Country's Big Tent: Lil Nas X, Cody Johnson Exemplify Genre's Identity Struggle

John Shearer/Getty Images for CMA
Keith Urban and Lil Nas X perform on stage during day 3 of the 2019 CMA Music Festival on June 8, 2019 in Nashville.

A pair of construction cranes and two unfinished skyscrapers hung over downtown Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge during the CMA Music Festival June 6-9.

The city's fast-changing landscape provided a stark physical representation of the aural battle taking place in country music, a clash that was on full display during the Country Music Association's annual gathering, which drew tens of thousands daily to the weather-sensitive event that benefits music education.

Hip-hop artist Lil Nas X, whose "Old Town Road" has challenged the traditional views of country's boundaries, made multiple appearances with Billy Ray Cyrus, including a late-night stop during a Spotify-hosted showcase at the Blake Shelton-associated Ole Red nightclub and a performance in front of roughly 50,000 people at Nissan Stadium that was bolstered by Keith Urban on guitar.

"Old Town" has captivated the public even as it confounds industry executives, who seem split on whether its mashup of western lyrics and urban arrangements constitutes a new frontier in country's evolution or is simply a sly use of country stereotypes in an otherwise non-country package.

The same night that "Old Town" lit up the stadium, Cody Johnson closed a Warner Music Nashville showcase at Ascend Amphitheater, borrowing from George Strait's musical lineage and Garth Brooks' onstage conviction to successfully sell country's traditions as a near-religious experience.

That progressive vs. traditional tug of war was on display throughout the festival and its related events. On the country side, Dierks Bentley served up guitar-driven country anthems "I Hold On" and "Woman, Amen" at the stadium, Riley Green drawled through "Somewhere in a Truck" during an acoustic Spotify appearance, Ashley McBryde practically silenced the Ascend crowd with her personal ballad "Girl Goin' Nowhere," and newcomer Dan Smalley offered a thumping set at the Maui Jim Broadway stage outside of the Bridgestone Arena.

On the more adventurous edge, Kassi Ashton blended country with rap-rock in "Taxidermy" on the Chevy Breakout Stage, Seaforth applied bright pop-influenced harmonies to uplifting songs on the Breakout stage, new Riser House artist Dylan Brady borrowed sonically from sensitive pop singer-songwriters Kenny Loggins and Adam Levine during a Whiskey Jam showcase at Barlines, and new BBR Music Group act Blanco Brown shot holes through genres in an entertaining Acoustic Corner set that mixed rap phrasing, country storytelling, a cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and an old-timey romp while playing spoons.

The stylistic fight was further underscored in the selections at the Lower Broadway clubs owned by Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and others. At Kid Rock's venue, for example, one bar band covered "Old Town Road" downstairs while another kicked out Jerry Reed's "East Bound and Down" on the third floor.

And the culture war was in evidence, too. Westboro wannabes briefly castigated visitors on Lower Broadway for their perceived lasciviousness (based on the demonstrators' poorly miked rants, only angry, judgmental, bearded trolls will enter Heaven's gates), while Ty Herndon's annual Concert for Love and Acceptance, benefiting GLAAD, featured performances by Gavin DeGraw, Hunter Hayes and Lee Brice, plus a backstage visit by Tim McGraw.

Country music's definition is elusive, but it clearly fits under a big tent in 2019, which is part of the format's draw.

"Just walk down the street, and you're reminded of how powerful this genre is and how connected these people are because of the music," noted Hayes. CMA Fest is "kind of a reminder that all the work's not in vain."

Weather is typically a challenge for CMA Fest, and this year was no exception. Heat was mostly a non-issue as gray skies prevailed, though daily bursts of rain -- and several flashes of lightning -- forced delays and early closures of outside stages. Set times were moved around at the outdoor sites while indoor performances at the Music City Center were comparatively punctual. As a result, unanticipated scheduling conflicts squeezed some artists out of performances.

Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini are set to return as co-hosts -- with newly added iHeartMedia personality Bobby Bones -- for an ABC special that will compile highlights from the festival Aug. 4. In previous years, it  has mostly featured music from the stadium sets, including surprise mashups and appearances. The 2019 version likely will include the Lil Nas X/Cyrus/Urban turn on "Old Town Road," plus Carrie Underwood's pairing with surprise guest Joan Jett, Ballerini's performance of "This Feeling" with The Chainsmokers, McGraw's teaming with Luke Combs and Brooks & Dunn collaborations with McBryde and Brothers Osborne.

Add in last year's addition of the artist-themed restaurants -- which provided more opportunities for sit-down meals within walking distance of the performance stages -- and CMA Fest has emerged as a full-service entertainment destination for a booming city that's growing a new Nashville skyline around its traditional attractions.

The push and pull of those changes has left many residents on edge about the road their old town is taking, but it's a definite plus in attracting attention to a genre that often feels like an outcast.

"Nashville by itself has such a unique charm to it," said Rhett. "Our new food scene is rocking, and I do think that people go back home and they're like, 'I'm telling you' to 30 of [their] best buddies, 'You got to come with me next year.' I think that's why it keeps getting bigger."