By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY
NASHVILLE – The spotlight for the nightly CMA Music Festival concerts at LP Field shines on some of the biggest names in the genre, such as Saturday night's re-emergence of superstar Faith Hill alongside performances by nouveau outlaw Eric Church, fresh-faced multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hayes and Bonnaroo-bound country legend Kenny Rogers, among others.
Yes, the big show frequently suffers from the stop-and-go nature of a television taping, but for the most part, it's about the music.
That's not as much the case during the day. To be sure, five stages around the festival's grounds are pumping out live music as quickly as they can turn artists around, but there's also a sense that CMA Fest is simultaneously a four-day "lifestyle marketing" experiment.
Mostly gone are the days of elaborate single-artist booths in the festival's main exhibition hall, replaced by what's left of major label groups rotating their rosters through the days, basic cable networks bringing their reality show stars to highly targeted groups of fans, and even long-established clothing brands hoping to latch on to the next big rising musical act.
Case in point, the North Carolina-spawned four-piece country rock act Parmalee, part of the vibrant indie label Broken Bow/Stoney Creek, and Wrangler, which invited the band to be part of its annual fashion show, an opportunity that may have taken one or two members aback just a bit.
"I think they baited us," guitarist Josh McSwain says with a laugh. "I thought we were going to sit in the audience and look at the clothes. Turns out we're in the thing." Added lead singer/guitarist Matt Thomas, "I think it's part of the fun of (events like CMA Fest.) I love this kind of stuff. I mean, look at all these hot women around me."
McSwain and Thomas, along with drummer Scott Thomas, bassist Barry Knox and a couple dozen other models, took their turns on the stage/catwalk inside the main hall at the Nashville Convention Center, before getting back later Saturday afternoon to what they know best, riling up a Hard Rock Café crowd already familiar with the party-aftermath-chronicling single Musta Had A Good Time.
Cracking the whip
|Little Big Town|
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
The first lesson Joyce imparted to the foursome? Stop thinking so much. "We tend to think you have to have it together before you get in (the studio)," says Karen Fairchild. "We had eight songs that we all agreed on as 'musts,' and we started there. And we had maybe 25 other songs we could record, but we couldn't decide. Jay said when we got there, 'Don't worry about it, when we get there, we'll figure it out together.'"
Part of that figuring-out period was involving LBT's touring band in the recording process, rehearing the new songs over a four-day period, tracking the music over three days, then working on the vocals. It was an approach that kept the music organic, says Kimberly Schlapman. "He forced us into spontaneity. We like to work things out, and we'd be in the corner talking about it, and he'd say, 'Stop talking! Start singing!' and made us stop thinking about it so much."
Put me in, Coach
While Hunter Hayes has been performing in public since the low single digits in age, and despite his proficiency on a ridiculous number of instruments and his upcoming run as an opening act for Carrie Underwood's tour, he still feels an ongoing urge to get off the bench and prove himself.
"I totally feel like a rookie," says the 20-year-old Louisiana native, who's currently actively working the single Wanted from his 2011 self-titled Atlantic Nashville project. "There's an energy about it, a sort of combination of ignorance and excitement. There's so much to look forward to, and I feel like I'll always kind of feel that way."
Hayes has spent the last couple of years on the precipice of his breakthrough, with high-profile tours with Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift on his resume, but he knows patience is sometimes the most valuable part of learning to deal with the business of show. "Nobody can tell you how it's supposed to go, because there's no real right or wrong way. There's not a set time frame on anything, so expectation can be your worst enemy," Hayes says. "But that's what keeps me going, seeing what actually happens vs. what I've always imagined happening."
Not scared to give back
It's been a tough couple of years for Julie Roberts. The blonde bombshell with the bluesy voice lost her home in the Nashville flood of 2010, breaking her ankle in the process of being rescued from the floodwaters, all of that putting the fact she'd just lost her label deal the same week into stark perspective.
Fold in a multiple sclerosis diagnosis a few years earlier, and nobody would hold stepping out of the spotlight against her one bit. But singers have got to sing, so running the gauntlet of appearances at this year's festival, including performing the national anthem at LP Field Saturday night, continues Roberts' healing process.
So does giving back and honoring the places she comes from, evinced by her penning a song and creating a video for the University of South Carolina's endowment fund campaign. "I'm proud of where I'm from, I'm a Gamecocks fan, so I wrote the song Sweet Carolina and they're taking it all over the country to their alumni and raising money for the university."
Meanwhile, Roberts continues to work on her own music (including the current single Whiskey and You) under the uniquely titled label Ain't Skeered Records. "My last two years of college were at Belmont University (in Nashville) and I'd send Mama e-mails saying, 'I think maybe I should come back home,' " Roberts says. "But she'd send one back, she'd say, 'No … Remember, we ain't skeered.' "