While “Boston Strong” was everywhere for Saturday’s St. Jude Country Music Marathon in Nashville -- the first major race in the U.S. since the Boston Marathon was curtailed following the bombing -- there’s nothing like American flags and lots of live music to spur on 30,000 runners in Tennessee (of all places). Over the past decade, organizer Competitor Group has turned a hardcore sport for a few into a party for many -- by placing live bands at every mile of every race.
"Rock ‘n' Roll Marathons" are now held in more than 25 cities; Nashville's Country Music Marathon is one of the oldest in the series. For 26 miles, the Nashville race hosted 28 stages with 50 acts booked (that's nearly 300 musicians); live music lined the entirety of the full- and half-marathon courses.
“It’s like putting on a 26-mile music festival, nearly 30 times a year,” said Josh Furlow, SVP of Event Operations. “It’s entertainment for some, and motivation for others.”
After a moment of silence for the Boston victims before the starting horn, with extra security present, nothing unusual happened Saturday, except a little extreme weather, with an unfortunate morning-long downpour and severe lightning forcing some bands to stay unplugged and others to abandon ship.
For Autumn Rose, a duo made up of vocalists Alicia Beale and Rachael Schleicher, the rain killed the band’s live performance. “Our violinist has an extremely expensive instrument that just couldn’t get wet, and there was the electricity issue,” said Beale. But the whole band stood in the wind-driven rain anyway, spending several hours holding up a large Autumn Rose sign at their designated performance spot on the course between miles two and three, singing along to their EP.
Course-wide, no stage was dead. At the very least, recorded music blared from plastic-covered speakers. For artists, the hard part is adjusting to playing live for an arena-sized crowd at 7am.
“Years ago when we first started the Rock 'N' Roll marathon in San Diego, the bands told us, ‘Are you kidding me?’” said Tracy Sundlun, Competitor Group’s SVP of its Events Division. “We had to drive some of them straight from their gigs the night before to the marathon course," -- set-up is routinely as early as 5am --"but, once they were on-stage with an audience of thousands, it was like, high-fives in the street.”
These days, artists clamor to be booked along the race route, and some of Nashville’s biggest names have played the Country Music Marathon. “Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Martina McBride, Big & Rich, so many,” said Sundlun. “Lady Antebellum played the marathon before many people had ever heard of them.” Other artists who’ve played the Nashville race include Sara Evans, Phil Vassar, Lee Roy Parnell, and Jo Dee Messina, who is a marathoner herself, finishing the Boston Marathon in 2006. Sheryl Crow, with a single now climbing the Billboard Country chart, ran Nashville last year. Runners in Rock ‘n’Roll Marathon races in other cities have heard artists ranging from Pitbull and Flo Rida, to Atlas Genius and Brett Michaels.
For Nashville, it’s a tourist boon with a multi-million dollar economic impact.
Runners come in from all over the U.S. and other countries; often days ahead of time; just to hit the clubs and honky-tonks on Broadway for live music. “We like to go up and down the street and in and out of the bars to hear who’s playing,” said Lori Watson, a non-runner from Chicago who came in with her sister, who is registered for the race. “It’s a total party.”
On marathon-eve, in the Nashville tradition, the St. Jude’s pasta party becomes an old-fashioned guitar pull -- a Great Depression term for a group of players sharing a single instrument. Tony Arata (Garth Brooks’ “The Dance"), Dave Turnbull (Kenny Chesney’s “The Boys of Fall"), and Don Poythress (Easton Corbin’s “A Little More Country Than That”) took turns singing the hits each wrote, while telling the stories behind the songs. The “songwriter round” was hosted by Thad Beaty, the guitarist for country super-duo Sugarland. He’s also behind “Music that Moves,” a drive to get musicians to take care of their personal health by getting more active, and more involved in the communities they visit while touring. “Instead of sitting on our duffs all day waiting for soundcheck, we can get group runs together -- or figure out a service aspect to what we do,” said Beaty. “Maybe it’s just picking a local charity and using our time to help out someone while we’re in town.”
After the marathon, runners were treated to the Saturday night post-race headliner concert -- thankfully indoors -- featuring newcomer Sarah Darling, and headliner Craig Morgan.
“We created spectator running,” said events SVP Sundlun, a former Olympic track coach. “And we put on the big-name headliner concert after the event to keep people in town. These cities are our partners, and it’s all about tourism.”
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series now moves to Portland, Oregon, May 19th, where the post-race headliner is Andy Grammer, a Billboard 2011 “Artist to Watch.”