurants packed full, it makes this event even more special."
It's a marathon, not a sprint: Josh Turner, whose career-defining single Long Black Train got the Friday night LP Field crowd up and forming trains (or conga lines, take your pick), says his camp's preparations for the festival start at least half a year before the event itself. "We're always trying to think and plan ahead, trying to do things that are different and unique, and also trying to make sure that I don't kill myself," Turner says with a laugh. "If you did all the events, you wouldn't have anything left after this week."
Double duty: A handful of artists, including blond bombshells Miranda Lambert and Elizabeth Cook, performed at both big Tennessee music festivals this weekend, splitting time between Nashville and Manchester, home of Bonnaroo. Prior to her LP Field appearance, Lambert admitted to both nerves and excitement for her B'roo experience. "This is country music and what I've been a part of my whole life and I know what to expect, but Bonnaroo is a whole other can of worms," Lambert says.
Meanwhile, Cook, whose new release Welder is getting great notices from all corners, felt no compunction to change up her set for the wildly divergent audiences, playing earthy, sexy songs like El Camino and Booty for both crowds. "The energy may feel different, but the core of a musical experience within an individual is the same. So whether you're tattooed and in dreads and in a bikini at Bonnaroo, or whether you're here in L.L. Bean and wearing your cowboy boots from the Loretta Lynn gift shop, what connects people with music is the same thing."
Keeping it in the (extended) family: Sibling trio the Band Perry were wide-eyed during the whole week's experience, including walking the "blue carpet" at Wednesday's CMT Music Awards, because they knew they had a whole bunch of eyes on them. "We're the CMA babies this year, and we're finding out that it takes a village to raise an artist," says lead vocalist Kimberly Perry. "Management people, label people, Mom and Dad and Grandmother have all been in town and encouraging us, so we're definitely in that keeping-our-noses-to-the-grindstone stage right now."
Songwriter first: Randy Houser, bringing both an intense and fun-loving outlook to the country outlaw sphere, feels his artistic road is made easier because of his own focus on songwriting. "It's way easier to figure out what you don't want to do," Houser says. "You can avoid that by just being a songwriter, and the songs are things I want to say, and it's not just something somebody brought me."
Getting back to normal: Nashville still faces a long haul to recover from the flood, but city officials and agencies worked overtime to get downtown prepped for the festival, Nashville's biggest tourist draw. Work still continues on parts of destinations like the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and other downtown buildings, but the hardest-hit parts of main drag Second Avenue, including independent shops and major venues like the Wildhorse Saloon, are back open and ready for business. Suzanne Goeman, owner of a shop called Music Furniture, which custom-manufactures tables and bars in the shapes of guitars, pianos and drum kits, says the area was "a ghost town for about four weeks," but "we certainly can't complain
with this many people walking around."