By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY
NASHVILLE – For all the structural changes to the CMA Music Festival (reconfiguring the festival's footprint, moving stages around, reworking the rules for fans seeking autographs), the most welcome alteration, at least for Thursday's first full day, was something out of everybody's control.
The weather was drop dead gorgeous.
Which was a welcome change from years past, when it seemed the musical deities decided Middle Tennessee didn't deserve two very different gatherings happening the same weekend, and vented their wrath in the form of quadruple-digit humidity and surface-of-the-sun like temperatures.
Country music fans descended on the genre's home base in droves for the 41st time, and the music's biggest stars, up-and-comers and legacy artists came right along with them. Even if they weren't feeling their very best.
"We've got seven dogs. That's enough."
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
If it had been any other week, the show may or may not have gone on, but "this is an appreciation event, really, from the artists to the fans," Lambert said before her LP Field main stage performance later that night. "We don't have a job if they don't do what they do all year long, they support us by buying our records and coming to see our shows, and this is our time to give them something back for doing all that." Lambert used the CMT Awards show and fan club opportunity to continue the slow-burn roll-out for her trio project Pistol Annies (with partners Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley), noting that the Annies experience gives her the chance "to say even more things that are probably offensive than I do in my own music."
It's five o'clock (shadow) somewhere.
Rumble-voiced fan favorite Josh Turner is anxiously awaiting the release next week of his fifth album Punching Bag, featuring the debut single Time Is Love, which Josh was kind enough to play for USA TODAY in an exclusive acoustic performance video, coming soon. The advent of new music isn't the only thing that can make Turner anxious. That honor goes to monitoring his facial stubble. "It's actually kind of time-consuming and kinda wears me out to try to keep it this way," he admits. "What's funny is that when I'm clean-shaven, my face gets irritated, and when I grow it out too long, it gets itchy and exposes some of the gray hairs I'm starting to develop. So I have to keep it this same length all the time."
A factor of ten.
Count Jason Aldean among those looking forward to also releasing new music. A new album is due this fall, nearly two years after My Kinda Party vaulted the Georgia native into a new level of stardom. But that's not to say he doesn't take time each night to think back on where he and his team have been and where they're going. "I just think about the times where we were happy to be going into a 2,500 seat theater and selling those out, and now seeing 25,000 people out there singing along, to look out there and see the sea of people," Aldean says. "For me as a kid, watching videos or concerts on TV, that was always the killer shot, that endless sea of people. And now to know those people are out there to see us, that's the coolest thing about any show."
'One' day at a time.
Another growly voiced Georgia native, Mac Powell, has spent nearly two decades as the lead singer of the platinum-selling Southern rock-infused Christian band Third Day. And even though his "day job" continues (including currently working on a new project with veteran rock producer Brendan O'Brien), Powell has been itching to spread his creative wings into the country realm. He released his first country track June Bug on Twitter, and made his CMA Fest debut Thursday with a 30-minute set at the Hard Rock Café stage. (Note to country radio programmers: keep an ear out for One Mississippi. And keep a spoon handy, for you will be eating this song up with it.) Powell says he's ready to throw everything he's got into this new musical stage, even if it means taking a step back into his professional past. "It's different to think about getting in a van with a trailer and driving five to eight hours a night," he says. "It's something I never thought I would do again, but when you're driven to get this music out, you'll do it."
One more summer in the sun.
Luke Bryan brightens considerably when it's posited that he's country's current king of the party rock anthem. Last year, it was Country Girl (Shake It For Me), this year it's Drunk On You, and if Bryan's music and attitude livens up somebody's summer, so be it. "I just don't know any other way to go about this stuff than to try to create a fun party for people," Bryan says. "Look at (Kenny) Chesney through the years, look at (Jimmy) Buffett, look at the (Rolling) Stones…people want to come out and party at big, outdoor, summer day events, and it's fun. It's fun dreaming up stuff and having the ability to go do it and the fans bless it." ABC is counting on Bryan's party-throwing skills as one-half of the hosting team for this year's three-hour CMA Fest television special, premiering Sept. 17, though Bryan's still not quite sure how he got the gig. "It's funny because I talk so country, I don't know why anybody would want me hosting anything, but it's been good."
Unexpected times three.
Each year in the exclusive USA TODAY portrait room at LP Field, artists are asked to do something a little different, this year's theme being autographing a piece of foam core board. The lads and lass in Lady Antebellum took the challenge a little differently, as you can see in the online gallery, instead penning messages to loved ones, be it a spouse (from Dave Haywood) or a pet (from Hillary Scott) or themselves (from Charles Kelley). Random acts of creativity keep it fresh for the group, which is experiencing escalating success the likes of which they hadn't anticipated. "I think the tour we've been out on right now has surprised us the most," Haywood says. "Even a year ago, we were selling a couple thousand tickets, but to go into amphitheatres and sell out 18,000 tickets, that's totally taken us aback. The energy when you're out there with that many people is great, and we're living the dream right now."