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VOL. 8 | NO. 24 | Saturday, June 6, 2015

CMA Fest a Blast for Artists, Merchants

TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger correspondent

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The Glimmer Twins wannabe in the white cowboy hat and the 21-year-old blonde who has worked her tail off to climb from the audience to one of the main stages at CMA Music Festival display different but genuine levels of excitement about Music City’s biggest week.

The difference between the two is Mr. Cowboy Hat has been participating for years on the biggest stages, and the blonde can scarcely believe it’s just been four years since she was a face in the crowd.

Fest veteran Brad Paisley likes the “thrown-together” feel of the CMA Fest.

(Erin Turner/CMA)

White hat-wearing superstar Brad Paisley hesitates when asked how CMA Music Fest compares with his next big Nashville gig, opening for The Rolling Stones – led by the real Glimmer Twins, singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards – June 17.

“CMA Fest is always a little like the Opry. It’s a little thrown together,” he says, adding that performers use common stage setups, and it’s got the freestyle feel of one big casual awards show

Paisley has annually co-hosted the CMA Awards in November with Carrie Underwood, so he’s familiar with the roles of emcee, performer and winner.

Knoxville’s Kelsea Ballerini will perform at a number of locations, including the CMT Music Awards.

(Erin Turner)

What he doesn’t know a lot about is opening for The Rolling Stones. CMA is like playing for “family,” he says. Opening for the Stones is like being the new kid at school trying to fit in at the cool kids’ table.

Paisley and his cohorts will spend this week immersed in steel guitars and amplified fiddles while singing about beer, pickup trucks or fragile, fleeting love.

But the music that’s most important is the ringing of cash registers during Nashville’s biggest tourism week, June 11-14 this year.

“We do an estimate on visitor spending,” says Butch Spyridon, president/CEO of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., saluting what CMA Fest does for his town.

“Last year it was $40 million – or just under. And it was fresh money and does not count the TV show (highlights broadcast in the autumn by ABC). The CMA also spends a pretty penny in production that’s not in that number.

“And it does not include local ticket sales and does not include local attendance,” he says, noting that an increasing number of Middle Tennesseans choose to spend summer days and nights with Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson … and Kelsea Ballerini.

Ballerini, the blonde mentioned earlier, will be one of the seemingly countless younger faces of country music putting dreams to the test in front of 80,000 daily visitors to CMA Fest.

And if her trajectory so far is any indication, she may well be standing with Paisley, Little Big Town and the rest on the main LP Field stage next year.

Ballerini left Knoxville to pursue her Nashville singer-songwriter dreams when she was just 15.

She was on “Today” a couple of weeks ago, singing her Top 10 radio hit “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Wednesday night she’ll be taking the stage at the CMT Music Awards show, where she’ll perform that song, nominated in the Breakthrough Video of the Year category.

That will be followed by performances in various spots in the huge footprint of the CMA Fest, perhaps the most visible appearance being a 12:45 p.m. Friday slot on the Bud Light Stage by the arena.

She vows to be plenty visible at other venues around Nashville as more and more people become familiar with the young woman whose debut album, “The First Time,” was released in mid-May.

“I’ll be out and about for sure,” says Ballerini, calling from an airport where she’s catching a flight from Fort Lauderdale back to Nashville.

“I started writing songs when I was 12, and my mom saw I was really passionate about it, so she wanted me to pursue it. So we moved to Nashville.”

Six years later, she is pals with her mentor, Taylor Swift, who has tweeted her praises and who is her role model, and is breaking out as a rising country star.

This actually will be her third year as a CMA Fest performer, and it’s been quite the ascent.

Kelsea Ballerini, who moved here from Knoxville at age 15 to pursue her career, has a CMT Music Awards nomination for Breakthrough Video of the Year.

(Erin Turner)

“Last year I did the ASCAP Buckle Stage on Broadway in a tent,” she says. “The year before I did an artist’s party where I just invited a bunch of girls from social media who had been following me and I played them new songs. I did that last year, too.”

Thrills fill her voice when discussing CMA Music Fest, the rhinestone and denim bait that draws an increasing number of visitors to the carnival midway that is Lower Broad, with its fried-pickle delicacies and stale beer aroma.

Jay Jones, director of media relations for the Country Music Association, can’t help but smile when talking about his genre’s takeover of Nashville’s tourist district and LP Stadium, where the nightly “big concerts” are held.

“We have 11 stages, seven of them are completely free,” he says. Of course one of the stages is in LP Field, where CMA Fest ticketholders end their evenings on the four “official” days of the festival.

LP Field provides a stark contrast to Fairgrounds Speedway, where Fan Fair concerts were once held.

(Erin Turner)

The complete festival ticket packages have been sold out since last October, he says. But that doesn’t mean other folks, particularly locals or tourists who missed out on the sales, can’t enjoy the music.

“There will be basically 500 acts you can see for free if you are a local,” he says.

The seven free stages are on the riverfront and in the honky-tonk district. Three other stages are inside the Music City Center, locale of AT&T U-Verse Fan Fair X (the digital era’s flashy successor to the old Tennessee State Fairgrounds years), where fans pay $10 a day to stand in line for autographs while hearing tunes and buying merch. This overall ticket includes Fan Fair X.

While there is the meet-and-greet element of the old Fan Fair, back in the deep-dark days when nobody needed a corporate sponsor’s name in the title, this is a completely different event, thanks to the facilities at Music City Center and, of course, the air-conditioning.

CMA diehards, who date their attendance back to pre-2001, when the festival moved from the musty, dusty fairgrounds to downtown, may well lament the loss of those “good-ol’-days,” while flourishing in the cool comfort of the massive expo hall.

