Worley, Shelton and Wright Get Close to Their Fans

CMA Music Festival Week Emphasizes Artists' Relationship With Devoted Followers

At their respective fan club parties during CMA Music Festival week, Darryl Worley received some heartwarming stories about the how his music has touched lives and Chely Wright raised more money for her non-profit foundation. Oh … and Blake Shelton got two donkeys.

The festival officially begins Thursday (June 9) and continues through Sunday, but the private parties are a major draw for the artists’ most devoted fans. Indeed, some fans come to Nashville strictly for the fan club parties and don’t even bother attending the festival.

Even as he apologized for uttering the cliché, Worley declared that his fans have become his family. It was no exaggeration. In the crowd of nearly 400 gathered Tuesday (June 7) at the Gibson Bluegrass Showcase for the annual fan club luncheon were his mother and father, Bonnie and Tommy (who were celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary that day), his wife Beverly and his brother Barry.

“Just about every one of you,” he said to his fans, “has pulled me off to the side and said, ’I’ve got to tell you something [that relates to one of your songs].’ It means a lot to me. You really are my family.” Clearly enjoying the scene, Worley sang for nearly an hour and a half.

During his romp through “Tennessee River Run,” the two young children of his conga player, Scott Randon, joined Worley onstage to amp up the festivities. In the back of the crowd, an immaculately coifed woman, who was easily in her 70s — and who wasn’t Worley’s mother — swayed and mouthed the words to every one of the 15 songs the singer performed. The tables at which the fans lunched were adorned with blue souvenir mouse pads that said “Friends of Darryl Worley” and were inscribed with his Web site address.

Worley opened with “Awful Beautiful Life,” and, except for a nod to Merle Haggard via “Red Bandana,” quilted the rest of the show together with selections from his four albums. He broke into tears and had to stop singing after he told how “If Something Should Happen” — which he didn’t write — eerily paralleled events in his own life. He apologized to his wife for spending so much time away from her and beckoned her to stand beside him as he sang “I Miss My Friend.” His next album, he told the audience, will be closer to his honky-tonk roots than the ones he’s done so far.

“Next year,” he promised, “we’re gonna get a place that will hold twice as many as this one.”

Later that night, Wright hosted the show that proved to be the hottest ticket in downtown Nashville when fans packed the Wildhorse Saloon for her annual Reading, Writing and Rhythm Foundation fundraiser. Craig Morgan kicked things off, but the screams escalated when Rascal Flatts took the stage. It was a reunion of sorts; Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney met while working in Wright’s touring band.

Kelly Kaplan, a 27-year-old from Nashville, came to catch the trio “because they’re adorable.” Amber Simpson, 28, won tickets from a radio station. She made the trek from Glasgow, Ky., for Rascal Flatts but lamented that their 15-minute set was not long enough.

The show also featured short sets from Craig Morgan, Canadian star Jann Arden, Julie Roberts, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Billy Dean, Delbert McClinton, Hanna-McEuen, singer-songwriter Larry John McNally and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and Jimmie Fadden.

However, it was all about Chely Wright for Sue Roberts of Stuartsville, Minn. She’s a member of Wright’s fan club and has attended the concert for the last three years. “I guess I like the topics of her songs,” she said, “like the ones about the service and the troops.”

The night before, she got the chance to go bowling with one of her favorite country acts, Blue County. She called the experience, which was hosted by Lonestar, “the funnest thing I’ve ever done. If you got to bowl, you got to meet everybody there and take pictures.” Though she didn’t buy tickets to the CMA Music Festival itself, she and 24-year-old daughter Melissa are in town until Friday and look forward to attending Trick Pony’s fan club party, too.

Shelton turns 29 on June 18, but his admirers surprised him with an early birthday present during Thursday morning’s (June 8) party at the Wildhorse Saloon. Opening the gift box, two balloons drifted upward. Reading aloud the words “It’s a boy,” Shelton joked, “I knew some of those early days were gonna come back to haunt me.”

The balloons were symbolic, mainly because health department regulations pertaining to bars and restaurants prohibited the fan club members from presenting their real gift — two donkeys. Shelton is well known for having a menagerie of animals at his farm near Nashville and even named his most recent album Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill. The donkeys didn’t come as a total surprise to the singer.

“I heard rumors of this at a radio station in Florida,” he said. “But I am shocked and surprised because I thought there’s no way this is the truth.”

Shelton’s dry sense of humor and close bond with his fans were obvious in his remarks to the adoring crowd. Referring to the new farmyard additions, Shelton said he’d try to think of an appropriate gift to offer at next year’s fan club party.

“I’m sure they’ll go good with the rest of the weird animals I have at the farm,” he said. “But remember, all of you: Payback is hell.”

Earlier in the party, Shelton signed autographs and posed for photos with every fan in attendance. After his birthday present was announced, he grabbed a black guitar and sat on a stool to sing a few songs.

“This is the guitar — you don’t need to feed it or nothin’ — you got me last year,” he joked.

View photos from the fan club parties.