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CMA Fest, Night 1: Taylor + Tim; Zac Brown (Hearts) Kenny Rogers And Kid Rock

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Taylor Swift backstage at the CMA Festival [Photo: Chris Willman]

Taylor Swift went from being invited onto the Rolling Stones’ stage a few nights ago to inviting Tim McGraw and Keith Urban onto her stage Thursday night, which was as star-studded a way as any to kick off the CMA Festival’s four nights of stadium shows in Nashville.

The home of the Tennessee Titans played host to more than one match of the titans Thursday. Not long after Swift brought out McGraw and Urban as guests for their No. 1 single “Highway Don’t Care,” the Zac Brown band upped the collaborative ante by dueting with Kenny Rogers on “The Gambler” and Kid Rock on the Grand Funk oldie “We’re An American Band.”

Before performing “Highway Don’t Care” — which, on record, at least, is officially a McGraw track — Swift sang an acoustic verse and chorus of her first hit, “Tim McGraw.” Backstage, she talked about getting the call that completed the cycle from dreamy 16-year-old fan to McGraw’s fully fledged co-conspirator.

“Honestly, Tim and Faith (Hill) have both been some of the most supporting, encouraging people in my career,” she said. “And to have them be so supportive of me for so many years, and then to finally get the phone call from Tim that said ‘Hey, do you want to work on something together,’ and you fast forward and now it’s the No. 1 song… It just has been a beautiful, magical process. Keith is one of my favorite musicians and one of my favorite songwriters. Standing on a stage with those two, it just is unbelievable and very hard to explain the level of excitement I feel when I get to collaborate with people I admire so much.”

Swift also discussed her on-stage duet with the Stones in Chicago on “As Tears Go By,” in which she played a ballerina version of Marianne Faithfull to the courtly Jagger.

“The twirl! You know, performing with the Rolling Stones, it just was everything that you would think it would be, but better. Just because they’ve been on this huge pedestal for me for so long, and you walk into a situation like that and you don’t know what to expect. Having experienced that last week, they’re at an even higher level of hero status for me, mostly because of their attitude, because of their hospitality, because they hand write notes thanking you for being there, because you get to get pictures with them and hang out with them. I think one of my favorite moments of the whole thing was when the musical director and Mick and I were all rehearsing the song in a dressing room with a piano. We were just kind of goofing around and we started dancing, like overexaggerated waltz/ballet moves, and then we started twirling around the room. And it was hilarious, because we forgot the words, and we just started laughing. We ended up incorporating the twirl into the performance, I think in homage to the hilarious musical rehearsal we had that day.”

That’s not even the end of Swift’s highly discussable collaborations. She just released a video of “Everything Has Changed,” her duet with Ed Sheeran, which co-stars some very youthful doppelgangers.

“We did a music video for the duet I did with Ed Sheeran, and we basically cast 7-year-old versions of ourselves. And it’s cute. You should watch it,” she declared, dong her best deadpan. As casting went, “Ed and I just looked at a laptop of videos of kids, and it was very clear: That one, that one. And [the child lookalikes] were so adorable. I think that’s one of my favorite videos I’ve ever been a part of, just because those kids were so good. “

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Zac Brown offers pointers to his band [Photo: Chris Willman]

Casting moppet versions of yourself for a video is one kind of stunt. The Zac Brown Band took a more literal approach to stuntwork for their “Jump Right In” video, which features… human catapults. For Brown, this represented a dream come true, he admitted with tongue only partly in cheek.

“I called the guys at my machine shop.” Yes, “I have a machine shop. We have CNC metal equipment there. We make knives and other stuff — like human catapults,” Brown explained dryly. “I called ‘em and told ‘em that I needed a human catapult, and two weeks later, there it was! I used to joke around when I had my first restaurant; I would play there on the weekends and I would tell people to ‘Come back this weekend — we’re gonna have a human catapult and launch people out into the lake.’ It was kind of a joke, and then it came true. There was a moment where I was standing there launching people into the water thinking, ‘I have made it.’”

Although the Brown Band was about to bring Kenny Rogers and Kid Rock onto their stage, Brown sounded most excited about a third guest they were bringing out for their show-closing set at LP Field.

