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'Bridging The Gap Between Liking and Living Country Music'

(written by: Jeffrey Kurtis)

The country music genre is undeniably the biggest in all of music. As is par for that course, its naturally attracted a following from all different walks of life as it continues to expand its sound, incorporating fresh influences into an overall vibe that wraps its welcoming arms around you and provides an escape to where everyone gels together regardless of where they’re at in this moment.

CMA Fest! A four-day thank you note from the artist to the fans and reciprocated from the fans to the artist, provides the perfect snapshot of the many unique facets of the genre as strangers become friends over the music that they hold near and dear to their heart as it plays out like the soundtrack of their lives.

As the streets of downtown Nashville fill up with enthusiastic fans, arriving in Music City from all around the world and many decked out in t-shirts adorning their country star of choice, there becomes an unexplainable aura that immediately arises everywhere you turn and with everyone you talk to.

At the core of CMA Fest sits an overwhelming amount of music across the many different stages, but at each that we visited there was also a noticeable opportunity to spot the opposites in the types of fans, between those who are the more causal and just simply like the music in juxtaposition to those who are living the definition of “country.”

Even more importantly, though, there was an incredible chance to witness a beautiful transformation more times than not, seeing the “likers” become the “living it” right before our eyes as the right chord struck their heartstrings and tugged them into a deeper, fuller understanding of why country music is so important to the very fabrication of our everyday lives.

In natural expectation, the biggest acts to grace the daytime stages weren’t necessarily where those transformation moments were spotted; although their hit songs certainly brought together an echo of voices that radiated the streets of a Nashville as music lovers connected hit song to hit song.

Where headlining Riverfront Stage acts like Warren Zeiders captured a chorus of harmony with the emotionally driven rawness of “Pretty Little Poison,” Priscilla Block delivered an early Saturday morning party with “Off The Deep End” and “My Bar” before closing with a deafening sing along moment on her breakthrough hit, “Just About Over You.”

Likewise, George Birge hit the energy of the riverfront crowd with his recent #1 song “Mind On You,” Restless Road captivated with an inspired performance of “Last Rodeo,” and Tigirlily Gold took over the Chevy Vibes Stage on Sunday afternoon with a sassy, rebel rousing performance that wrapped with their irresistible anthem, “Shoot Tequila.”

However, as each next act stamped their place amongst country music’s lineage and gave fans a solid glimpse into the future of their favorite genre, it was a combination of throwback flare, feel good flows, and Sunday mornin’ churchin’ that pinpointed the shifting moments across the crowd from “liking” country music to “living” country music.

Surrounded by a diverse crowd of friends, fans, and passerby’s who were just stopping by for a sit but weren’t sure what to expect, Big Machine Records recording artist Mae Estes barn burned her way through a Saturday (late morning) set at the Hard Rock Stage that perfectly encapsulated the atmosphere of the street that the stage sat on the very end of…Nashville’s Lower Broadway.

From the moment she hit into her performance with the rollicking “I Quit Smokin’,” and then continued to traverse through her set with her latest singles “Gettin’ Back Up To Heaven” and “What I Shoulda Done,” the passerby’s quickly became the curious onlookers as they made their way into the center of the crowd to soak in what Estes was bringing to the table.

But when she hit into the classic country flare of “Thinkin’ Bout Cheatin’,” the traditions of the many Broadway bars spread out in front of her not only saw her echoing the sentiments of their storied past, but those who were once just the passerby’s began to sing along by the second chorus, clearly impacted by every passionate word as she invoked a memory that pulled each newcomer deeper into understanding country music’s importance.

In a complete opposite of the honky-tonk, throwback aura that Estes had brought to the stage on Saturday, Friday felt completely designed to bring people together through feel good moments that induced positivity as voices reminiscently lifted memorable songs from the past while swiveling hips and swaying arms flowed the laid-back rhythms and summertime vibes.

Early in the day, it was Uncle Kracker who induced the first coming together moments when he tapped the capacity for the Dr. Pepper Amp stage, causing people to gather outside the gates on the sidewalks to sing along with the crowd inside the fences as the feel-good of his half hour set perfectly held the essence of the idea to let it go and just have a good time.

Nostalgic reminders of our own past, “Follow Me” and “Drift Away,” transported our memory banks to our carefree, coming of age years back when our whole life was optimistically in front of us, while everyone swayed in unison amongst the summertime feels of songs such as “Floatin’,” “When The Sun Goes Down,” and “All Summer Long.”

In similar fashion, Niko Moon tapped the capacity of the Riverfront Stage later that afternoon and brought with him a positivity that floated any negative away on the light breeze coming off the river as hordes of friend groups brought their tight knit friendships together with new groups of people that they had just met over a raised-up toast to “Good Times.”

