CMA Fest 2019: Backstage with Jon Pardi, Kelsea Ballerini, Brantley Gilbert and More

Jason Kempin/Getty Images.
Thomas Rhett and Jon Pardi perform on stage during day 2 for the 2019 CMA Music Festival on June 07, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

Day two of the 2019 CMA Music Festival, which runs June 6-9, brought more rain and more heavy hitters to the Nissan Stadium stage in Nashville. Billboard caught up with several acts Friday night (June 7) backstage for one-on-one interviews. 

Jon Pardi, who performed “Beer Can’t Fix” with Thomas Rhett,  released “Heartache Medication,” the title track from his forthcoming album, this week. The song is just one of the tunes on the Sept. 27 release that deal with drinking, so it was altogether appropriate that Pardi showed up backstage nursing a vodka on the rocks in a blue solo cup -- even if his preferred drink lately is Casamigos, the tequila company founded by George Clooney and Rande Gerber, which the pair recently sold for $1 billion.

“My neighbor and good buddy is Kid Rock and Rande and [wife] Cindy [Crawford] were over at [Kid Rock’s] house," he tells Billboard. "He had a party for Cindy and they invited me and a bunch of people. I hung out with Randy and I had a hat he liked. I said ‘I like your Casamigos hat!’ and we switched hats and he said ‘I’m going to send you some stuff.' It was a year-and-a-half ago. The bottle of tequila is still half-full in the freezer, but the sweatshirt is going strong.”

Another spirit referenced on the new album comes courtesy of Eric Church and Miranda Lambert, who co-wrote “Don’t Blame It on Whiskey,” which Pardi sings with good friend Lauren Alaina. “That song’s been around for a while. I think maybe they just really liked it and were hanging on to it for some reason,” Pardi says. [Universal Music Group Nashville exec VP of A&R] Brian Wright played it and I said, ‘I’d record that song!’ We got permission from both and Eric was excited and Miranda was excited. The demo was Eric and Miranda singing harmonies and we wanted to change it into a full duet and so I asked Lauren. She was my first pick. She just nailed it. I don’t know if it will ever be a single, but we’re going to do a video. We want to do something special for it.” 

Kelsea Ballerini -- who, along with Rhett, is hosting the CMA Fest  3-hour August primetime concert special with footage culled from the event -- said that she and Rhett re-watch their hosting from the year before to prepare for the next year.

“The first year we watched it back and were like, ‘We look like we just woke up from a nap, we both look like zombies, let’s be looser and louder this year,’” she says. “Last year we were looser and louder and we watched it back and were like, ‘Why are we screaming?’ So this year, we said, ‘Let’s be normal. Let’s just talk normally and we’ll see how it goes.’ We don’t even let them finish the whole video, we’re like, ‘We get it, we get it.’”

Ballerini is in contention to have the No. 1 song on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart next week with “Miss Me More.” Should it happen, it will mark the first time a woman has hit the top spot since her “Legends” reached No. 1 in February 2018. While grateful for the support that country radio has extended to Ballerini, she says she would love to see more of her fellow female artists share in the glory. 

“On one hand, country radio from the very beginning has been really good to me; they’ve always embraced me and we’ve had a lot of success together,” Ballerini says. “I’m really glad that they’ve embraced my music and we have a really solid history and relationship together. On the other hand, I’m definitely one of the voices saying, ‘But on the other hand, what about Tenille [Townes]? What about Carly [Pearce]? What about Runaway June and Lauren Alaina?’ And these women that are running around doing everything right and making great music. So it’s me saying ‘thank you' to country radio and ‘let’s also support these other women too.’ It’s all positive. I’m not negative.”

Brantley Gilbert, who is expecting a baby daughter in the fall, says fatherhood has already turned him into a softie. “With this little girl coming, I don’t know if I’ve had an increase in estrogen levels or if there’s a sympathetic pregnancy going on here because anybody who knows me well will tell you I’m not a crier, but my son and my unborn daughter -- man, the first time I heard his heartbeat I cried and I did the same thing with her.”

He admits he had trouble, then, getting through the recording of “The Man That Hung the Moon,” a song that he plans to release next week in conjunction with Father’s Day: “I want them to have a song where they can hear my voice say ‘I love you’ and that just kind of tells them, 'There’s going to to come a time when you can figure out I’m not the super hero you’ve made me out to be. I’m human, I’ve made mistakes. I’m going to make a lot more, but there’s a man who really did hang the moon, who’s got your back and always will.’”

The song will appear on Gilbert’s fifth album, release date pending, that will be his first since switching management to Clint Higham at Morris Higham Management. “Already the battle plans are just different,” he says. “In the past, it was 'Let’s get a record ready. Let’s go record it and tour it and hope radio helps us out.’ Now, there’s a plan and a lot of communication going back and forth on how to accomplish daily goals and seeking goals.” 

Lindsay Ell is set to return to the studio for her new album, this time with superstar producer Dann Huff at the helm. The pair worked together when Ell joined Brantley Gilbert for “What Happens in a Small Town,” the duet she played with Gilbert in Nashville. 

“I got to sit in the studio and play guitar, and Dann Huff was tweaking my amp and I was like, ‘This is a bucket list moment. Dann Huff is my guitar tech right now. What is happening?’ And we had such a good time working on the Brantley song, we were like, ‘We need to do this.’”

The album will be a confessional tale, she hints, including addressing her breakup with radio personality Bobby Bones. “I’ve been writing this record over the past couple of years. I’ve had a lot happen in my personal life and career,” the ace guitarist says. “I ultimately want fans to know my story -- getting out of a relationship, figuring out how to be single, kind of getting through the journey of heartbreak -- it’s kind of going to be the whole process. At the end of the day if I’m not writing about things that are happening in my life, it just doesn’t feel like a jacket I can wear too well.”

Jo Dee Messina returned to the Nissan Stage for the first time in nearly a decade and as she continues to battle cancer after being diagnosed in September 2017. While she looks heathy and vital, she told Billboard that the struggle continues.

“Because we are conditioned this way in our culture, we want the story to have a beginning, middle and end,” she said. “If you ever write a book, see a movie, if you ever pitch a tv series, you have the beginning that sets it up, then you have the struggle and then the happy ending. We’re not at the happy ending. This is something that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. We try different medicines to see how it affects certain things and we’re not at the end with a bow right now. So for me to be here, just to wake up and have another day where I can say you know what, ‘Jesus loves you,’ that’s my gift.”

Festivals 2019