CMA Entertainers In The Stadium Era: How Big Venues Changed The Music

Kenny Chesney
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Kenny Chesney performs in concert at Gillette Stadium on Aug. 24, 2018 in Foxborough, Mass.

When the Country Music Association delivers its 52nd annual awards tonight, the ceremony will take place at the Bridgestone Arena, a venue that can accommodate about 18,000 people for a typical concert.

But the key to the CMA's biggest trophy -- entertainer of the year -- lies eight-tenths of a mile away at Nissan Stadium, a venue that held a reported 55,000-plus to experience a Kenny Chesney concert in August. Chesney and fellow entertainer nominees Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean all headlined stadiums in 2018. Keith Urban -- referred to by a contestant on NBC's The Voice as "the epitome of a stadium country/rock star" -- co-headlined the 34,000-seat New Zealand venue Westpac Stadium with Carrie Underwood in December 2016. And Chris Stapleton, the fifth entertainer nominee, opened for Guns N' Roses at the Nissan Stadium in 2016 and again for the Eagles this June at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

If that's not enough, reigning entertainer of the year Garth Brooks delivered the first concert at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 20 and plans to play 10-12 stadiums annually for the next three years.

The volume of stadium-level acts is a sign of country's vitality, but it's also an indicator of what nags in the minds of some traditionalists. Venues have a distinct influence on set lists and song choices, and as the genre increasingly focuses on constructing cavernous, echo-filled structures, it naturally leads musicmakers to favor songs that work in those buildings.

"You need those real big anthems when you do that," says Ronnie Dunn, emphasizing the point by imitating the boom-boom-clap percussion of Queen's "We Will Rock You."

Naturally, adding anthems to a performance means changing, or eliminating, other songs or instruments that don't fit the perameters. A single strand of steel guitar, for example, may not cut through in a stadium as well as a fiery slide guitar. A fiddle solo is less likely to match the magnetism of a distorted rock'n'roll guitar. And a nuanced, unfamiliar story-song will hardly ever get played in that environment.

"You can't, because they can't understand you," says former CMA entertainer of the year Reba McEntire. "It's not as intimate, and the sound's not so good that you can understand every word."

Adapting instruments or delivery for a specific type of venue isn't new. Ethel Merman-style belting was common in theaters in the early 20th century when microphones were not yet in regular use. Ernest Tubb became a country innovator by employing an electric guitar to rise above the noise at rowdy honky-tonks in the 1940s and '50s. And as a reverse example, both Alison Krauss and Little Big Town have been known to sing quiet ballads a cappella without microphones at the 2,200-seat Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, just because the room's acoustics allow it.

But artists have to be strategic with ballads in large venues -- particularly stadiums, as Thomas Rhett discovered with "Beer With Jesus."

"It is one of the coolest, most bone-chilling songs that I get to play, because I'm in love with the lyrics of that song," says Rhett. "But when you look out on the crowd, it's like everybody's got their phones up -- now is the time they need to text their girlfriend or go refresh their beer. Not to say that it's discouraging, but I'm trying to put together a show that when you get into that place and you get into your seat, you can't help but to just be glued to the stage."

That doesn't mean that ballads can't work in a stadium or arena. But they fit best when they're familiar enough that people can sing along -- as they do with Bryan's "Drink a Beer." It doesn't matter if the words are muddy and swirling around, since the audience knows the song and is participating in the moment.

"All that swirling around, making it all the way to a back row of an arena, it probably accounts for why a lot of acts hit you with a big one, a big one, a big one, fast in tempo, a big one, big one, then they get everything down to one slow song," says Bryan's producer, Jeff Stevens. "One song that may have a message and then -- bam! -- they're back at it again."

But what happens in stadiums doesn't stay in stadiums. When Jake Owen toured minor league baseball parks this summer, it coincided with his hit "I Was Jack (You Were Diane)," a reworked tribute to the John Mellencamp rock anthem "Jack & Diane." It demonstrates how the needs of the live venue influence decisions in the recording studio and, in turn, what ends up being marketed to the public.

"Getting out there in a concert, I selfishly enjoy playing song after song after song after song that just make people feel good," says Owen. "Those tend to be the songs that I resort to recording, which end up being the ones that are on the radio."

There's an irony in the whole development. George Strait launched the first successful country tour of stadiums 20 years ago with a set dominated by ballads and midtempos. About two decades before that, Kenny Rogers became one of the first country artists to consistently work arenas, filling the rafters with love songs such as "She Believes in Me" and story-songs "The Gambler" and "Lucille."

"It's not so much of a listening fest anymore, as it's a selfie fest sometimes," says Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Byron Hill ("Fool Hearted Memory," "Nothing On but the Radio") in comparison. "It's more about the girlfriend being out there on the guy's shoulders woo-hooing. It's the party. It's the scene more than the artist just standing there in the old way and singing stories -- Kenny Rogers' kind of approach, the great storyteller thing. You don't see a lot of that anymore."

Indeed, the stadium experience is the antithesis of a calm crooner quietly walking the stage.

"With every stadium, there are so many challenges to get through the show," says Bryan. "Each stadium sounds different. I'm 100 yards in front of the speakers, I'm hearing things at different times. It's like being in a washing machine for two hours and you just try to come out with all your limbs intact."

The 2018 CMA entertainer of the year candidates -- including Chesney, who, ironically, is choosing to avoid stadiums next year -- have all impressed voters enough in those circumstances to warrant a nomination in the stadium era. Even Stapleton, who most closely embodies Rogers' stand-and-deliver presentation, makes music that's sinewy enough to fire up a big crowd. But the advent of the mega-venue as a realistic concert playground may have changed the nature of country music for good.

"They want Metallica or whatever," says Dunn of a stadium-size audience. "You're playing to those kinds of crowds. It definitely influences [the music] on that level."

2018 CMAs: Will New Generation of Country Artists Upset Longtime Favorites? | Billboard News