How hard is the CMA Music Festival on artists, between the multiple live shows and the fan meet-'n'-greets that are required of the most popular country acts throughout the week? Demanding enough that some of them require medical attention—or even an operation—afterwards.
"As you're standing there signing autographs through Fan Fair," explains Steel Magnolia's Josh Jones, "your face starts to cramp up, and you get perma-grin after a while. We might need a grin-ectomy after a while."
Not that they have to force those smiles, mind you: The lips do just tend to curl up when you're soaking in all that devotion. There's a massive exchange of energy in the give-and-take between country music aficionados and artists at the annual June gathering formerly (and to some people's minds, forever) known as Fan Fair.
You'll get a strong sense of that from watching Ram Country's video documentation of Steel Magnolia's week at the CMA Festival, which follows the red-hot duo from a breakfast fan-club gig at a Nashville club to an afternoon autograph session at the convention center to an outdoor concert at the Riverfront Stage. Exhaustion is de rigeur, but frowns are hard to come by.
When the Ram Country cameras first caught up with Steel Magnolia, they were doing a 10 a.m. fan club show at the Rutledge—which, yes, is normally known as a nightclub. The bar was serving scrambled eggs, and that's really not unusual during CMA Fest week. The afternoons and evenings are filled up with so many opportunities to hear live music that artists typically put on special parties for their hardcore fans in the a.m. hours. (Some start as early as 7 or 8 a.m.)
In this case, Steel Magnolia shared their party with Laura Bell Bundy and James Otto, playing acoustically in the "in-the-round" format common to Nashville songwriters' showcases. As different as these three artists' usual performing styles are, it proved to be an amazingly compatible triple bill once everyone sat down on stools, thanks to the vivacity and soulful voices of all three. The camraderie between acts was great... almost too great. "When Meghan started singing with James Otto," says Jones, "I was afraid I wasn't going to have a gig much longer!"
Bundy—the Broadway star turned country upstart—was clearly in awe of Steel Magnolia. At one point in the show told the crowd that Meghan Linsey is "country's Aretha Franklin."
"I love Laura Bell," says Meghan, later in the day. "That's so sweet."
"I'm country music's Super-Grover," pipes up partner Josh.
"All right, you're Super-Grover," she reluctantly allows, as he breaks into a funny voice. "You'll have to excuse him. He's had a lot of sun today."
That might be the understatement of the year, or at least week. Tennessee is notorious among music fans for somehow always managing to have its hottest and most humid weather of the year during the week that brings both CMA Fest and Bonnaroo to the state, no matter how moderate it might be on the weekend before or after. "I wish that God would cooperate and make it a little cooler," says Otto, taking a break on Steel Magnolia's tour bus. "But hey, I'm going to Minnesota later this weekend, and it's 102 there."
When Steel Magnolia took the Riverfront stage later that afternoon, playing their second gig of the day for thousands instead of mere hundreds of people, the thermometer was in the high 90s. It was like playing a clambake, with the audience and artists as clams. Spirits remained high, although Josh Jones was a little unsure of how much audience participation it was reasonable to ask for under the circumstances.
"It's so hot out there, I felt bad having them even sing something back to us," says Jones after the show. "I don't feel like they should have to do anything! But it was cool." So to speak.
Inside the convention center, where Steel Magnolia hit the Big Machine display booth for the first of a couple of two-hour autograph sessions, it really was comparatively chilly—thank God. Approaching the building, you could see enthusiastic fans radiating out in every direction with signed photos, buzzing from having enjoyed a few moments of quality time with an act they'd only admired from afar.
"It's cool, man," said Linsey. "That's initially why we got into this business, because we want to help people..."
"Because we want to sell posters," interrupted Jones.
"No!" said Linsey, playfully slapping at Linsey (her partner in real life as well as in music; the world first became aware of them when they won CMT's Can You Duet? show). "Because we love to entertain and because we love to meet people, too."
Their debut album just came out in January, though they had a top 10 single on country radio last year. The 2010 CMA Fest was their first—as participating artists, anyway. "In years past," noted Meghan, "I've worked downtown in the bars and seen how everybody gets roused for Fan Fair during the week. It's cool to really be part of it now as an artist. And I didn't get my car towed this year! That happened to me every year I used to work downtown."
Having spent that kind of time in Nashville before they were famous, Meghan and Josh got a good first-hand glimpse of what the CMA Festival means to fans who come in from all 50 states and around the world.
"We're from middle-of-nowhere places ourselves," says Josh. "I didn't see the ocean till I was 18 or 20 and I never went on vacation. So I know how exciting it is for a lot of these folks driving in from Kentucky and all the other surrounding states and bringing their kids. I can see it in their faces, what it means to them. So it's cool to be that big of a deal to some of these folks. We're wrapped up in the music business sometimes, and you get into that grind, but when you get to meet all these people..."
Meghan was particularly pleased to actually get to play in Nashville for loud, vocal audiences, which is not necessarily the hometown norm. "It's a really hard gig, to play in Nashville," she says, "so to be able to do it and having so many fans there supporting you, as opposed to the usual industry people, it's really nice."
And they got some valuable feedback, for instance, when they debuted a simply phenomenal new song, "Half of Me," at their morning gig, and it went over like gangbusters. "I'm glad that went over good. Let's tell Scott," said Linsey, referring to Scott Borchetta, the head of Big Machine Records. Yep, soon enough, it'll be time to trade in all this fan reinforcement for some time along writing and recording a sophomore album.
But that's at least one or two grin-ectomies away.
(Right: James Otto, Steel Magnolia, and Laura Bell Bundy [prone] chill out—literally—on the tour bus as the Yahoo! cameras look on.)