Nashville is an interesting place. One night, you're out at a honky-tonk with Doug Stone in the crowd, the next you could be running into more great country artists.
I was walking on Second Street looking for a country music auction, and I asked a man for directions. He introduced himself as Robert, and after a little small talk, I recognized him as a former member of The Mavericks. We spoke for quite a while, and I even shared with him the story of me telling a friend that the Mavericks were playing the Fleet Center in Boston, before letting the friend know it was the NBA team, not the band.
I didn't bid on anything at the auction, which was full of life-sized and smaller posters and two floors worth of country music memorablia. I have enough trouble lugging around all of the souvenirs and free stuff that I've picked up at the festival.
Every day, you find a new favorite honky-tonk. My honky-tonk of the day on Thursday was Layla's Hillbilly Bluegrass and Country Inn, and I was amazed with what I saw there. Aaron Kelly, who isn't even a teenager yet, was singing Hank Williams and Patsy Cline songs. He also showed he could handle the contemporary, singing a cover of Erika Jo's "I Break Things" that was better than the original version.
While CMA Festival means a lot of things to me - concerts, camaraderie, seeing new stores and bars, many people's focus is meeting their favorite stars. That was evident when I visited the Nashville Convention Center where it seemed like just about everybody had a booth, from the unknown to rising stars like Taylor Swift.
You could see artists like Mark Chesnutt, Zona Jones, Ken Mellons, John Berry and more signing for their fans. There were also new artists like Brandi Thornton, a Georgia native who sings a catchy brand of uptempo pop-country. Hopefully, we'll hear her on country radio soon.
One of the neatest things at the Convention Center was meeting Lonzo and Oscar, the longest continuing country music duo. I even got an explanation on the history of their hilarious hit, "I'm My Own Grandpa". It was composed in New York City and based on an old Mark Twain story.
One of the best artists in the convention center was Sunny Sweeney, who was an independent Texas artist who signed with Nashville-based Big Machine Records last year. She re-released her album, "Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame", on the new label. I hope Sweeney enjoys success, so it exposes the rest of the country to this exciting sub-genre known as Texas Country. And she doesn't water down the stuff like Pat Green, instead keeping it real. It's amazing to me how many non-Texans have never heard of the music, and I just know they'd dig it if they heard a few tracks, especially those who lean towards traditional country.
I wish I could have spent more time in the Convention Center, but the Ryman Auditorium was calling my name. This time, for the CMA Celebrity Close-Up, which featured a taping of television interview between GAC's Loriann Crook and several country stars.
The interviews produced lots of laughs as Crook read her own questions as well as different ones submitted by the audience before the show. Trace Adkins was the first artist to step up to the plate, and he talked about how the festival wears artists out: "Remember when Garth Brooks signed autographs for 24 hours straight? That was the stupidest thing. All he did was make the rest of us look bad. I said 'I don't care, I'm not doing it'." Adkins, of course, made the comments jokingly.
He also talked about how music is his fifth or sixth priority behind God, Country, Family and Friends. Adkins had several great one-liners like "Everyone who does this (singing) is because they don't like work, just like politicians". He also got political, voicing his displeasure with the Bush administration. He's honored to be performing for the president, but like many Americans isn't pleased with his policies.
It was interesting to see the crowd applause when Adkins said he would want to ask the president "What the Hell is wrong with you people?" This is a genre that shunned the Dixie Chicks for being against the president, and now, one of country's ultimate good ol' boys does it to widespread applause. You know what they say, timing is everything.
Adkins also showed a little bit of a blue (state) streak by saying if he were president, he'd make sure every American had health insurance, but then he conceded that the government doesn't have the power to do it, sounding like a typical politician.
Next, Terri Clark revealed the strangest autograph request she'd ever received, "Will you sign my boob because my husband will think it's totally hot?" a fan asked. Clark said she politely declined.
She also talked about her hard scrabble days in Nashville when she was performing on Broadway as an illegal alien from Alberta. She got $15 per day plus tips for playing Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and did impressions of other artists because "nobody knew who I was".
Clark revealed that she originally planned on joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before being inspired to go to Nashville after seeing Barbara Mandrell on television. She's not a honky-tonker in real life, saying that she enjoys staying at home with her dog and planting flowers.
After the first session of CMA Close-Up, I didn't have much of a chance to check out the Riverfront Stage, plus there was blistering heat down there. But I did manage to catch the end of Bucky Covington's set and got to see high-energy Trent Tomlinson. Tomlinson was amazing with songs like "Country Is My Rock" and "Drunker Than Me". Even better was the touching ballad, "One Wing in the Fire" that he wrote about his father.
Back at Close-Up Part 2, a smaller crowd checked out friends Neal McCoy and Charley Pride chatting with Crook. Pride made it clear that his wife of 50 years, Rozene, makes all of the decisions in his life, including the clothes he wears and sometimes, the songs in his concert.
The next guests revealed something interesting. Crook asked Montgomery Gentry about tattoos, and Eddie Montgomery revealed that he's tattoo-less because "he's too damn scared of needles". He'd be the last person who I thought wouldn't have a tattoo with their whole southern rock, bad boy image. According to The Tennessean, the Nashville Metro Police upset Troy Gentry because they wanted him to stop blocking traffic in the street.
In the interview, the duo revealed the intensity of their marital commitments. When asked about their favorite actresses, they both said their wives, who aren't actresses at all (to my knowledge), and Crook countered with "You're looking at two of the most well-trained husbands in country music".
A trip to LP Field across the river featured a walk across one of Nashville's two breathtaking pedestrian bridges. The stadium is huge, and it's great that Nashville has such a big facility to showcase the festival. But there were some shortcomings. Not all of the concession stands were open, making for long lines. And the photo lines, which allowed fans to get to the front of the stage to take pictures, didn't move along fast enough. I was disappointed that I didn't get any pictures of Reba McEntire because the line was so long, you would have thought Tennessee Titans star Vince Young was signing autographs at the end of it.
LP Field is a beautiful NFL Stadium, but it's difficult to get around because of the setup, which isn't a fully-enclosed bowl.
The concert was pretty cool, the first stadium show I'd been to since the George Strait Country Music Festival in 2001. Jason Michael Carroll didn't play for long enough. I didn't expect a long set from him, but two songs? Come on. There seemed to be a recurring them for me of seeing Adkins and Dierks Bentley, having been to Bentley's Fan Club Party on Wednesday. One of my favorite new songs is Bentley's "Free and Easy". The crowd real enjoyed it too.
The Wreckers were disappointing, and I wonder how soon it will be before Michelle Branch returns to the pop world. I like their debut album, but I don't think they matched the intensity of the other artists.
Maybe it's because I'm spoiled and have been to multiple Alan Jackson and Brooks and Dunn concerts, but I couldn't get too fired up to see them, especially in an abridged version. It was cool, however, hearing them perform some of their new hits like "Hillbilly Deluxe" (B&D) and "5 O'Clock Somewhere" (A.J.)
The entire night was full of thrill-seekers, not fun-suckers. A term I heard a fan from Ohio use to describe those who don't like honky-tonkin'. I got to hang out with some Australians after the show and you don't realize the scope of country music's influence until you talk to folks who traveled across the world to attend the festival.