CMA Music Fest: Behind the lens – a photographer’s view.

19 Jun 2013

When contemplating a review of any kind, objectivity usually doesn’t feature in the formula – and this couldn’t be any truer when it comes to reviewing the 2013 CMA Music Fest in Nashville, TN. This review will be full of emotion, bias and sensationalism, but the hell, why not? We’re talking about one of the most unified music festivals in the world in a city that is rich in musical heritage. Allow me to indulge!

A five hour layover at JFK en-route from London Heathrow did stem the flow of adrenalin somewhat, but from the very moment I landed at Nashville Airport, the consuming feeling – which this city graced me with over the next five days – hit me. Walking from the gate to the baggage claim area I was greeted and welcomed to Music City by none other than George Strait… well, not actually in person, but over the intercom – still, a really nice touch.

The weather was hot – even at 7.30pm on Music Fest-eve – and making my way to the hotel I was feeling quite shattered after an almost full day of travelling, but at the same time, could not pass up the opportunity to go downtown and take in the sights of a city that was reveling in an atmosphere that I discovered during my time there which reflected all the qualities that country music represents. This is what downtown Nashville is all about – local talent, playing for tips in hope to get scouted, random impromptu outdoor sets by the big stars – Jason Aldean on this occasion after the awards outside Bridgestone Arena – and an appearance by Ronnie Dunn outside Tootsie’s. People are scattered throughout Broadway, inside and out, radiating a positive and energetic vibe that can only be described as the “Southern hospitality” that this state is famous for.

Don’t get me wrong, the next four days were hard work. Let me paint a picture. 30+ degree heat, the weight of 2 cameras with telephoto lenses on my shoulder, the negotiation of walking through 80,000 scattered fans, a 10am > Midnight schedule covering more than five stages, all combined with that overwhelming emotional feeling of being “consumed” by a city, is quite tough – but ultimately hugely rewarding!

Wandering down to the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage on Day 1, it was kicked off by a true talented singer and country music icon, Sara Evans. She really was a crowd favourite. Speaking of favourites, when studly Joe Nichols scooted out onto the stage, the girls went crazy – although it was a bit early for the tequila to be flowing, so no clothes came off that morning! Several other acts were dotted around the Riverfront Stage, the Bud Light Stage, Transmissions and more. We took a little break to indulge in what our mate Brook Chivell (from the awesome Brook Chivell Band) recommended to us – the Volcano Nachos from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Broadway. Suffice to say.. erm… No! A plate of nachos for five people doesn’t bode well sitting in front of a solitary Brit with a dumbfounded look on his face. Delicious they were – well the first quarter of them.

But what was really special, which I found out first hand on this stop at Margaritaville, is the talent that this city is filled with. Brittany (pictured) and Matt had so much chemistry, you could put them in the same sentence as Steel Magnolia, just unfortunately, they are unsigned. Hopefully that will change – at least they’re in the right city!

Back to the hotel (cabs made a killing off me this trip!) for some editing before freshening up and returning to the vast, epic, overwhelming Tennessee Titans Stadium (aka LP Field) for the first night of a four night marathon session. So not having been here before, and not knowing what to expect, I decide to take my roller bag which proved to be the wrong choice as I had to leave it unattended during the entire shoot. Thanks to security for keeping an eye on it, otherwise I may not be back in the UK since everything I owned was in there. Ouch!

Excited as hell (yeah, I’m a proper Country Music fan!), I eagerly awaited the instructions and got to know the other photographers – local & national – and I have to say it’s nice to meet pleasant photographers who are hospitable and can have a bit of a laugh.. Pretty rare I’ve found, but a welcome change when it does happen. The acts on the first night included the mainstay Tracy Lawrence, current flavour of all the girls, the hip-shaking, gyrating Luke Bryan, the colourful Taylor Swift, Eric Church, the AWESOME and charismatic Miranda Lambert and to round off the night, my personal favourite Country music act, the immensely talented ensemble, Zac Brown Band. We were treated to some great photo opportunities where some special guests were announced, setting the trend for the next three nights. First up, Taylor began singing her classic song “Tim McGraw”, and the crowd rose in a very steady crescendo as she sang “When you think Tim McGraw, I hope you think of me”, followed by “Ladies and gentlemen, Tim McGraw…” In waltzed Tim and they both began singing one of the best songs of the year, Highway Don’t Care, which again, later in the song, gave way to Keith Urban’s appearance. A magical ménage-a-trois!

