If you were to pick the most popular act at the CMA Festival, you’d have to see it as a contest among the nightly stadium headliners, like Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton. But if you were selecting a winner on the basis of the best buzz-per-square-foot ratio? That’s easy: It’d be Charlie Worsham, who created a huge amount of buzz at the fest on a very, very tiny piece of real estate.
Worsham booked the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, a landmark on Nashville’s Lower Broadway since 1947, for three late-night all-star gigs designed to recreate the “Midnight Jamboree” shows broadcast from the store after the Opry back in the Patsy Cline era. Only the first two of the shows were actually held at the Tubb Shop, though. The third show had to be moved to a bigger venue after an appearance by Eric Church on the second night created such pandemonium that police on horseback showed up to disperse hundreds of fans who couldn’t get in.
The Church crowd hysteria was to be expected, after the CMA itself sent out a tweet about his formerly secret late-night appearance right about the time the star was getting off stage across the river at Nissan Stadium after playing for a crowd of 70,000. But he was hardly the only star Worsham was able to bring in. Other guest performers at the three shows included Kid Rock, Hunter Hayes, Vince Gill, Brandy Clark, reigning alt-country princess Margo Price, Aubrie Sellers, the Brothers Osborne, and more — a veritable festival-within-a-festival.
To say that the middle late Friday night/early Saturday morning show that included Church and Clark was the hottest show of CMA Fest was true in every conceivable way. Heat and humidity were already doing their usual mid-June job on Nashville before 200 people crammed into a room with no air conditioning and a few ancient overhead fans. Every guest on stage remarked on being hit by the wall of suspended tropical moisture and sweat as soon as they took the stage.
“S—! Chilly up here!” said Church. “Reminds me of a place called Whiskey Dick’s in Columbus, Ohio, where it was 121 degrees — and s—, I think this might be hotter. Good God! I mean, damn!… I love this s—. Let’s do it, before people die!” he exhorted, before he and Worsham embarked on covers of the Band’s “Ophelia” and Merle Haggard’s “Heaven Was a Drink of Wine.” Clark, who sang Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and her own new “Daughter,” remarked that “it’s like hot yoga out here.”
There were two big takeaways from the Worsham shows: first, that as a 30-year-old with only one Warner Bros. album to his name so far, he has the cred among the mainstream and alternative country communities in Nashville to pull in these guests, and secondly, that he’s so good that the folks who showed up just to see Church or Hayes stuck around in the heat after those stars left the stage. Many insiders consider him Nashville’s best-kept secret: a future-Vince-Gill type with singing, writing, and serious guitar playing chops who can nail the most traditional country but also has pop-funk and hard-rocking instincts that could come in handy in reaching a mainstream electorate.
“Look at everyone who came to play. That says so much about the level of respect people in town have for him,” said Brandy Clark, after her show with Worsham. “He’s so incredibly talented. When I got asked to join him onstage to jam, I didn’t think twice, though luckily for him I didn’t know it would be 108 degrees.”
Hunter Hayes, literally chilling backstage at the air-conditioned aVenue club on the rebooked third night, described his half-hour jam with Worsham as “an absolute blast. I’m a huge fan. I love that he put this whole thing together. I feel like it’s what fans come to CMA Fest to experience — something spontaneous. It wasn’t rehearsed, and we didn’t play the record versions of anything. But he’s that awesome of a musician. He’s one of my biggest inspirations — honestly, he really is.”
On the third and final night, in-between the last jam and a donut-filled acoustic breakfast show he was doing for fans the following morning, Worsham talked about his inspiration for doing the gigs at the venerable record store. He recently finished his second album, and just last Tuesday went to his hometown of Grenada, Mississippi to shoot the cover. Hopes are obviously high that this sophomore effort for Warner will make a bigger impact than his 2013 debut (which did at least garner him a No. 13 country airplay single with “Could It Be”), and he was thinking about how to give the new material a soft launch at the festival.
“The thing I love about CMA Fest and just Nashville in general is that we have all these historic places where we can go cause a scene. And I fell in love with and am fascinated by the history of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop,” Worsham said. “I remember going in there as a kid. When my album came out, I went in there to buy a copy and then went around the corner and sat down and cried. If you read up on the history, Ernest Tubb almost singlehandedly created the country record business with that store in the late ‘40s. And the Midnight Jamboree radio show has its own place in history. I read about how, after Elvis got kicked off the Opry, Tubb invited him over to play the Jamboree…. But you go in there any time in the last year and the shelves are almost empty and they’re struggling to stay open. I wanted to shine a light on the place. I know the Ryman is the Mother Church — I’m not taking away from its history — but per square foot, nothing beats the Ernest Tubb as a landmark in American music.”
On the second night, “chaos ensued,” as he put it, “so we had to move in here (to aVenue) to accommodate fans and escape the heat. And it worked. Here we had Kid Rock kick the show off” (with a profane, epic-length version of “Gimme Good Lovin’”). Worsham seemed slightly rueful about having to leave the record shop behind, but he made up for it by projecting photos of the previous night’s mayhem on a background screen and repeatedly begging fans to go to the store and “be a part of history” by buying a CD and keeping it in business.
And he was humble enough to know that the real PR value for the shop wasn’t because of him. “There’s a picture of Alan Jackson on the wall in the store,” Worsham pointed out, from a time when Jackson did a promotional gig on the store’s vintage stage back in the ‘90s. “But the truth is, as popular as Alan is, as the music evolves, an 11-year-old who walks into that store may not know who he is, even though he needs to. But if there’s a picture of Eric Church playing at the store up there, they know who Eric is, and they might ask who that guy in the hat is next to him. And then next to Alan they’ll see Hank Williams and Kitty Wells and the other people who came through there. And we did it, by God. We had mounted police on the outside and two more full houses’ worth of people crowded around who had to be turned away, but we got the picture, and my dream came true.”