Fans, Family And The Freakin' Weekend: What's Next In Nashville : The Record Ann Powers and Jewly Hight, NPR Music's team in Nashville, dive deep into the country music industry's biggest annual party and report back on what's in store for the genre in the coming year.

Fans, Family And The Freakin' Weekend: What's Next In Nashville

Maren Morris, one of Nashville's rising stars, performs at Nissan Stadium on the opening night of the 2016 CMA Festival. John Shearer/Getty Images hide caption

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John Shearer/Getty Images

Maren Morris, one of Nashville's rising stars, performs at Nissan Stadium on the opening night of the 2016 CMA Festival.

John Shearer/Getty Images

Very few musical gatherings during the crowded summer festival season have been going on as long as CMA Music Fest, which launched under the name Fan Fair in 1972 and now descends upon Nashville just after the heat and humidity set in each June. One of the secrets to its longevity is that it's always been a place where country fans can encounter artists up close; folks who get a bit of face time with their favorite artists, maybe even a hug, are prone to keep coming back.

These days, most of the media attention goes to CMA Fest's four-night run of ticketed stadium shows, which boast performances by many of the format's superstars from the past and present. But that's only part of the experience on offer. All day long, there are free shows on stages dotting every available block downtown, not to mention merch stands, booze tents and plenty of corporate promotion, and the meet-and-greet tradition lives on in an expo called Fan Fair X and at artists' fan parties in rented-out bars, restaurants and event spaces. It's no surprise that acts who have a lot of critical and commercial momentum right now — like Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, Dierks Bentley and Kelsea Ballerini — would command sizable spotlights at country's biggest festival, but fans of varying generations also sought out opportunities to see and interact with relatively unknown newbies and veteran artists who are well past their hitmaking heydays. NPR Music's Ann Powers and Jewly Hight waded into the fray and emerged describing a festival scene populated by anything but passive consumers of one-size-fits-all, hot country hits.


Musician Eric Church performs onstage during 2016 the CMA Festival in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Ann Powers: CMA Fest is like a combination of county fair, tourist experience, music festival and family reunion. It occupies most of downtown Nashville, whose eastern border is the Cumberland River. Across the river is the football stadium where the big shows happen at night. There are several different stages open to the public for free, and some other areas where you have to have a pass or a special ticket, like to the fan parties. And then a lot of interstitial space where other things happen, where there might be games, or there are displays of goods, people selling boots, people selling product, pop-up stores from artists ...

Jewly Hight: People selling bottles of water for a dollar.

AP: Because it's hot! But mostly, lots of stuff for sale. Merchandise is important at every festival and to every artist now, but CMA Fest is an ocean of merch.

JH: The companies doing promotional agreements with CMA Fest, that's a very visible thing. I saw two different performances in a venue called the HGTV Lodge, which is a big wood-framed structure that they assemble each year. On the walls are big pictures of stars from HGTV series. That's one example. Durango Boots has its own stage; there's the Cruze stage, named after a Chevy sedan...

AP: Isn't there one that was named for underwear? The one that had the big picture of Blake Shelton in his underwear? I think this might be the only festival that has an underwear-sponsored stage. [Editor's note: Gildan, the stage sponsor, sells all kinds of active wear.]

JH: At Eric Church's fan party, I was introduced to a woodworking artist who does a lot of work for him. This artist made frames to be distributed to the fans, and the frames were like folk art. That's an elaborate take on the souvenir element that you see at most fan parties. There were so many stands that sold both merch for CMA Fest itself and for particular artists. It's the sort of thing where you can buy and consume as much as you want, but I'm sure people's experience in that regard depends on how much disposable income they have.


Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum performs onstage during the 2016 CMA Festival.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

AP: In a way this gets at how CMA represents country music's forthright Americanness. If consumerism is a key element of being American, and I believe it is, the celebration of consumerism and the celebration of brands is definitely part of the mood at the fest. There are other ways in which the stereotypes we have about country music are reinforced. I heard lots of shot-outs to the armed forces. And also a lot of talk from the stage and songs about nostalgia, rural roots.

JH: About family values too. Chris Janson's take on that struck me as interesting. He's somewhere around 30 years old. During his set, he talked about how he married a woman who already had two children, and he didn't want to call them "step-kids" because he felt that was devaluing them. He said, "I'm proud to be a father, I'm proud to be a husband, proud to be a Christian, proud to be a country singer." Here's a young guy saying these things. I got a similar vibe from Mo Pitney, who's only 23-years-old. And then Aaron Tippin, who is 58 and has been performing for a quarter-century, had his wife and one of his sons singing backup for him.

AP: There was an all-female showcase that the influential DJ Bobby Bones hosted at the Ascend Ampitheater. Hillary Scott performed — she is the lead singer for the group Lady Antebellum. She's about to release a faith-based album that she's made with her family. She introduced her younger sister and they did Lady Antebellum's song "American Honey," and the crowd went wild for the fact that this mega-star who's actually quite glamorous brought out her awkward teenage sister who as yet doesn't quite have the professional skills that her older sibling does. The crowd was incredibly supportive of this kid, as if this kid were any of their own kids. As a mom myself I definitely caught that vibe of parents watching their sons and daughters perform at various school functions. Hillary Scott also made the point of saying, "This is my husband on drums, these are my family members with me." There's a constant reinforcement of this idea of marriage and family as not only a key source of support for artists, but also as a source of glamour, a source of sexiness in a way.

