The just-concluded 2012 CMA Festival drew 70,000 people to Nashville... and those were just the artists.
Okay, maybe it just seemed that way. But nearly everybody who was anybody made it to the main stage this year, turning in performances that will be whittled down into a three-hour ABC special to air Sept. 17. We caught up with quite a few of them backstage, starting with the coming telecast's co-hosts...
These two will be the official emcees when the CMA Festival special airs on ABC in September. So they were busy throughout the four-day festival shooting introductions and interviewing their fellow stars. Despite their mutual extroversion, these new duties didn't always come naturally.
"I didn't know what a co-host is supposed to do," Perry (of, of course, the Band Perry) admitted backstage. "You see Brad and Carrie on the CMAs and those are some tough shoes to fill. I actually practiced for my interviews, because I had never done an interview before. You guys have a really tough job! Reid, Neil and I—they played Brad 1 and Brad 2 on the bus and kind of threw me some curveballs. That's what I did to prepare."
Perry may be a novice at being on the interviewer's side of the microphone, but some interviewees are just bound to make things easy no matter what. Like Blake Shelton. "We were talking about Miranda's smoking hot black leather outfit that she wore for her performance," said Perry. "And he let me know that he thought she looked like Xena and had always wondered what it would have been like to be with Xena. So that was pretty comical."
Bryan said he hadn't seen his co-host as much as he expected during the festival. "What I was just telling Kimberly is, we've done so many cutaways, we haven't seen each other that much. That's been the only disappointing thing about this." But they know each other well, having done 50 shows on tour last year as Tim McGraw's opening acts. Bryan feels he and the Band Perry are in much the same position. "They spent so many years beating the streets and working hard, and I kind of did the same thing. We're kind of the same thankfully upward ride of feeling our careers… budding, is that the right word?" Well, they might both be one step beyond budding at this point, but it'll do.
As fans know, Bentley had had to cancel dates on his tour just the week prior to the CMA Festival, due to the death of his father. But he allowed that he was "excited to get out there and swig a few Red Bulls and kick some ass" in Nashville.
He'd just arrived in Nashville after playing the Detroit Hoedown the night before, which was his first gig since the funeral. "People were asking me if it was hard to come back out and play shows," he said backstage at LP Field. "Really, it was something I was looking forward to. I had that week leading up to it, and I knew being out on stage with the guys in the band and the fans would be what I needed, even if I didn't know if I could really go out there and do it. The second I got out there, it felt great... In country music, your fans know so much about you—not just your music but your personal life and what's going on... Everyone knows everything. Those fans were great last night and gave me everything they had, and that's the best medicine there is, live music and being with your fans—it's pretty strong."
He's well known for giving out treats to his fans on Twitter—like the occasional pair of seats to a sold-out show for those left out—but, he said, "It goes both ways. We were just talking about my dad. For me, there were so many texts and emails and phone calls from friends in this town… But also, there's times when you're alone, and [with the time off to deal with] my dad and whatnot, I'll just get on and see what's going on in the Twitter world. And there were just people I don't even know saying so many great things. So it goes both ways. I'm glad to send it out there and also have it come back."
Speaking of fans being inquisitive about every aspect of a country star's life... Jackson has dealt with that lately himself, albeit on a far less sensitive topic.
"A lot of 'em are opinionated," Jackson said backstage. "They feel like they're connected to you, and they are. Country music fans enjoy knowing about you personally, and it's most of the time not in a nosey way; they're just sweet and they care and they feel like they want to know about you. And yeah, they get freaked out if you shave your mustache off. Right now, a lot of 'em say 'You don't let your hair grow out long anymore!' I said, 'It won't grow long anymore! This is about as long as it grows.' I guess probably the funniest thing is, I've wore them holey jeans ever since the 'Chattahoochee' video, and I bet I've heard a million times—usually it's a lady like my mama—they'll say 'I know good and well you can afford some blue jeans without holes in 'em now!' The ladies always thought it was terrible I wore those raggedy blue jeans. I told 'em it would cost more to get 'em to look like that than it would if you buy 'em off the rack."
But inquiring minds want to know: What was the deal with the disappearing and reappearing mustache—the most signature facial hair in all of country music? "A lot of times I'd shave in the wintertime or grow a beard when I'm not working much," he explained. "That's what happened last December. I had finished touring and there wasn't anything going on. I thought 'I'm tired of trimming that thing' and I just shaved one day. I had from time to time; when my children were young, it'd freak 'em out…. That video (for "So You Don't Have to Love Me Anymore") came up all of a sudden, and there wasn't time to grow it out, so I just shot it without it. My wife said she kind of liked it, because that's the way I looked when we got married—I didn't have a mustache. So I left it that way for a while, and a lot of people said they liked it and a lot of people fussed about it. So I just grew it back because I was tired of hearing about it!"
The vocal quartet has one of the fastest rising singles of its career with "Pontoon." The possible double entendre about "motorboating" has led to a lot of tittering, and Twittering, with Kellie Pickler making reference to it on her social media account as well as on the CMT Awards.
"We never had a song with motorboating," said Kimberly Schlapman. "Maybe that's what we've been missing all this time."
