Contrary to Thursday, Friday showered us in sheets of rain. It was the kind of hot summer rain that finds its way into many country songs, and most of the CMA fans seemed to welcome it. As some of the Pandora crew and I ducked under a tent, Kelsea Ballerini took the stage to an enthusiastic round of hoots and hollers from her fans. I was excited to see her live, I heard that she put on an amazing show the week before at Marathon Music Works for our Pandora Country event (she opened for Dustin Lynch and Thompson Square). I was further intrigued because of recent Taylor Swift comparisons – Ballerini also writes her own songs.
Ballerini confidently strode on stage, slung an acoustic guitar over her shoulder and sang “Yeah Boy.” Her crowd didn’t need warming up – they were instantly fervent. I paid for a cold beer and when I turned back around, the audience seemed to double in size. For a second I doubted myself but then Ballerini said, “There are so many of you! I just got word that there are over 4,000 people here right now!” And the sound of 4,000 people cheered back at her in panoramic sound. She then introduced her next number “Peter Pan” as a song about boys who didn’t want to grow up. The catchy “Dibs” got heads bobbing and the crowd sang along. But the spectacle of her set was a ‘90s mashup medley that blended Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Destiny’s Child. Following that she covered an especially impassioned version of Rihanna’s “Take A Bow” as her fans chanted, “Kelsea! Kelsea!” and waved their hands in the air like some kind of country-pop tent revival.
Over at the Riverside Stage, Charles “Chip” Esten – the actor who plays troubled troubadour Deacon Claybourne on the television series Nashville – was being interviewed on the Jumbotron. In between songs; Esten spoke out of character about the music and the show but when he sang, he was clearly channeling Deacon. He even played an acoustic Martin six-string with the “Deacon” stamped leather strap that he wears on television. He said that the song “I Know How To Love You Now” was his favorite one to sing and that he co-wrote it with Deana Carter for the Season 3 soundtrack. When I looked at the sprawling crowd perched on the green, it suddenly occurred to me that the other small percentage of guys here and I were clearly outnumbered by a sea of fawning female fans. They even booed when Esten mentioned his character’s nemesis, Luke Wheeler. It reminded me of the first time I saw Kris Kristofferson and marveled that most of his crowd comprised a similarly large group of adoring women.
As the sun started dipping below the horizon, the Pandora crew and I headed over the bridge to the LP Field where we witnessed an awesome moment wherein Lee Brice leaned over the stage and bestowed his guitar to an incredibly thankful fan. And then Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman walked right past us and onto a nearby platform where she got on the mic and introduced Zac Brown Band as hit makers to be reckoned with. They took the stage and Brown dedicated his set to our troops just as the spotlight shone on a saluting soldier of the U.S. Armed Forces. Brown and his band then played “Live Like Tomorrow Never Comes” and tens of thousands of fans were singing along and tossing beach balls into the air. But the part of this night that I’ll never forget was when Brown and band took on an epic version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” replete with flawless four-part vocal harmonies and searing hot guitar leads that nearly matched Brian May’s punchy British tone. If I had a couple more beers and closed my eyes, I’ll bet I could have convinced myself that it was really Queen.