The 2019 CMA Music Festival kicked off June 6 at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium with a smattering of rain and a slew of stars, including Tanya Tucker, Kane Brown, Thomas Rhett, Kelsea Ballerini (with the Chainsmokers), Brothers Osborne, Rascal Flatts, Florida Georgia Line, Midland and Ashley McBryde. Billboard caught up with several of the acts backstage Thursday night for one-on-one interviews.
Kane Brown, who is expecting his first daughter later this year, has already decided the first music his baby will hear. “Mozart,” he says, citing the choice of the classical composer because, “I want her to be smart.”
Before Baby Brown arrives, Brown will have another musical delivery—his long-anticipated collaboration with Marshmello, which follows his other pairings with such non-country artists as Khalid, Becky G and Camila Cabello. While he stresses he is staying country, he says, “it’s also awesome to see other artists outside the genre and get a chance to see their fan base and [have them] understand what we do,” he says. “I’m kind of different as your average country artist, honestly it helps both of us reach new people and new fans.”
Brown will be reaching lots of folks this summer as he continues touring with Jason Aldean. He’s learned a lot about how to hold an audience from the superstar. “Jason is really good at what he does not only with his songs but interacting with the crowd and making them feel loved and involved and keeping them hyped,” Brown says. “He’s really been like my biggest influence on my show, just interacting with the crowd. We had our first arena tour and I was just trying to imitate Jason a little bit, then I learned how to do my own thing.”
Thomas Rhett, whose Center Point Road is a contender to enter the Billboard 200 at No. 1 this week, joked that he is still trying to “figure out if it was smart or not” to release a 16-track album in “a singles-based world.” But he couldn’t help himself. “I write so many songs that even whittling it down to 16 was hard. I write all year, I bring writers on the road with me and sometimes we’ll walk away from a bus trip with 10 songs in 3 days, so you get to the end of that year and you go, ok, here’s 150 songs, let’s weed out the trash and let’s find the ones we think are good and ultimately pick the ones that are great.”
Rhett is headlining his third arena tour, the Very Hot Summer Tour, with openers Dustin Lynch and Russell Dickerson. But his favorite support act on the tour is his father, Rhett Akins, who scored a number of hits as an artist in the ’90s but is best known as one of Nashville’s top songwriters.
“It’s just cool for my fans that may not know a whole lot about the ’90s country music era for him to get out there and play some of his old hits, but also speak to people about what a songwriter is,” Rhett says. “I think a lot of people [think] because someone sings a song that means they wrote it. So it’s cool that dad is out there waving the songwriter flag and getting to play songs he’s written for Blake Shelton and Jon Pardi and Luke Bryan. It’s a really cool connection when they go, ‘Oh, that’s Thomas Rhett’s dad and he wrote all these cool songs.’ I think it’s interesting for my fans to get to see.”
Florida Georgia Line headlined Thursday night, but it wasn’t so long ago that the duo’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley weren’t even allowed inside the stadium. “Probably my memory of coming to CMA Fest as a fan is me and BK passing out Coke Zero. We were promotional dudes for probably $10 an hour and pumped up about it,” Hubbard says. “We were just passing our free Coke in the sunshine, CMA Fest for probably five days straight. We were dreaming of playing here one year and so it’s pretty surreal, it’s a special week for us.”
Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne had no qualms about playing in the rain and, in fact, confessed he rather enjoys it. “Having a good healthy amount of rain, it brings out something primal in people and they go even crazier,” He said with a laugh. “You’re sweaty, you’re rained on, you’re messy. Girls’ make up is all kind of smeared, dudes are covered in mud, they turn into animals. From our perspective it’s awesome. It’s so much fun.”
Up next for the siblings is a live album from their stint at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium earlier this year. “We’re currently writing for our next studio album, but the next thing coming out from Brothers Osborne is we did three sold out shows at the Ryman,” John said. “We multi-tracked the shows and we’re going to put out a live record. We don’t have a title yet, we don’t have a track listing but we’re a touring band and we’ve cut our teeth live and we’ve built our fanbase live so it only made sense to put out a live record.” Expect a fall release.
