The Country Music Association Music Festival in Nashville
We are in for a treat and a first this week, as we welcome guest columnist Holly Horn from Santa Cruz, California. As you’ll read, she’s here to offer a unique perspective on straight country music.
I met Horn last year when she was covering the AMA Conference and Festival for Country Music Chat Live. She recently returned to Nashville for the Country Music Association Festival.
Holly got the photography bug at the age of six, and was shooting with a professional camera by nine. She started shooting rockabilly concerts at 19, and had her first album insert photo that same year. She adores all kinds of music, but especially loves Americana. She’s had photos in various magazines, including Rolling Stone and Country Music. She has also contributed words and photos to The Nashville Gab and Born Country. She has worked as a TV stills photographer and is currently nominated for a Josie Music Award for her concert photography.
Here, then, is Holly Horn in her own words and photos:
I arrived for my first CMA Fest not knowing what to expect. I’d heard about the crowds and the heat, and I knew I’d be photographing a lot of artists over the course of seven days. Though the fest is technically only four days, there are fan parties, a celebrity softball game, cornhole tournament, CMT Music Awards, and many other events that stretch out for a little over a week. For the best experience, I recommend arriving the Monday that kicks off the Fest week, and leaving the following Monday or Tuesday.
With Chris Stapleton’s massive success on both the country and Americana charts this past year, I was curious who else I might find on the stages, streets, and in the bars of Nashville. My first stop was the Blue Bar on June 7 for Travis Meadows’ fan party. It was catered by Little Choo-Choo Barbeque, and featured the best mac and cheese I’ve ever tasted. Travis is cited by many as one of Nashville’s best songwriters. He’s had songs cut by Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen, Blackberry Smoke, and Frankie Ballard. He’s lived quite the life, and has managed to come to a beautiful point in it. I requested my favorite song of his, “Old Ghosts,” and was lucky enough to hear him play it live.
Next up, I went across the street to the parking lot of Losers, for the Big Machine Party. Lauren Jenkins and Tara Thompson are rising stars, both with a sweet, snarky edge. Tucker Beathard performed his radio single, “Rock On,” but “Mama & Jesus” had my attention. The night closed with Aaron Lewis playing his hit “Country Boy.” He also brought out three new songs: “Lost and Broken,” “That Ain’t Country,” and “Sinner,” the title track from his new album due out July 15. With the caliber of songs I heard, I am excited for his record.
The next day (June 8) happened to be my birthday, and what a birthday it was. I started with Aubrie Sellers at the Country Music Hall of Fame (CMHoF). Sellers is the near look-alike daughter of Lee Ann Womack, with raven hair, and a voice that echoes her mama’s. Joining her was songwriter Adam Wright, who himself is talented. I’d give them both many listens.
Next up at the CMHoF, Gary Allan performed many of his past hits, and a couple new songs. I was able to speak with him and his sweet girlfriend, Molly, backstage after the show. Not only does Allan have a new single out, “Do You Wish It Was Me,” but he and his girlfriend have been working on a handmade jewelry line together, and they own an upscale boutique called The Label Nashville. I got to see a few samples of the jewelry, and was quite impressed.
I left the Hall of Fame, and walked to 3rd and Lindsley for Clay Walker’s 7th Annual Chords of Hope Benefit Concert. The evening began with Joe Nichols, then Craig Campbell, with his relatable new song “Outskirts of Heaven,” and a funny tune called “That Girl Loves to Fish.” Finally, Walker ended the evening with a new one, “She Gets What She Wants.” Though he has MS, Walker has been blessed to be in remission.
That same night, I took an Uber to the Ryman to catch Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam, featuring the adorable two-year-old Ben Scruggs on upright bass, Andrew Wakefield (The Voice), and Maren Morris belting out her hit “My Church” in the Mother Church of Country Music. She also covered Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Steven Tyler joined Marty for a song. Eddie Stubbs fiddled for a bit, and then Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys jumped up. The Brothers Osborne joined with “Lonely Out of You,” and their new song, “Weed, Whiskey, and Willie.”
Recent CMHoF inductees the Oakridge Boys played “Y’all Come Back Saloon” and “Elvira” with the audience singing along. Marty’s wife Connie Smith performed with the Isaacs; then Doug Kershaw played “Diggy Diggy Lo.” The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach joined Duane Eddy, then JD McPherson took the stage, covering a Charlie Rich tune. In closing, the Isaacs sang a beautiful rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” I’m looking forward to attending this again next year.