“Blackberry Smoke is… I can’t say the word… can I say it?” Yes, Zac, say the word; we’ll provide the dashes. “Blackberry Smoke’s the s---. All right? And if you don’t know who they are, what they are, you should check ‘em out, because it’s real Southern rock. And somehow Southern rock disappeared out of the country music category. There’s a lot of other kinds of music in (their music), too. That’s a real band with real chemistry. Their record The Whippoorwill is amazing. And Charlie’s one of my favorite guitar players in the world, and he’s going to tear it loose on ‘We’re an American Band’.”

The first night at LP Field also included performances by Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and Tracy Lawrence. Meanwhile, Little Big Town kept introducing Carrie Underwood, to wild cheers, but Carrie was nowhere in sight. She closes the show Sunday night, but LBT were shooting introductions for a TV distillation of the festival, which will air on CBS in August.

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Tracy Lawrence [Photo: Chris Willman]

Lawrence had made the news the previous day when he was stricken by an extreme apparent food allergy, which caused him to miss his annual fan club party.

“I’m not sure what triggered it,” Lawrence said backstage. “I was about 30 minutes away from doing my performance for my fan club party yesterday, and I was sitting with a policeman buddy of mine. We had no more walked out of the bus and in the next 30 seconds my face started tingling, and I got up and looked in the mirror and my lips had swelled up and my tongue swelled up in my mouth. My wife is a nurse, and she told me when she came on the bus, she looked at me and flipped out. She said I was going into apoplectic shock. So it was either a food allergy or something with my medication that I take—I’m getting old, so I’m on blood pressure and cholesterol medicine and all that stuff. Don’t laugh! But the paramedics gave me a lot of paperwork when I left and said 95 percent of the time when this happens they don’t really know what happens… I’m still not 100 percent. I’m still a little short of breath. But I was determined to be here tonight. I’m glad I’m still above ground, to tell you the truth.”

Lawrence had his own Kenny Rogers connection to talk about, as he discussed his upcoming August album. He said he’d started recording a new album two and a half years ago, wanting to write all the songs and make it as traditional as possible. Then he spent a half-hour chatting with The Gambler after a show, and he had an epiphany that made him want to gamble on a new direction.

“Kenny said he felt it was very important to reinvent himself several times. And I left there thinking about where I wanted to go as an artist,” said Lawrence, who “decided it was time to step up and push the envelope a little bit, and try to get a little bit more contemporary, and to challenge myself vocally as an artist.” Out went the neo-traditionalist approach and in came a determination “to try to get into the groove with a lot of the stuff that’s happening out there. I have a new single called ‘Footsteps on the Moon’ that was motivated by ‘Drops of Jupiter’ from Train. So this album is gonna be different from anything you’ve heard from me before.”

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Taylor's town-n-country look [Photo: Chris Willman]

For Swift, it might seem too early to be talking new albums, since it’s only been seven months since Red came out, which she’ll be touring behind into next year. But she’s already thinking about what will almost inevitably be her biannual release in October or November of 2014.

“All the anxiety is starting, and when the anxiety starts, then the writing happens right afterward, usually,” Swift said. “I like to write for about two years before I’m finished with an album, because at this point I kind of know that whatever I write in the first year is gonna get thrown away, because I’m gonna like it but it’s gonna sound a little bit like the last project I had. And then the second year usually ends up sounding like the next project. So at this point I feel like staying the same is the easy way to go, but it’s not the way that I want to go creatively. I think you need to challenge yourself. I think you need to change up your influences. I think you need to be inspired by different things than you’ve been inspired by before. And it’s harder to call up people you don’t know and work with them for the first time. It’s hard to think up topics you haven’t covered and think of new ways to say old emotions that everyone feels. But that’s the goal at this point. I think one of the things that I’m happiest with in the last year is the acceptance level in country music for me experimenting and for me trying to evolve and challenge myself musically. Because I think it’s never felt better to be on that stage performing now that everyone’s been so welcoming of change.”

The CMA Festival as it stands today is a very Swiftian affair. We don’t think Hank or even Garth done it this way.

“Back in the day, it had a kind of a quaint charm to it,” Tracy Lawrence said. “It was at the fairgrounds, and it was a little bit hillbilly-er and hokier. This has turned into a citywide marquee event for Nashville as a city. You come in as a fan and there’s music all over town. The nightly events here at LP Field are obviously the pinnacle of the day for everyone. The (new) convention center is gonna blow people away. They’ve done a great job of providing more hotels and bringing in the infrastructure, and making it where the people have the accommodations they need to handle a hundred thousand people. It’s grown to a place I don’t think any of us could have fathomed 20 years ago.”

Our Country will keep you updated with CMA Festival news through the weekend…

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