Beyond the Big Stars at CMA Fest

Riverfront Stages, Exhibit Hall Provide More Photo Opportunities

The star-studded nightly concerts during the CMA Music Festival always draw the most publicity and the biggest names of the weekend, but what’s a fan to do during the day? For those willing to brave the sun and the winding lines, it’s certainly not hard to pass the time until the sun goes down.

Country fans know that autographs and photographs make the best souvenirs, and hundreds of people roamed the exhibit hall in search of memorable moments on Thursday morning (June 10). As usual, the famous faces ranged from current chartbusters (Lonestar, Montgomery Gentry) to the perennial favorites (Billy Ray Cyrus, Charlie Daniels). In the first few hours that the doors of the Nashville Convention Center were open, additional star-sightings included Gretchen Wilson, Blake Shelton, Mark Wills, John Berry and Pam Tillis.

Several young, well-dressed dudes also attracted crowds in their individual homemade booths. Not because they had a hit, which none of them did, but because their designer shirts were about half-buttoned. In fact, one star was wearing nothing but a bandana — but it was Duke, the dog from the Bush’s Baked Beans commercials.

Lynn Hildreth, a 54-year-old woman from the Chicago area, snagged the first spot in line for Sawyer Brown on Thursday morning, though it would be two hours before the group was scheduled to appear. Actually, Hildreth was holding the spot for her 29-year-old son, who had a ticket for an autograph in somebody else’s line.

“This is how we get to see each other most often, taking trips,” she said. Hildreth didn’t attend while the event was held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds when the festival was known as Fan Fair. (It moved downtown in 2001.) But 21-year-old Kristin Morrow, a Nashville resident who was just behind Hildreth in line, remembers those days. She says she’s been a Fan Fair regular for almost a decade and had a cookbook, a photography book and several photos ready for the Sawyer Brown guys to sign.

Johnny Cash, certainly one of the most talked-about country artists of the last year, even had a presence at the exhibit hall. Sotheby’s, the New York auction house, was pre-selling catalogues from its Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash auction, to be held in September. Other stars with booths — whether they were scheduled to sign or not — included Alabama, Billy Ray Cyrus, Vern Gosdin, Alan Jackson and LeAnn Rimes.

On Friday morning, fan favorite Neal McCoy worked his magic at the Riverfront Park stage. An enormous stage — divided into two stages — was set up on the banks of the Cumberland River. When McCoy signed off, new band Sugarland kicked off their set just moments later. Though the Atlanta group’s first single isn’t due until mid-July, at least a dozen people in the front were already singing the words. Finding a seat close to the stage wasn’t a problem because the stage was so huge. And with a reasonably short photo line, the Riverfront stage also provided a fine chance for amateur shutterbugs to linger longer for a better shot.

Country fans also love free stuff. Walking into the Riverfront Park, items up for grabs included free baked beans, free breath mints and a free spray canister of kitchen cleaner. Perhaps that made it easier to swallow the $5 “curly potatoes,” which is essentially one big potato chip, or the $3 bottles of water that were essential to battle the 90-degree heat. For those not inclined toward corn dogs, you could go for the blue crab burritos (also available on a stick) or catch a shuttle to the family zone for a piece of chocolate-covered key lime pie (only available on a stick). Across the river, the carnival’s culinary attractions competed with an enormous inflatable Tennessee Titan and slick ski boats, as well as Andy Griggs’ celebrity archery tournament on Friday afternoon.

Above all, though, this is a music festival. And while the big stars tend to bring in the big attendance numbers, the Riverfront’s lineup is satisfying in its own way, giving many undervalued artists a chance to strut their stuff. Jo Dee Messina, Jeff Bates, the Oak Ridge Boys, Suzy Bogguss, Pinmonkey, Tammy Cochran and James Otto had all appeared by Friday afternoon, with Brad Cotter, Lila McCann, Wilson, Jamie O’Neal, David Lee Murphy, Julie Roberts, Restless Heart, Mountain Heart, The Jenkins and Doug Stone expected to perform before the festival’s conclusion on Sunday.