Later in the night, Zac Brown brought out the LEGENDARY Kenny Rogers and they both combined to sing the classic “Gambler” – emotions ran high around the field, but Kenny proved that he’s still got it! Kid Rock was the next special guest to sing with Zac – rounding off what I felt was the PERFECT performance and a great first night at LP Field!

Who sleeps in Nashville? After a number of hours of photo editing, I could NOT resist going to see the opening act at the Riverfront Stage, Darryl Worley. One word – incredible. The guy is a proper ambassador of the genre and really stood out as the best daytime performer of the whole Festival. Humbling to hear his classic and emotional songs “Have You Forgotten” and “I Just Came Back From A War” – where he welled up and sang quite teary-eyed, obviously something close to home. A nice touch for him to bring his cute daughter and wife on stage. A class act!

That evening at LP Field, I was very skeptical as to whether Night 2 could better the first night, but the quality of the acts – to my surprise – were astonishing. Gloriana, who I’d seen previously at the Riverfront opened up with the American National Anthem – and trust me when I say, it is every bit as moving and surreal as it appears in the movies – and more! To be standing in a stadium with 60,000 people and three incredible vocalists owning The Star-Spangled Banner …. Goosebumps aplenty! An amazing opening. It was a real treat to hear Randy Travis perform “Three Wooden Crosses” – one of my favourites, and then the man with 17-abs, Kip Moore with his rockin’ Beer Money that immersed the crowd into the spirit of a warm twilight eve. The schedule was shifted around and Hunter Hayes came on next – now I have to admit, I had no knowledge of anything about this guy, other than he was a young, supposed, heart-throb. So I am the first to admit, I was judgemental, but after his performance and after being informed that he plays EVERY instrument on his album on EACH of his songs… RESPECT! The guy is great on the guitar. Lady Antebellum was next and they OWNED the stage. Owned it. Well, they all did, but a radiant Hillary Scott REALLY owned it. They were the consummate professionals and their vocal range and harmonies are just pitch perfect. A great set. After what we believe to be a technical glitch, Little Big Town came on, directly into the crowd and blew everyone away – literally – with their mega hit Tornado, before bringing on the iconic Sheryl Crow to sing and play together. Another incredible vocal collaboration!

But it was the last act of the night that I was waiting for – and have been waiting to see for years – the man who made redneck cool – the man who shares the same birthday as me – the bone himself.. Blake Shelton. It’s just astounding that a man can lumber onto the stage, look slightly awkward and underwhelmed as he addresses the crowd, yet have such an enormous stage presence. It was a proper treat to see Blake perform for the first time – and shooting him was even more special. The Boys ‘Round Here was a great finale to a great night!

Even less sleep after this gig – it seems the adrenalin of an all-consuming city just takes over… On the Saturday, I caught some shots of Jerrod Niemann at the Riverfront, Steel Magnolia at the Bud Light Stage and then wandered into Music City Centre to revisit the great CMA Songwriters Series led by the eloquent storyteller Bob DiPiero alongside the charismatic Kristian Bush and ever-talented Brett James (who I fortunately bumped into the night before at LP otherwise I may have missed the guys playing). Unfortunately Chris Young didn’t round off the foursome, but in true spirit, they had a face puppet of Chris stuck on a chair, so he was there, even though he wasn’t. It’s just such a laugh and a real treat to hear these guys tell stories and play the hits that they’ve written for themselves and other people. Kristian Bush may well be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met!