On June 9, I meandered through the crowd to catch a bit of Chris Janson at the Riverfront Stage, and caught the awesome Maren Morris after him. I took a short jaunt to the Gildan Hard Rock Stage to take a few photos of newcomer Jacob Davis. I then headed to the Skyview Stage at Ascend Amphitheater to listen to Ashley Monroe perform a song she cowrote with Guy Clark, and two songs she wrote with Miranda Lambert. I made my way across the Cumberland on the foot bridge for the first nightly show at Nissan Stadium. The Oakridge Boys started off the night, followed by Charlie Daniels, who brought out Randy Travis to a round of applause from the stadium. Kelsea Ballerini was next, then Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert. Rascal Flatts brought Maren Morris out with them, and they sang “My Church” together. Jason Aldean closed the show.
Friday (June 10), I ventured into the Wildhorse for Ray Scott’s Fan Party, and a performance by him. In between, I slipped away to the Hard Rock Stage to catch Runaway June and Sister C (watching both of them for success). Later, at Nissan Stadium, Frankie Ballard opened the show, followed by Clint Black, joined by his wife Lisa Hartman Black for a duet on “You Still Get to Me.” Then, Chris and Morgane Stapleton took the stage, with producer Dave Cobb on guitar. After that, Eric Church played. When he finished, I rushed over to Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop to catch the second night of Charlie Worsham’s Midnite Jam with surprise guests. In the sweltering heat, a lucky few were treated to the talents of Brandy Clark, Eric Church, Ryan Beaver, and of course Charlie Worsham himself. Worsham has a new album coming out soon, and if it’s anything like hearing him live, it’ll be mind-blowing.
I woke the next day (June 11) and made my way back to the CMHoF to catch Jack Ingram. He has a new album due in August. I was able to ask him if there are any songs he won’t play again, and a few in the crowd were disappointed at his answer of “Lips of an Angel.” He won’t play a song that he doesn’t feel in his heart. I admire his honesty, and it comes through in his music.
Next, I took a quick walk to the HGTV Lodge for the beautiful Martina McBride. Then back over the footbridge to Nissan Stadium for the Marshall Tucker Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Chris Young, and the always-energetic Steven Tyler.
I rushed to catch the third and final night of Charlie Worsham’s Midnite Jam, where we were treated to Kid Rock, who sweetly serenaded a young wheelchair-bound woman. Margo Price (another of my favorite new artists), the talented Brent Cobb, and Hunter Hayes were also there. I’d never given Hunter Hayes a listen before, other than what I’ve heard in passing on the radio. Watching him in action is a whole different experience. His guitar playing is arguably some of the finest in Nashville. His energy is warm and real. Worsham asked if we felt like we were in a daydream at one point during the night, and indeed, that is the best way to describe his Midnite Jam. Without a doubt, it was the best experience I had at CMA Fest, and I hope it continues next year, though I’m betting on an even larger venue.
On the final day of CMA Fest (June 12), I was delighted with the talents of Cassadee Pope at the HGTV Lodge, caught a bit of Brent Cobb at the Music City Stage, Jack Ingram at the HGTV Lodge, Margo Price at the Chevrolet Cruze Park Stage, the lovely Maddie & Tae at HGTV Lodge. Next, I saw a bit of Song Suffragettes at the CMA Close-Up Stage inside Fan Fair X (where the artists have scheduled meet and greets with those holding passes). I hit the Wildhorse again to catch a bit of Rick Monroe (check him out, you won’t be disappointed).
Later, I headed over to Nissan Stadium for Exile, Little Big Town (my favorite part of the night), who brought out special guest Pharrell Williams, along with Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge, who will be co-hosting the CMA Fest Special, “Country’s Night to Rock” on ABC.
The night closed with a guitar duel between Luke Bryan and virtuoso Keith Urban, and individual performances by both. Bryan led the entire stadium in a moment of silence for those lost or injured the night before in the senseless shootings at the Orlando Nightclub. The stadium was glowing with only the lights of cellphones. It was a touching gesture for a dark incident.
What was your favorite part of CMA Fest? Tweet me @shootinthedirt.