Three members of the Pandora crew and I had just missed Kenny Chesney. He played outside on Broadway in downtown Nashville and after stepping out onto the balmy Southern night following a hearty soul-food dinner; we heard the explosion of applause to what was his last song. So the four of us decided to go honky-tonkin’ at Robert’s Western World across the street. Don Kelly Band was blazing through some old hillbilly standards with help from a 20-year-old guitar prodigy named Daniel Donato. This amazing six-string jedi looked like a young Rory Gallagher and picked a Telecaster like Don Rich on steroids.
But it was A Thousand Horses who really set the tone for this year’s CMA Music Festival. The band sauntered on stage over a droning organ before launching into “Landslide.” Armed with three, soulful, female, backing singers, they rocked with the timeless soul of Delaney & Bonnie through a nitty, gritty, Lynyrd Skynrd swagger. Lead guitarist Bill Satcher was kicking out the jams with a punchy tone that recalled The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion era Black Crowes. There was a palpable excitement in the crowd when Michael Hobby strapped on a Gibson acoustic guitar. After he strummed the first few chords to “(This Ain’t No) Drunk Dial” the audience ignited in applause. But their fans really went wild when Hobby announced that they were now going to play their number one single, “Smoke.” For a few seconds, the roar of the crowd even eclipsed the band’s audibility. After walking away from their set with “Trailer Trash” stuck in my head, I realized that A Thousand Horses is everything that I’ve ever wanted from Kid Rock and Shooter Jennings. Southern Rock is alive and well at CMA Music Festival.
The afternoon Nashville heat was so intense, you really have to give it to country music fans for enduring these outdoor summertime shows. The smell of SPF and BBQ blended together as Mo Pitney took the stage looking svelte in faded boot-cut jeans – like a young Dwight Yoakam. He opened with “Just A Dog,” the warm tones of the pedal steel and twangy Telecaster come together on this tune and Pitney’s low tenor is reminiscent of early ‘90s new traditional crooners like Clint Black and George Strait. After he poured his heart into the emotive ballad “Clean Up On Aisle Five,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd – because everyone was sweating so much. Pitney closed with a song called, “I Met Merle Haggard Today,” an ode to his musical hero, a tune that pays homage to the classic Bakersfield Country sound and a perfect, hot, finale for our first afternoon in Nashville.
LP Field was packed for the nighttime showcase, a security guard told us likely 65K strong, and it’s no surprise with a lineup of Alan Jackson, Sam Hunt, Rascal Flatts, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean. The last time I was at a concert this big, it was headlined by U2. Fittingly, Dierks took the stage wearing an old, faded, Unforgettable Fire tour t-shirt. The crowd erupted as he opened with “What Was I Thinking.” In an impassioned moment, he said, “I was thinking this is my favorite concert of the year, right here. I feel like my heart’s beating out of my chest.” Then he slipped on an acoustic guitar and tore into “5-1-5-0” before easing into “I Hold On.” As his band played the opening notes to “Riser,” Bentley put the guitar behind his back like a rifle and shouted, “Country music fans are the most resilient people in the world!” Cigarette lighters (and lighter apps) were hoisted high, swaying back and forth to “Say You Do.” But it’s “Drunk On A Plane” that closed the show like the grand finale of a fireworks display. CMA, how are you going to possibly top today, tomorrow?