Country

CMA Fest 2018: Backstage With Luke Combs, Brett Young, Old Dominion, Charley Pride & Midland

Jason Kempin/Getty Images.

Matthew Ramsey of musical group Old Dominion performs onstage during the 2018 CMA Music festival at Nissan Stadium on June 8, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Day two of CMA Fest, which runs June 7-10, brought several more heavy hitters to the Nissan Stadium stage in Nashville. Billboard caught up with several of the acts Friday night for one-on-one interviews.

Luke Combs wasn’t playing his first CMA Fest Friday night, but it was the singer’s first time on the Nissan Stadium stage, an experience he called “surreal."

"When you’re standing on the Riverfront stage, you can see the Nissan stage and just dream of one day being there," he explained. "Years ago I was a fan in Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest, and tonight, to have the boys and I up there playing for 60,000 rabid country fans, it’s proof that dreams do come true."

After three No. 1 singles, he’s witnessing a lot more audience participation at the event. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is the fans are singing from the very first note of the songs,” he said. “That is so special to me. We’re now able to sing the verse and the chorus together. These songs have become singalongs at all my shows and the crowds just keep getting bigger.”

One member of a recent audience still has Combs thrilled. “During my set [Thursday] night at the Opry, I looked over and Randy Travis was stage right watching my set. Randy is a Carolina boy like me and has been my one of my favorite artists and songwriters since I was a kid. That will never not completely weird me out, that my hero knows my music.”

Brett Young was in his mid-30s before his career kicked into overdrive. He scored his first two No. 1 singles and won ACM’s new male vocalist within the past year -- and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m so glad when I started this at 22 or 23, that it didn’t happen fast because I had some things to figure out about myself and about life before I could even conceive of handling a career like this,” Young told Billboard. He adds that he was unprepared for so many things that come with following a dream.

“This is an incredible career, but there’s a lot that I never expected would be a part of it, like the demand on your time -- it’s very grueling and being on the road, sleep is difficult,” he said. “This is by no means me complaining at all, just the glamorous side of it that we all kind of expect it to be is a very, very, very small portion of what it actually is. I think I would have gotten burned out and caught up in some of the wrong sides of it as well at that age, and where I’m at right now feels like the perfect timing."

Young is close to completing his next album, which he says “is more uptempo” than his self-titled 2017 release: “We made sure we included the sad songs like we did last time, but it’s got a much peppier happier feel to it.” Expect the first single from the second full set at the end of the summer and the full album at the end of the year.

Legendary country artist Charley Pride is looking forward to an American Masters episode devoted to his pioneering career running in early 2019 on PBS, but he is especially eager to get the feature film about his inimitable life back on track. A few films about his career as the most successful African American artist in country music have been proposed -- including one starring Terrence Howard as Pride -- but have been shelved before filming started for various reasons. As Pride points out, so many movies about iconic artists like Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner’s Daughter), Ray Charles (Ray) and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (Walk The Line) have won Oscars.

“The documentary is going to be fine, but after this documentary, I want to be through with documentaries," he said. "I want the biopic." 

Midland heads to Bonnaroo on Saturday (June 9) as one of the few country acts on the festival’s bill, and bassist Cameron Duddy sees it as an opportunity to win over new fans.

“People who aren’t into country often tell us that we’re bringing them into the fold because we don’t exist in the middle of the lane, so hopefully we’re winning new fans and converting people into country and Midland fans,” he said. 

The trio -- who are working on their second album with some of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Shane McAnally, Bob DiPiero and Liz Rose -- are also expanding their audience via their Spanish version of “Drinkin’ Problem.”

“Where we come from, playing in San Antonio and South Texas -- which is where we have the most fans and people are the most passionate about Midland -- the fan base is probably 80 percent Latino,” said guitarist Jess Carson. “It obviously resonates across boarders and different people of different cultures.” In regards to an album entirely in Spanish, fans shouldn’t hold their breath: vocalist Mark Wystrach said “it would be really cool, but right now we’re completely focused on the second album. Plus it would be very hard to do a full album in a secondary language.” 

Old Dominion is still processing what it meant to win ACM vocal group of the year in April and how the victory has made them step up their game.

“Winning definitely kind of forced us to own it,” said Brad Tursi. “We used to be, ‘We’re just the new guys, we can’t even believe it’,” he said, adopting a goofy voice. “Now we can’t really say that anymore. We’re here now; we have to keep doing something cool. We feel more responsibility. It’s harder and harder when you think you’ve done whatever your best thing is and what are we going to do to beat that."

In October, the quintet will head to the U.K. for the third time, as they, like several country acts, continue to expand their presence internationally. “The first time we went over there the response was incredible, and we found that people knew our music more than we thought they did,” said Matthew Ramsey. “So [we thought] it made sense [that] if we have fans there, we need to come play our music for them -- and it turns out we do. The tour over there is selling incredibly and I’m really looking forward to it because it will be a headline thing. The last time there we were opening for Thomas Rhett, those were pretty good size venues, but now it will be us in those venues.”

Festivals 2018