JH: We were talking about family being spoken of, being sung about. You also see a lot of multigenerational families in the crowd, listening to this stuff. I definitely saw grandparents, parents and children. I heard many artists mention that their parents used to bring them to CMA Fest. When Miranda Lambert performed at the stadium she said it was her 15th consecutive year coming either as a fan or as an artist. And at her fan party, Kelsea Ballerini talked about how her mom used to bring her to the festival.


Kelsea Ballerini on stage during the 2016 CMA Festival.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

JH: Eric Church's fan party was in an event space overlooking downtown. Of the thousands that tried to get on the list to attend, only a fraction got in. When Church walked on the tiny stage, he noted that it'd been ten years since the release of his first album and proceeded to play several songs from that record, Sinners Like Me. When he flubbed the chord changes to one song, there was a guy down front who called out the chords; that's how well his fans know the repertoire. There was definitely a feeling of reunion, and a ton of familiarity. Church knew the names of so many of these people in the room.

AP: I encountered something similar when I saw Martina McBride being interviewed as Artist of the Day. Every day CMA Fest designates a different country star to for an interview and do a short performance inside the convention center, where it's like any "con" — booths, scheduled autograph sessions, other kinds of panels on several stages. Martina McBride has been around since the early 1990s, and one fan stood up and said "Martina, I met you during your very first tour, and you were as nice to me then as when I met you five years ago." Another fan at Martina's event said to her, "My dad is 85 and he has all these pictures of you on his wall" —

JH: Wait, where was she going with that?

AP: Well, she was going to the place of "this is what Dad likes," and Dad's still got a little vinegar in him, and you're still hot to my octogenarian dad, which must have felt great to Martina. But the bigger point is, fans and artists are in this together for life. In fact, a whole family journeys with an artist. Intergenerationally they all love the same artists, and the artist extends herself or himself to these families. And for each individual fan, it's about really committing to an artist over time.

JH: At Kelsea Ballerini's party — she's a relatively new artist with a lot of tween and teen fans, along with young adults — she remarked that she could see some fans in front of the stage wearing homemade t-shirts referencing an unrecorded and unreleased song of hers called "High School." Before playing the song, she talked about how significant it is to her that her fans are following what she does that closely, that attentively — that they know a song that you wouldn't be able to find anywhere but maybe a phone video uploaded to YouTube.


Blake Shelton on the set of The Voice.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

AP: It's hard to overemphasize how much reality television is integrated with country music at CMA Fest, both in terms of people who are not musicians who are on reality TV — the Chrisleys, the Property Brothers — and also televised music contests. I saw two different American Idol contestants either get up and perform with or perform at stars. Mickey Guyton, who will be releasing her full-length album this year — a great new country voice — she invited an American Idol contestant, Tristan McIntosh, who had covered a Mickey Guyton song in her Idol audition, to join her onstage. Martina McBride's onstage interview at the convention center also featured an American Idol contestant, which was a little more jarring. During the Q&A segment of the event, a man got called on and said "I have an American Idol contestant here who wants to sing your song to you, Martina." (I didn't catch the woman's name.) And she jumped up and sang it to her. Martina handled it with a lot of grace, but I thought, wow, I couldn't imagine it happening to Eddie Vedder, who was performing with Pearl Jam out of Bonnaroo the same weekend. He might invite a fan onstage, but that fan wouldn't attempt to upstage him. Only a country star would be expected to tolerate that kind of invasion of her artistic space.

JH: The idea of launching a career from a reality show is so normalized in country. There's a bona fide superstar, Carrie Underwood, who came from American Idol. So many other reality show expats have been working at country careers.

AP: I saw a guy from The Voice perform. Scottie McCreery and Lauren Alaina were both major stars of Idol. Miranda Lambert was on Nashville Star.

JH: And of course Blake Shelton is a coach on The Voice. In a recent interview, he said, "It's my job to represent country music on this show." Which is interesting in and of itself. But yeah, I think that ever since Carrie Underwood — and particularly from the perspective of fans and TV viewers outside of the music industry — it's been seen as yet another viable option into country careers. How many of those contestants come in and are covering a country song as their audition? Lots of them.


Granger Smith performs as Earl Dibbles, Jr. in Austin, Tex.
Bob Levey/Getty Images

AP: I saw a panel with Jeannie Seely, who was the first regular female host of Grand Ole Opry segments starting in 1985. It made me think about how way radio and television are intertwined with country stardom in a way that they were not for, say, rock. These artists also television personalities, which I think helps create the way in which country stars represent themselves. They have to be good at banter, they have to be good at articulating their personalities through talking as well as making music, and they also have to be good at humor, which is something I know you're interested in.