"We had lots of orders for T-shirts this week from artists," said Karen Fairchild. "We sent motorboating shirts over to Kellie and Miranda and others. It's been fun. You can't make something happen. We've learned that. Fans either connect to a song or they don't. And when they latch on and really connect, it has a life of its own. They start tweeting about it and get on Facebook and post funny things. It goes crazy, and that's what's happening to this song. It's going a little nuts. I love getting on Twitter right now and watching them all pound 'Pontoon'…"
Added Philip Sweet," They sent us a newspaper article that said, 'Pontoon sales are on the rise.' You're welcome!"
"We'll take four pontoons, please!" quipped Fairchild, looking for a quid pro quo.
From this Friday through Oct. 15, they'll be out on a 60-city tour opening for Rascal Flatts, along with the Eli Young Band and Edens Edge. "I think we're the only ones who bring our children, so we may interrupt the party," said Fairchild. "We're pretty good partyers, though, and moms and dads. I can't wait to see the Flatts show. We're pretty good friends with them but never toured together. We've really only done two shows together in a decade. At the CMA Festival last year, when we did the collaboration, I think that's what inspired this whole thing."
"Songsmith" isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind under Underwood's job description, but she co-wrote Lauren Alaina's new single, "Eighteen Inches," and couldn't be prouder.
"I'm honored and flattered and so happy that she even recorded that," Underwood said. "For that to be her next single, obviously I'm very excited… I've been lucky enough to have cuts on other people's albums, but never a single. As a writer you go in and that's what you hope for… I'm just so glad that that song found a home with her, because I think she's perfect for it."
Underwood was asked about the alternating personas in her singles, which veer between the rowdy and reverent.
"I have a twin sister. She's my evil twin," she laughed. But seriously, folks, "I feel like I'm a woman, so we are full of layers... I feel I'm somewhat complicated, and some days I want to hear a nice, good song and some days I want to be sassy and play something that'll fit my mood... Bad Carrie might have a little more fun. It's fun to play that character. The real me is somewhere in-between, so it's fun to be able to play both of those characters."
Surely no one playing the main stage at LP Field was as surprised to be there as Moore, who recently hit No. 1 with "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck."
Moore said the biggest thrill for him was "not to be watching from the grass this year with somebody saying, 'Hey, get out of my way!' A year ago I was on the grass watching the show. A lot of things have changed in my life"—recognizability foremost among them. "Last year I could walk in a bar in this town and nobody knew who I was. Today I walked out to get a drink and everybody and their mom was saying 'Hey, Kip.' I'm just kind of like 'Yeah, I am. I guess that is my name. Why do they want to talk to me?' I'm grateful, because those people are the only reason I get to do this. So it excites me that people are now recognizing me and standing in line to meet me, because it means they're loving the music and they're gonna want to come see the shows, and they're gonna be the reason I get to play music, which is all I want to do. I don't have a backup plan."
He's up for three Teen Choice Awards, of all things. That might come as a surprise, given the not-very-adolescent-centric genre he represents, but it was a welcome one for Shelton.
"I knew that I was nominated," he said backstage. "I didn't know it was three of them. I think that's because of my mouth probably more than anything— and social networking, if I had to point to anything—along with The Voice. That's awesome. I mean, nobody wants to be the person that everybody's grandpa listens to. You want the kids to be into it. And that's exciting to me. Any time I'm anywhere and somebody has a teenage kid that wants to meet me and have a picture, it's like, 'Oh, thank God'—because you don't want to be at that point in your life where it's 'I don't want a picture with him! He's old and creepy!'"
After a seven-year layoff between releases, Hill was back at LP Field playing some old favorites plus a couple of yet-unreleased songs from her forthcoming album. "It's amazing that country music fans are so dedicated," she said shortly before going on stage. "No other genre in the world has this kind of support. It's incredible, how far they come and how long in advance they plan for this week."
She really hasn't been at the CMA Festival that many times... unless you count her pre-pro years.
"This is my second time here at LP Field," she said. "I think the most vivid memory that I have of the festival, or Fan Fair [as it used to be known]... I don't even remember how many years ago this was, but I sold t-shirts for Reba in her booth. I boxed merchandise up and stuff. I remember that even more vividly than I remember the beginnings of my career! It's just embedded in my brain."
If anyone has been a mainstay of the festival's main stage in the years since it moved from the fairgrounds to LP Field, it's been Paisley, the one star you can count on seeing just about every year. And, given that he's as great a liver performer as modern country has, you won't find many complaints about him as a re-run.
"I think I've only missed one or two" since the beginning of his career, he said. "It means a lot to me because this is the first place I got positive confirmation I was going to have a career. That was when it was still called Fan Fair… I was a new artist who had a song in the 40s, I think—maybe the 20s, if I was lucky— called 'Who Needs Pictures,' and it was struggling on the chart… I sang a new song in front of the grandstand audience called 'He Didn't Have to Be.' Having never heard it, the entire audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation in the middle of a 100-degree day… I started crying, and the head of my record company started crying…. That's the ultimate response you could have, that someone who's never heard it stands up. So that was the moment I thought, 'I think I'm gonna be okay. I think this struggle we're having on this first singe will be a distant memory when that one comes out.' And it was. So this has always meant something to me."