Country fans were treated to the sight of Taylor Swift working out on drums and Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush rolling atop the crowd in gigantic “snow globes.”
These were but two of the strange goings-on that greeted fans Thursday night (June 5) at Nashville’s LP Field for the opening superstar show of the 2008 CMA Music Festival. Also performing were Rascal Flatts — clearly the favorite act of the evening — along with Montgomery Gentry, Kellie Pickler, Jewel, Jennifer Hanson and Luke Bryan.
Country Music Association board member Tony Conway, the festival’s executive producer, announced that this year’s event has attracted the most ticket-buyers in the event’s 37-year history. The size of the crowd bore out Conway’s assertion, with the playing field and lower two tiers of the stadium almost filled.
Most of the show’s sour notes came from the fact that it was being taped for an TV special that’s scheduled to air Sept. 8. Instead of the two side-by-side stages used to avoid setup delays in earlier festivals, this year’s edition employed only one mammoth central stage with an electronic backdrop that flashed the performer’s name, mood graphics and special effects.
The show was halted several times to tape and re-tape out-of-sequence introductions for use in the completed special. Considering the annoyance such breaks in the music cause, the crowd was remarkably patient and compliant.
Despite being touted as a “surprise guest,” Rascal Flatts’ appearance was obviously not a surprise to the show’s producers since the lyrics to one of their lesser-known songs flashed helpfully on the backdrop for a sing-along sequence.
Opening ceremonies, which began at 7:40 p.m., dragged on unconscionably long and included greetings from Conway, CMA CEO Tammy Genovese and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (who advised the crowd to recycle). These utterances were followed by the presentation of the flag by a Marine color guard, Phil Stacey’s singing of the national anthem, fireworks and a flyover by four military jets. No wonder the show lasted until 11:20.
Hanson opened with an acoustic rendering of two songs — “Love Will Find a Way Around,” from her forthcoming Universal South album, and “Leave the Pieces,” the hit she co-wrote for the Wreckers. Although Hanson is generally a pleasing performer, her insistence that the crowd stand to join in on the singing and let her take its picture was a bit much, especially so early in the evening.
Montgomery Gentry was up next and earned its ecstatic applause by working for it. The duo kicked off a five-song set with the predictably defiant, “What Do You Think About That” and closed with a feverish rendition of “Gone.” But their most outrageously redneck number was “Long Line of Losers” from their new album, Back When I Knew It All. Who else would rejoice in a moonshining “granddaddy,” an absentee grandmother, a car-stealing father and a mother who loves sermons and the men who preach them? Theirs was a terrific musical rant, though, and the crowd lapped it up.
Swift stood on a stage in the middle of the crowd to introduce her good friend Pickler, a singer who’s learned early how to work the stage. She did only four songs, but she connected with the crowd instantly through an endearing display of sassiness and vulnerability. Pickler sang herself off with “Red High Heels” as clusters of young women all over stadium stood to sing and sway with her.
Singer-actress and country newcomer Jessica Simpson came out between acts to greet the fans. She said she hoped to be playing the festival next year “and the next and the next” and remarked that she should have made the country album she’s currently working on six years ago. Simpson also revealed, at the host’s urging, that Pancake Pantry is her favorite Nashville restaurant.
Luke Bryan followed with two songs — “Country Man” and “All My Friends Say.” The rowdy enthusiasm with which the audience greeted the latter song indicated they would have been happy had Bryan stayed on longer.
Jewel got an uproarious response when Swift introduced her, but her four songs — including the current single, “Stronger Woman” — didn’t sound country at all in the stadium setting. While the applause was loud as she departed the stage, it faded quickly.
Pickler stepped up to introduce Rascal Flatts, first observing, “It’s kinda hard walking in this dress and high heels. Sorry if I flashed anybody.”
There was a long roar when Flatts came out. It sounded like the crowd had been waiting all evening for this one moment. And the trio delivered, coursing like a wave through “Me and My Gang,” “Fast Cars and Freedom,” “My Wish,” “Take Me There” and “Every Day.”
Seeing Flatts and the crowd feed off each other was like watching an endless loop of mutual admiration. The guys could have held the stage all night. But they ended their set with the bouncy “Bob That Head” as the words swirled off the stage backdrop behind them and into the adoring mob.
Finally, it was time for Swift’s set, and screams were ricocheting off the stadium walls when she made her entrance. Her soft voice was hard to hear over the general clamor, but her willowy figure and appreciative smile made the words less important. Besides, her fans knew all the words anyway.
Swift began her set with “Our Song,” which, as she reminded everyone, was her first No. 1. Then came her current single, “Should’ve Said No,” a huffy reproach of a boyfriend who’s cheated.
Then Swift inexplicably left her microphone to do a bit of drum pounding before wrapping up her segment with “Picture to Burn” as the backdrop blazed and flashed her name in huge capital letters. It seemed apparent that the producers of the TV special had designed her performance to be a big part of the finished special.
Next came the “snow globe” escapade. The show’s host first explained in great detail what was going to happen — that Nettles and Bush were going to roll themselves back and forth over a section of the crowd in transparent plastic balls prior to coming on stage. It made one wonder if next year they’ll have Dolly Parton on a pogo stick.
Happily for all, Sugarland made up for its off-stage excesses on stage, starting with the breezy “All I Want to Do” and the equally cheery “Baby Girl.” Nettles had at least a few men standing and pumping their fists into the air when she sang “Stay.” The duo bid the crowd adieu with “Something More,” and late though it was, many stood at their seats yelling for something more, even as most of the audience rushed for the doors and fireworks boomed overhead.