CMA Music Festival Covers the Gamut of Country Artists

Thomas Rhett autographs a souvenir for a fan at the AT&T U-Verse Fan Fair X in the Music City Center during the CMA Music Festival.

It’s two events in one. The Country Music Association’s annual CMA Music Festival brought an estimated 80,000 people to downtown Nashville for four consecutive days, June 5-8, as fans from around the nation and more than 20 foreign countries chose from hundreds of opportunities to soak up country music and its artists, large and small.

The event comes with a natural dividing line. The nightly concerts at LP Field on the east side of the Cumberland River get the most ink. Roughly 60,000 fans filled the stadium each night for a sonic parade of country’s biggest acts -- Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley and Florida Georgia Line, to barely skim the surface -- and those high-profile attractions will form the bulwark for an Aug. 5 ABC special, CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock, that’s now in its 11th year.

Those marquee names -- Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and Eric Church -- are the draws that keep the masses coming back. But it’s the work that gets done on the west side of the river during the day that has increasingly fed the growth of the festival, which was founded in 1972 under the original name Fan Fair.

Those less-publicized activities, conducted in humid Middle Tennessee heat and the inevitable rain showers, are essential building blocks for country’s future stars and the festival itself. It’s a mashup of elements familiar to Bonnaroo, state fairs and business conventions, clustered around the honky-tonks of lower Broadway. Fans are lured by food, music and the possibility of nabbing fleeting moments of personal time with an artist at the Fan Fair X exhibits in the Music City Center.

“It’s not just a show and fan club party,” observes Dierks Bentley. “There’s all this stuff going on.”

The vast majority of the attendees are fans of the entire genre, and a whole array of smaller stages in a five- or six-block area gives those key consumers a chance to sample large numbers of artists, from such developing acts as Charlie Worsham and LoCash Cowboys to heritage performers, including Billy Ray Cyrus and Baillie & the Boys.

More than half of the audience raised its hand when Wynonna asked the thousands of fans at the Chevrolet Riverfront on June 4 how many had never seen her live before. That volume of first-timers -- surprising for an artist that has spent three decades in the limelight -- is a prime example of how the festival now works: Tens of thousands of people committed to the genre are there to take in the music. There’s so much music that they can’t know it all before the festival begins, and those attendees are potential customers for a hoard of artists.

“There may be a crowd of people out there and only a few of them will be my fans, but they’ll be fans of the other people that are gonna be onstage,” says Craig Campbell. “It’s my duty to get out there and impress them and bring them over to my side.”

The festival’s imprint allows those impressions to be made off the stage, too. Campbell played bartender at the Team Cocktail tent in Walk of Fame Park; Sara Evans, Jana Kramer and Scotty McCreery ran the base paths for charity in the City of Hope Celebrity Softball Challenge; and such artists as Thomas Rhett, The Swon Brothers and Kristian Bush whipped out ink pens to sign autographs for fans. Tyler Farr even had a couple get engaged during one of his signings.

To a jaded industry insider, those moments might seem trivial. But the artists often discover later in their careers that those signatures formed a memory for fans who continue to hear them through the radio or see them on TV after they have returned home.

“Every time we do these signing booths, you’re gonna be signing a picture we did with that fan the first year we were here, when they stood in line and had no idea who we were,” notes Eli Young Band bass player Jon Jones. “And they kept that picture.”

Some of those fans come back year after year. They likely bought a concert ticket back in their home markets or downloaded some music. And if they’re enthusiastic, they probably told a friend about the new artist they discovered while they were in Nashville. Eric Paslay, who just earned his first top 10 single as a recording artist this year, has already seen fans in autograph lines who claim it’s their fifth time to have a personal interaction with him.

“I’ve been working real hard to remember all the great fans. Every one,” says Paslay. “It’s hard to do, and I’m terrible at it, but it’s cool just to see a familiar face and ‘My gosh, you’re here again. Thanks for coming back.’ ”

Part of what keeps them coming back to the CMA Festival is the sheer conglomeration of talent. The LP Field concerts showcased more than two dozen acts, ranging from legacy artists Alabama and Travis Tritt to current hitmakers The Band Perry and Luke Bryan. And the daytime stages offer scads of overlapping performers, such as Clay Walker, Colt Ford, Cassadee Pope and Will Hoge.

In the midst of hundreds of performances is the potential for something unexpected, and the CMA has increasingly leaned on surprise moments to add value to the event. On the LP Field stage this year, that included Bon Jovi co-founder Richie Sambora making an unannounced appearance to play “Wanted Dead or Alive” with Zac Brown Band, Miranda Lambert welcoming Carrie Underwood for a surprise run-through of the new duet “Somethin’ Bad” and Brantley Gilbert bringing out Rhett and Justin Moore for “Small Town Throwdown.”

But there were plenty of other surprise occurrences away from the big stage. Hunter Hayes and Dan + Shay did pop-up concerts with little or no warning, Alan Jackson gave an unannounced late-night show at the Broadway club The Stage, and there were freebies from corporate sponsors, including Blue Bell ice cream samples, cups of Crystal Light and 20-count bottles of Advil.

In the midst of it all, the festival has increasingly become a place where Nashville music executives can do plenty of scouting. Agents with William Morris Endeavor and Creative Artists Agency were spotted on numerous occasions checking out the talent at the smaller stages. Similarly, Warner Music Nashville president John Esposito and executive vp/GM Peter Strickland lingered a noticeably long time during a Samsung Galaxy stage appearance by Ryan Kinder, whose debut single, “Kiss Me When I’m Down,” was released just weeks before Bigger Picture folded.

“The women folk doubled from the time [Kinder] started to the time he finished,” a host announced from the stage.

That single example of audience-building demonstrates the ways the grunt work pays off at the CMA Music Festival. Those smaller stages and autograph halls serve as a point of introduction for fans. There’s the potential to move up from the tiny Galaxy stage to the Bud Light Stage, which often fields 500-1,000 fans, to the Chevrolet Riverfront, which often packs more than 5,000.

“Through the years, one fan turns into 10 into 100 into 1,000 into 10,000,” says Paslay.

It all happens with LP Field -- the big daddy -- lurking across the river, providing a physical reminder that winning over a few bodies in the beginning has the potential to mushroom into something bigger. Whatever stage the artist is at, the goal is still the same on either side of the river: to make that potential customer feel something.

“The dream is to play the big stadium, and to keep on playing the big stadium,” says Dustin Lynch. “But no matter how big the stage is, no matter how small the stage is, you have to connect.”