Fanatics and friends poured themselves like one happily spilled beer into the streets of Nashville on Thursday, seeking the sound of citywide speakers heralding the return of CMA Fest from two years of summer silence.
The massive four-day affair highlighting artists at the height of pop-country kicked off Thursday with performances from six official downtown stages, as well as countless unofficial showcases, pop-ups and sponsor events on every corner.
With its arrival, one of the last and biggest boxes on Nashville’s list of watershed events to reemerge from the surreal and strange era of COVID-19 was finally checked.
One of the festival’s lead-off hit-makers, singer, songwriter and guitarist Lindsay Ell, spoke to what she hopes her fellow artists and attendees gleaned from their time away for the party.
“I do truly feel like we have, over the past couple of years, found places in our lives that we are really grateful for or we have learned so much from, or have given us a greater perspective,” Ell told Main Street Nashville. “I think you’re seeing a lot of that come out of music, but I hope that a lot of people attending CMA Fest this weekend are also going to be living out some of the lessons that we have learned in the past couple of years, knowing that life is so short and there’s only one time to live it.”
For fans and artists alike, CMA Fest represents a proverbial once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be heard by one another en masse. That was a relevant thought for Caitlyn Smith, a 2022 ACM New Female Artist of the Year nominee, who couldn’t wait to showcase what she called the most vulnerable material of her career and continue her rising momentum.
“What I’ve noticed in opening that part of my heart, I feel people connect with these songs more,” Smith said. “I feel they sing them at the top of their lungs more than the rest of the set, and it’s exciting to feel the response from the audience.”
Beyond the priceless opportunity to hear that music presented by the festival to fans, who in 2019 gathered at a rate of 50,000 per night and represented 37 countries, CMA Fest offers more tangible benefits to its host city. That same year, attendees generated $65 million in direct visitor spending and helped the festival maintain its title as the city’s single most lucrative tourism event.
One pair from Switzerland demonstrated the power of its draw.
“We love country music and bourbon and barbecue and Tennessee whiskey!” said an ecstatic Marco Isler, who’d traveled with his companion, Cornelia Leicht, all the way from a town near the border of Austria and Germany. “We take 2,000 miles — Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Nashville!”
While the Swiss duo had come primarily to see Jimmie Allen and drink whiskey, from the top billing of the Nissan Stadium stage — where names like Darius Rucker, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban and the Zac Brown Band were set to throw down at nightfall — on down to the piping-hot Vibe and Reverb stage, there was plenty of music to take in on Thursday.
And in the coming days, the likes of Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, Lady A and Luke Bryan will make their presence felt, too.
Now sharing the stage with country’s biggest names, Ell reminisced on the years she spent watching the spectacle unfold from behind a TV set in Canada long before sharing her sixth tour of duty with the stars.
“I just remember being a little girl dreaming of being on that stage and being a part of the fold of CMA Fest and walking on that stage and sharing it with my heroes that I’ve watched perform since I was little,” Ell said. “There’s just a big responsibility to step on that stage and know that I’m picking up the torch from my heroes who are in the midst of it, but also passing it on to the next generation and newer artists. You just want to be able to take that torch and honor it, and really perform and inspire the next generation to come.”
Smith offered up a similar sentiment. For her part, her first CMA Fest represented another big moment on her journey from one of Nashville’s respected songwriters to a countrywide star.
“The whole thing kind of seems like a crazy dream,” Smith said. “I’ve wanted to be a singer and do this since I was a kid in my bedroom singing in my hairbrush.”
Another rapidly ascending country singer, Lainey Wilson, unknowingly concurred with both women from the stage on Thursday afternoon.
“I’ve been coming to every CMA Fest since I was 14 and dreaming of playing the Riverfront Stage since I was a little girl,” Wilson said. “This is literally like country music Christmas!”
Over the past week, Nashville’s downtown steadily transformed into a microcosm of the audience, with a future star or two likely to be looking on from the crowd. Over the last two years the contingent of devout fans found themselves collectively starved for their annual summer rite of passage, but rather than the past, most had only the next few days on their minds.
“It’s been too long,” Lauren Williams said of making her journey from Nevada. “No amount of travel or bad weather, work stuff, was going to get in the way of me getting to Nashville and having a good time this year. I missed it a lot.”
Ell was glad to see them all back.
“One of my favorite things is just watching the depths that fans will go through to get an autograph from an artist,” Ell said lightheartedly. “When you walk around downtown Nashville, you will see fans waiting in line for three hours to get an autograph from one person and then get out of that line and pop into another line and wait for another two or three hours to get autographs from the next artists that they love.
“It’s just so inspiring to see the dedication from fans of this is truly what they love, this is why they love what they love, and it’s pretty incredible to watch.”
Still, as anyone who’s been to a music festival can tell you, the sights and sounds aren’t all about art and community. Multiday concerts like CMA Fest can be a trying, and often smelly, endeavor. Luckily, Ell has learned to adapt to the sweltering scene over the years.
“I’m not really a tall human, I’m 5-3, and when you’re out at CMA Fest, you’re oftentimes meeting fans who have been out and sweating all day, baking in the weather. You’re meeting fans who are quite sweaty,” Ell explained with a laugh. “Being a tiny girl, you have a lot of these like taller, burly men like putting their arms around you and wrapping you up.
Your shoulders would be drenched in sweat. And so I was taught the tip of putting deodorant on the top of my shoulders. I have done that at every CMA Fest to date. Now at least I’m protected a little!”
Though Ell jested about some of the less-than-pleasant particulars of baking in the hot sun for hours on end with a bunch of drunk people, she and many of her Nashville compatriots wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It was just overwhelming to really take it in. This is a different level of music festival. This isn’t just find your favorite artists and go see them on the stage,” Ell said. “This is truly taking over the city, and it’s like a way of life here. You always know the beginning of June is CMA Fest time and everybody marks it on their calendars.”
WORDS BY: JOSH EWERS