Midland’s second album, Let It Roll, out Aug. 23, reunites the trio with On the Rocks producers Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Dann Huff, but this time, Cameron Duddy says they’ve built up a shorthand and some trust. “We were the least experienced in the room on the last album—still are—but there’s been a lot of growth on our end and there’s an ease of comfort now with the regularity of being in the studio and playing music every day, so that was really a cool byproduct of our time spent working together with these guys,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust coming our way and we got to do everything that we wanted to. There were no ‘nos.’ The label let us chase down songs that we wanted to do, songs from the past, songs from the beginning of this band.” Vocalist Mark Wystrach added that on the new set, “there are a couple of songs that Jess [Carson] and Cameron are doing the leads on and I’m singing harmonies, which is really cool. I think the songwriting style and the arrangements are much more dynamic. There was a successful first album and people really reacted to it and we wanted to improve.”
Ashley McBryde, coming off her CMT Music Awards’ win for breakthrough video (for “Girl Goin’ Nowhere”), told Billboard she can feel the swell of support for her within the Nashville music community. “I do feel that people are really getting behind [the music],” she said. “And not necessarily all the time at radio. It’s a huge difference between connecting with fans and radio. It’s been really wonderful. Just now Mark [Wystrach] from Midland popped into my small dressing room area to give a hug and say, ‘Hey, I was hollering for you last night.'”
While radio has so far only marginally supported McBryde, word of mouth has propelled her live shows, with anticipation so great that for her last Nashville show, it had to be moved from a 500-seat club to a 1,600-seat hall. “You know you have bad service at one restaurant and all of a sudden half the town won’t go there anymore, but the same is true for positive things too. It’s been that way for us. Radio doesn’t always get it and that’s OK,” she said. “What’s important is butts in seats and handshakes and hugs and connecting with real people.” She then revealed a story from a recent tour stop in California when a fan called her over. “So I ran over there and she said, ‘I just completed a rehab program and I listened to your record the whole time I was there.’ I said that was really great. She said ‘I got my kids back.’ That’s way bigger than anything you could have fathomed for that record.”
McBryde is wrapping up her second album with producer Jay Joyce and the pair are now selecting songs. “We’ll throw them all in the sand pit and let them duke it out and the strongest ones get to stay on the record,” she said. No release date yes, but she anticipates it will be “pretty early next year.”
Next year Rascal Flatts will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first single, “Praying for Daylight,” and the trio confesses that they are glad they aren’t a new act now. “I don’t envy new artists today,” bassist Jay DeMarcus said. “It’s so much harder now and the competition is so wide open. It’s so hard to get a song that resonates with people and, more importantly, to sell records to get fans to buy tickets to go to tours.”
“We grew up buying vinyl, we couldn’t wait to see the pictures and lyrics. I hate that that doesn’t happen much anymore. With streaming you don’t get any of that,” vocalist Gary LeVox added. “We would make a body of work and now you’re making singles or EPs and that kind of thing, we’re so fortunate to have come out when we did.”
As the 20th anniversary plans start to come together, guitarist Joe Don Rooney added “we’re in talks right now for a possible documentary.”
EDM duo The Chainsmokers showed up to support Ballerini and perform their hit, “This Feeling,” on the Nissan Stadium stage. Before pairing with Ballerini, Alex Pall and Drew Taggart collaborated with Florida Georgia Line for “Last Day Alive,” and they have their eyes on two more country artists for duets: “Thomas Rhett is a very cool guy. We love him,” Pall said. “We’ve met a number of times. That’s the best thing to work with people that you like and get along great with. His music’s very powerful and I’ve seen his show and it’s amazing.” Pall added, “we want to do a session with Dan + Shay. We’ve been trying to figure out a date with them to do that. I don’t know if it would be a Dan + Shay song or a writing session with them.”