Social media gives country music an abundance of free advertising during CMA fest.

(Erin Turner/CMA)

Helter-skelter in the summer swelter, as Don McLean would say, fans used to crowd the old Fairgrounds Fan Fair, pushing and shoving through the pavilions where they gathered autographs from their favorites, unknown hopefuls and over-amplified disc jockeys.

Back in those days – when George & Tammy reunited or Miley’s mullet-headed old man thrust achy-breaky hips from center stage at racetrack’s edge – stamina and water were necessities.

That Fan Fair had a smalltown festival feeling and attracted the blue-collar clientele, many of whom saved up all year to come down from Flint or Oswego or Liverpool to stand in line for hours. In one particular case of extreme signing, a young and much slimmer Garth Brooks sat at his autograph booth for about 24 hours, making sure each fan got his signature and a kind word delivered in third-person.

NCVC honcho Spyridon remembers those days well. He also remembers the then-controversial move to downtown Nashville, where younger country fans – lawyers from L.A., bankers from Boston, etc. – would feel more at ease.

“I’ve seen a bunch of (Fan Fairs/CMA Fests),” says Spyridon, talking about the 24 years in which he’s been the city’s chief tourism procurer.

Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum at last year's CMA Fest.

(Erin Turner/CMA)

“It was on a steady decline attendance-wise out at the Fairgrounds, which really was what prompted CMA to look at it differently,” he says. “To go from a 10-year decline (in attendance) to a $40 million, 15,000-room-night event with prime-time television is beyond remarkable.

“It speaks to the genre, the CMA as an organization and the city itself. It was a brave move by the CMA (to migrate downtown), but it was an incredibly wise decision. Of course, you know how good hindsight is.”

It has been a steadily increasing draw for the city, according to CMA’s Jones. “I think we sold out for the first time in 2010 after moving in 2001,” he says. “Now every year we sell out faster and earlier. Presales start right after the festival.”

He says the growth speaks well for the fan experience being delivered downtown and in the stadium. And the sparkling Nashville Skyline makes for a dandy TV backdrop.

Spyridon, who has just returned from a tourist-recruiting mission to New York City, echoes Jones’ assessment.

The move downtown didn’t draw boffo reviews on opening night, he recalls. “Year one was a little soft,” he says. “After year one, everybody got used to what the new formula was, and it’s grown every year.”

In his tourist-procurer’s role, Spyridon spends much of the week wandering around Lower Broadway, the riverfront, LP Field and Music City Center.

“I won’t tell you I go to everything,” he says. “I go to the Fan X exhibit hall. I visit some of the daytime stages and I at least go two nights to the stadium. I want to show support. I also want to see how it functions and see what the visitor reaction is. And I want to enjoy some music, too.”

By studying the changes, massive and cosmetic, Spyridon preps for the fest’s future. “We’re only as good as the fan experience, so if we’re not paying attention to what they like and don’t pay attention to how it works and flows, then we aren’t doing our jobs.

“We do 500 or 600 visitor surveys, so we get a good read on that experience,” adds Spyridon who admits to wandering from the best to the worst seats in the stadium to hear what people are saying, see what they’re seeing.

“Our surveys are overwhelmingly positive,” he says, adding that while the fest is four days, the average fan stays 5.56 nights. “They come from all over the country, all over the world, and we have very few complaints.”

Jones reaffirms Spyridon’s reason for enthusiasm.

“We have 80,000 visitors per day across the footprint (from Music City Center to LP Field) from when the first gate opens at 10 a.m. Thursday until the end of the shows at LP,” he says. “It does a lot of good for local business. And the money generated by CMA goes back into the community.”

He says that since the artists donate their time, piles of dollars – beyond the costs of setting up and hosting this hillbilly Woodstock – go back into the community and into promoting music to the young in an era when such programs are on the proverbial chopping block.

Since 2006, after the event truly blossomed downtown, the CMA has donated $11 million nationally, he says, adding $9 million of that stays right here in Nashville. “It all goes to music education.”

The rest goes to the CMA Foundation to benefit country music industry initiatives, Jones says.

And that’s not counting the money spent on T-shirts, cold beer, barbecue and rooms.

“July 4 (the massive dose of music and fireworks over the Cumberland River) has a bigger one-day crowd, but this is the single-biggest event, both in terms of out-of-town attendance and visitor-spending that we host,” says Spyridon.

Of course it begins and ends with the music – from the big stars like Paisley to rising stars like Ballerini to the unknown but stubborn.

Ballerini is still getting accustomed to the fame as fans buy her new album, “The First Time.’’

“I had a digital EP release before, but this is my first album,” she says. “I just walked into a Walmart in Florida and bought it …. I always would walk into stores and buy other people’s albums. So I wanted to buy my own.

“The clerk did a double-take. He was like ‘hey, what??’ and I was like ‘it’s me.’” The young woman, who writes all her songs, laughs at the recollection of an incident she hopes will be an anecdote of life on the road to superstardom.

“It’s been amazing,” she says. “I feel like just in the past month, things have been picking up. People are hearing my song … I feel very thankful and very blessed.”

Now with a “Today” appearance (“It was crazy. I got to hang out with Hoda and Kathy Lee”), a new album and a radio hit, she clearly is ready for CMA Fest.

“It’s really exciting,” she says, noting that CMA Fest will be “a fun week to show what I’ve been working on for a year… Last year I sat in the audience at the CMT Awards. Now, this year, to be on the stage….”

Like white-hatted veteran Paisley, she knows it’s only country music, but she likes it.

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