So Saturday night at LP Field begins, and after (another) cab ride to freshen up – it’s been damn hot yeah – it was back to the main event to see Brett Eldredge smash the National Anthem, followed by the legendary Oak Ridge Boys and one of my favourite up-comers, the cool dudes that are Florida Georgia Line. These guys were busking a year or so ago, but with their SMASHING and catchy hits, Cruise, Get Your Shine On and ‘Round Here, they owned the LP Field stage. Now we had been given a heads up that special guest Jason Aldean would be slotted in straight after these guys alongside the retro rock/soul/R&B/funk/you-name-it giant, Lenny Kravitz. This was a great opportunity to shoot these two guys playing together – as we are seeing more and more genre crossover these days. A huge performance. Dierks Bentley then wooed the crowd with Come A Little Closer and rocked the house down with Am I The Only One – a great blend. Kelly Clarkson came on, almost starstruck at being in front of such a big crowd – bless her, she was so natural and honest in her performance, which also brought back Jason Aldean for their duet and a surprise guest, Tricia Yearwood. Amazing stuff.

Now to round off the night, a fellow countryman from downunder.. some guy called Keith or something… Not a huge fan before the night… A massive fan by the end of it. Wow, Keith Urban is talent personified. The guy can make the guitar scream, cry, laugh and sing. And he just owned LP Field more than any other act. Fireworks began toward the end of his set amidst an atmosphere that was SO electric that it was bordering on dangerous! During his awesome “You Look Good In My Shirt” finale, he leaps off the stage and makes his way around the pitch – still playing his solo mind you – before signing his guitar and handing it to a lucky lady and taking off backstage, jumping into what us Aussies call a “ute” and driving off down the backroads.. All filmed and watched by 60,000 people who were still dancing their a**es off to his band. The perfect end to an incredible night. Keith’s performance was equally the best live performance at LP Field, alongside Zac Brown.

Sunday, the last day, and the PNBs (Post-Nashville-Blues) start to kick in. This city had completely consumed me with its charm, heritage, electric atmosphere, hospitality that I recall Naomi Watts’ line from Mulholland Drive “I woke up in this Dream Place” – that’s what it felt like, and as the last day dawned, I had to quell my emotions and continue to live in the moment, doing the job that I came over to do. I did take the morning and afternoon off to enjoy the last day – wandering down Broadway, taking in the local talent, shopping, more food and drink) and then had a nice relaxed afternoon by the pool before preparing myself for the final night.

Sadly the last night was cut short due to an impending hurricane/storm, so certain acts were not on for as long as the fans wanted. But it was still a treat to see Gary Allan and Brad Paisley (who brought out Charlie Daniels). The Band Perry, for me, were the stand out of the night and up there with the three best acts of the entire Fest. Kimberley Perry is quite simply, on fire when she performs. The three of them have a chemistry that is insatiable. Wow – what a set! Jake Owen, sadly, was only given one song as the wind started howling, but he did perform his current awesome hit, Anywhere With You before jumping down at crowd level to give the fans something that they may have missed with such a short set. And finally, Carrie Underwood finished it off, opening with a surprise cover of Paradise City before bringing back Brad Paisley for their powerful duet, ‘Remind Me’ and then closing off the show with an almighty BANG!

The long, slow trek over the pedestrian bridge back downtown was filled with atmosphere as the revelers really took the opportunity to use their lungs and savour the last moment of the event. Although, in a city that never sleeps, this was just the start of the night. Broadway had hours of fun-time left since it was only 9.30pm after all, and… strangely… no sign of a storm.. Fast-forward two hourse… hold on, the heavens opened up at 11.30pm, yet Broadway was still buzzing – revelers dancing in the rain – a real treat to see such a positive, unified atmosphere with people from the USA, Canada and all around the world really being absorbed by such an incredible event put on by the CMA.

For me, this was a real honour and I was completely humbled by the opportunity to use my skills in a genre that I absolutely love. Thanks 2country and thanks CMA…. I WILL be back!

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