“If you leave here not feeling positive after this performance…then that’s your fault!” foretold the announcement that brought Moon to the stage as he hit into his set with “Paradise To Me” before declaring there’d be “No More Sad Songs,” enthusiastically lifting the entire crowd to their feet and instigating a dance party that sat within his feel-good personality.

“Someone Like Me,” “Better Days,” “Good Times,” and the announcement of his headlining tour were all pieces to the puzzle of bringing people over to the “living it” side of what country music is all about, but all it took was a spin through “Fishin’ In The Dark” to get them captured hook, line, and sinker. From the first row to the last, and even on all the scattered boats along the Cumberland River behind the stage, everyone became country music family for 3 minutes as they bopped along with Moon, bouncing through the chorus as voices lifted in harmony to hold the spirit of the snapshot moment.

Sharing blankets, their spots on the hill, and sunscreen with their newfound friend’s in-between sets was a visible showing of how music can bring people together as Colbie Caillat then hit the Riverfront stage directly after Moon, sitting firmly between the nostalgia of Uncle Kracker and the chill of Niko.

You sometimes forget how important songs are to the definition of your life until you hear them again. I sure know that I do, and as evident by the packed crowd who stuck to the Riverfront for Colbie, they sure did as well.

With just a few notes of songs such as “Realize,” “Fallin’ For You,” and “Brighter Than The Sun,” Caillat invoked our most favorite memories, showed us why she is such an important artist to the layers of who we are, and reminded us of how to bask within the grip of addictive melodies while the lyrics revive the heartbeat moments that shaped us.

By the time that “Bubbly” had flowed into her set, everyone at the riverfront was pulled in as one, lifting their voices alongside the richness of Caillat’s as many in the crowd came together through song to relive a memory from their past while making a new one in this here and now moment.

With three days of performances already checked off the books, a threat of rain loomed large over Sunday morning, but it certainly didn’t stop one last come together, transformation moment from happening.

I'm hallelujah hands high and friends in low places,” Anne Wilson sang on “God & Country” during her Riverfront Stage performance on Sunday morning, autobiographically introducing herself while providing an exclamation pointed definition of the many who packed the crowd as part of the largest country church in Nashville.

With “Rebel” and “Songs About Whiskey” she set the surfaced tone for the final come together moment of the weekend, but the awestruck moments occurred when she poured into “Rain In The Rearview,” “Strong,” and set closer, “My Jesus.”

With arms raised high, tear-filled eyes, and prayer grasp hands spotted across the crowd, while Wilson’s music and impeccable vocals certainly held tightly to the moment, they took a back seat to spirit movement happening across the Riverfront and transforming hearts as each next word unexplainably brought strangers together to hug it out, to offer a supportive shoulder, and become a caring family bonded through the spirit-fueled power of music.

Though we sometimes find ourselves surrounded in opinionated negativity about the genre that we hold so close to our heart, CMA Fest stands a proof positive that the country music genre is a vast melting pot of influences, sounds, and moments that shape our lives; and that’s what we witnessed so many people begin to understand over these four days.

There are certainly several people in town during CMA Fest that totally get country music, understand its appeal, and are the avid followers of it, but it’s those who just came down to be a part of the event of the summer and soak in the lure of Nashville that ended up impacted by what they had experienced; moving from a place of casually “liking” country music to understanding what it means to be “living” country music.

When we stopped to talk with many people outside Fan Fair X on day one of CMA Fest, we heard cliche echoes that reiterated the worn-out trope that a lot of the music today kind of sounds the same, although they were also very excited to see some of their favorites such as Dolly, Lainey, and Cody Johnson.    

However, when we talked to many of these same people outside Fan Fair X on Sunday, we heard a whole different take on the genre we love so much; a new perspective.

“There’s just something for everyone in country music, isn’t there?”

“A lot of these songs I heard this weekend were talking about me and my life!”

“I found so many new artists that are so good and spoke right to my heart.”

CMA Fest is one heck of a spotlight shined on country music. There truly is a little bit of something for everyone at any given stage on any given day, from today’s up and comers to the next generation stars, those superstars who have already arrived, some 90’s country twang, and all things in between.

But underneath the surface level, CMA Fest is so much more than just the music. These 4-days become the catalyst to defining the current state of genre, finding your space within’ it, and reaching a firm definition of “living” country music as you return to your home state as a transformed person who is already counting down to being back in Nashville for CMA Fest 2025!

CMA Fest 2025 tickets go on sale June 25, 2024. Get yours at: https://cmafest.com/tickets/



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