CMA Music Fest showcases top stars, little-known songwriters

4:48 PM, Jun 9, 2012   |    comments
CMA Music Fests
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NASHVILLE, TN - You know something at CMA Music Festival is different when the neon-green t-shirt-clad "fun team" volunteers can't give away artist-emblazoned mini-fans.

Usually, they can't give 'em away fast enough. But with sunny skies and temperatures in the low-80s Friday afternoon, downtown Nashville was downright pleasant for CMA Fest's second full day.

The favorable temps continued to pair well with the subtle changes the Country Music Association made in the footprint of the annual fan gathering, what with additional music stages added in the main exhibit hall of the Nashville Convention Center, Hall of Fame Park across the street from Bridgestone Arena (home of the Nashville Predators and Wednesday's CMT Music Awards), and at the south end of LP Field, where the big-name laden nightly concerts take place.

Merge that with cover tunes blaring out of almost every storefront and honky tonk along Broadway, and the festival exists in a near-constant wash of sound. And the tens of thousands who pack Nashville's downtown streets each June like it that way.

Whole bunch of nothin'

Pretty much from the moment Carrie Underwood stepped onto the American Idol stage in 2005, her life has been in whirlwind mode. The recording/promotion/touring cycle, meshed with near-annual trips to awards shows (not to mention her seemingly now-standing gig alongside Brad Paisley as hosts of the CMA Awards), and a public courtship and marriage to NHL star Mike Fisher gives the Oklahoma native impetus to shut it all down when she gets the chance.

"I do nothing," Underwood says when asked what she does to decompress. "I stay home in my pajamas, I get together with friends and hang out, definitely trying to find time to spend with my friends and my husband."

That works a lot better now that Fisher is a member of the Predators (thanks to a 2011 trade from the Ottawa Senators), but the cyclone will spin up for both members of the couple sooner than they probably wish, as Carrie heads out on an ambitious tour in support of her new record Blown Away (including her first dates in the United Kingdom) and Fisher returns to the ice.

"Yes, dear."

Another artist getting used to marital bliss is Jake Owen, who's settling into the betrothed life with model Lacey Buchanan after marrying in early May. The rakish Owen's biggest adjustment? Pronouns. "I'm learning to say 'we' a lot more than 'I,'" Owen notes. "Like, this is not 'my' house, this is 'our' house. 'We' picked this out."

While the new Mrs. Owen rounds out his personal life, the 2011-12 time frame has been jam-packed professionally for the Florida native, picking up his first two No. 1 country singles with Barefoot Blue Jean Night and Alone With You, not to mention a stellar slot on Keith Urban's tour. After spending the previous couple years in a bit of a career lull, Owen is thankful for the renewed opportunities he's been given.

"I've noticed a lot broader spectrum of fans that have come into my world," he says. "I kinda got demoted a bit, after a couple songs that died a slow death on the chart.

But it made me work harder, so it's kind of validation for every thing I've done for the last year. Decisions I've made have brought me back to the place I wanted to be, and it's inspiring to go forward."

I know that song!

Few major music festivals simultaneously celebrate the role of songwriters as publicly as CMA Music Festival, with writers who double as artists getting the chance to ply their performance wares in front of audiences who know their songs (and maybe even their names) but don't necessarily know the face.

 Performance rights organization BMI sponsored a stage on the grounds of LP Field not only as a way to provide music for the crowds gathering outside the gates for the huge nightly shows, but also as a way to showcase part of its artist/songwriter membership.

Trent Summar, a co-writer on songs for Jack Ingram (Love You), Pat Green (Somewhere Between Texas and Mexico), Gary Allan (Guys Like Me) and others, brought his farm-rockin' outfit The New Row Mob out to play Friday afternoon for folks who may not have known the frenetic straw-behatted frontman, but could sure sing along to his hits.

"Everything you've ever worked for with a crowd is easier at that point," Summar says of the moment when the crowd "gets" the song. "You play a song that some folks have heard, you're not fighting for acceptance any more. Here's my song, you like that? You don't like that one, well, here's a different one."

And while the music business's constant state of flux has changed economic realities for the names you only see in liner notes, Summar knows he's fortunate to have the experience and success he does under his belt. "Any day you get paid to create, you're lucky and I know how lucky I am."

The family that sticks together...

Spend enough time within the concrete corridors of LP Field during CMA Fest and you watch the evolution of artists from the "we're just happy to be here" phase to the "we'd really love to stop and tell you how happy we are to be here, but we literally don't have a second to spare" phase.

This year's graduates to the "hurry up and hurry" mode of the nightly concerts, The Band Perry, which barely had time to slow down for USA TODAY's exclusive portrait room before jetting off again. But Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry all recognize they're merely sitting atop the mountain built for them by brand new members of their clan.

"Our family has grown by thousands and thousands of people, because more people know our music, and we truly feel they're more than TBP fans, they're the TBP family," Kimberly says.

As far as how the musical siblings interface with each other in the wake of their success? "Our family interaction really hasn't changed since about the fourth grade," Reid says, with Neil quickly chiming in, "We do remember that if one person is unhappy, then all three are unhappy, so we try to keep that in mind." And with that, they were gone.

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