Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood Win Big at American Country Awards
Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood Win Big at American Country Awards

"Old Alabama" helped the CMA Music Festival turn 40 as country's most-successful group of all time, Alabama, showed the strength of its influence during a June 9 stadium concert at Nashville's LP Field on the festival's opening day.

Brad Paisley brought out the band's three founding members-Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook-as unannounced guests for a romp through "Old Alabama," a recent No. 1 single that incorporates the group's classic "Mountain Music."

In fact, the reach of the band's artistic tentacles was demonstrated subtly by the wildly divergent sounds of the night's two primary headliners, recent Billboard cover stars Paisley and Jason Aldean. ( Aldean was also the focus of a panel about his independent success at this week's Billboard Country Music Summit.)

Paisley, who covered Alabama frequently during performances in his formative years, has made a point throughout his career of paying homage to country's history. The simple, stomping-style bass that was a hallmark of Gentry's playing was echoed in two of Paisley's own songs, "Water" and "This Is Country Music." The latter cements Paisley's respect for historic sounds by namechecking songs by the such acts as George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Conway Twitty.

Aldean was likewise influenced by Alabama-"Mountain Music" is the first album he says he remembers owning-but his set had head-banging elements in it, particularly through the crunchy chords of "She's Country" and "Hicktown."

Aldean's hard-rocking sound, Paisley's traditionalism and Alabama all earned big responses from more than 40,000 fans, who are at the heart of the entire festival. The four-day event features hundreds of acts performing for free across multiple stages in downtown Nashville, the mini-concerts augmented by multiple activities, including fan-club parties and autograph-signing sessions. Dolly Parton and Shania Twain are among the acts set to meet fans in those autograph lines, while Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Josh Turner and Chris Young are just a few of the artists scheduled to play the stadium during the run.

Many of those acts command five- or six-figure nightly concert fees. But they forego the paychecks for the festival for several reasons: half of the net income is donated annually by the CMA to music education, the festival provides larger acts with a means of saying thanks to their fans, the LP Field shows have the lure of landing many performers on a fall ABC television special, and developing acts-whether they appear at the stadium or smaller side venues-have an instant means of making an impression on their target audience.

"You get out to a lot more ears out there," Easton Corbin says. "There's going to be people out there that's probably not as familiar as some people [with your music], so hopefully getting out there in front of that kind of crowd, you build a fan base."

The opening-day stadium concert offered plenty of music to entice that base. Grand Ole Opry members Steve Wariner and Bill Anderson, who attended the first edition of the festival in 1972, hosted the 2011 opener. Aldean trotted out Kelly Clarkson for a seering version of their duet, "Don't You Wanna Stay"; Ricky Skaggs and former "American Idol" contestant Casey James offered two-song acoustic sets; Corbin played a breezy quintet of traditionally-minded songs; and Sara Evans offered an exhuberant return to the event after two years away.
"It's a big deal," she says of coming back to the festival. "It's a really big deal."

The Zac Brown Band punctuated the opening slot with a rollicking version of the Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" while parading a stream of guests: Alan Jackson, Amos Lee, new artist Sonia Leigh and Randy Travis, who teamed up with the band on "Forever And Ever, Amen."

The June setting brings high temperatures and high humidity, and artists grumbled 10-15 years ago about working every year without a check. But over time, they have come to regard the festival as an important step in maintaining their image and their connection with the audience.

"The fans are the reasons we have the job. Period," Aldean notes. "I think it's important to be here and kind of make ourselves approachable for them."

The influence of Alabama and other acts will certainly be felt as the festival continues through June 12 as the side stages continue to mix both veteran acts and the next wave of talent. The lineup blends such new acts as HER & Kings County, Mark Cooke and Brother Trouble with Country Music Hall of Famers Mel Tillis and Roy Clark, plus current acts David Nail, Steel Magnolia and Craig Morgan.

All of them will be there among the hordes of performers to build or maintain their careers and their connection to those all-important fans.

"They're the ones," Morgan quips, "that pay the bills."

Check out all of our coverage from the 2011 Billboard Country Music Summit right here!