JH: I think there's definitely a thread from performing in a barn dance context — and, of course, the Grand Ole Opry was at one time one of many barn dances broadcasting across the nation — to the role of the TV variety show performer.

AP: Hee Haw was a variety show, and it's a prevalent reference point at CMA Fest. Current country music plays on the nostalgia for those shows. I watched a version of the Match Game featuring country stars like Kristian Bush (of Sugarland) and Lorrie Morgan. It also had Whisperin' Bill Anderson, who had appeared on the original Match Game back in the day. So there's a way in which enjoying mainstream television and enjoying country music are intertwined.

JH: I've definitely been thinking about a resurgence of humor in country music. One figure involved in that is Bobby Bones, who has a group called Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots, and they do silly songs.

AP: I went to see them perform at the amphitheater. Man, that guy is definitely a force of nature and a unique personality in country right now. But some of those songs are hella corny.

JH: I think that's the point.

AP: I guess he's celebrating the time-honored tradition of country songs. Also, he raps. He raps a lot.

JH: I saw an artist from Texas named Granger Smith who recently began having huge radio hits. He has a redneck alter ego, Earl Dibbles Jr., and the YouTube videos that he's posted in character have really helped him find success. They're really funny and self-aware, and people eat it up. His fans are called the Yee-Yee Nation. Ever since that comedic alter ego took off, Smith has tried to bridge the gap between his more mellow, Texas singer-songwriter, George Strait-influenced thing and this really amped-up, strutting alter ego, and that's what put him over the top.

AP: Tara Thompson is somebody that we both like. She is definitely a real talent, but she's also kind of playing a character based on herself. Her songs enact what we often see on "country" or Southern-based reality television shows. She has a song called "Vows" about a shotgun wedding, basically, and she tells a story about it being about her sister, whom she said would no longer speak to her because of this song — temporarily, she insists. She's doing exactly what reality TV does, which is playing up crisis situations in families for laughs. She's very crafty and very good at it.

She also skirts an interesting borderline, which I saw some other artists doing too, between the party paradigm that has really reigned in country for the past few years, and also a critique of that paradigm. She has a lot of songs about drinking and about being a single woman on the loose, but there's a subtle critique of that lifestyle in her music where she's always challenging it or undermining those stories with a punchline about how it's dangerous or puts her in a bad position.


Maren Morris on stage at Nissan Stadium in Nashville during CMA Fest 2016.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

JH: The CMT-sponsored Next Women of Country round at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was the first time I'd seen Tara Thompson perform, and she definitely sounds like she's of her generation. That's got to have something to do with what you were describing, this unfazed, take-it-or-leave-it attitude about partying, sort of simultaneously partaking in it and seeing it for what it is. Another artists like that who played this year is Julia Cole — her songs remind me of old Ke$ha. She has one song, "Can Somebody Turn Down the Sun," about being hung over, and another song called "Get Awesome" — I don't get drunk, I get awesome. It's very beat-driven stuff. She calls it "Tex-mix."

These youngest artists are simultaneously celebrating the freedom to do whatever they want and implicitly acknowledging that it's ridiculous and over the top.

AP: I heard a song by a young artist named Jillian Jacqueline that also fits in that category. It's called "Kids These Days."Lyrically, it's very similar to the Halsey song "Americana": "Blame it on our generation, never happy, tired of waiting, driving our lives into the ground," and the hook is "Kids these days" — which she could be saying about herself, or she could be making fun of adults saying it about her.

Which does lead into how the artist who in some ways I thought was emblematic of at least the millennials at CMA Fest this year, and that is Maren Morris. Maren Morris just released her first album Hero. It seems like it might be the breakthrough for a young woman artist that people have been hoping for in country, which has been so dominated by 38-year-old guys, basically, for a decade. What struck me watching her this weekend is that she doesn't seem concerned about living up to an ideal of tradition or authenticity. You can tell me if I'm wrong, but that seems like kind of a first in country music.


Maggie Rose performs at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

AP: I saw variations on this stylistic border-crossing throughout the week. Even Mickey Guyton, who's African American but has been pretty down the middle stylistically until now, has a new single called "Heartbreak Song" based around a hip-hop beat. CMA Fest made me realize that the sound of country millennials now is the sound of R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)." Every song seems to play on that "It's the freakin' weekend" element of that song.

JH: Production is one level of it. I noticed at CMA Fest that some artists would just have live players, and some artists would also use sequencing or have loops, so you get the feeling of programmed beats. At the Next Women of Country event that put together several female rising stars, when Clare Dunn played her single "Tuxedo," it was just her and a percussionist, but the percussionist approximated a loop. And then there's the songwriting level of it--what postures and tones artists are adopting. And then there's vocal performance and phrasing, and we definitely hear vocal cadences that are heavily influenced by R&B and hip hop. Like in Maren Morris's "Rich," which is really funny and sharp.

AP: It's like she's talking back to Kenny Chesney, too, because it has that island feel. She's making, again, she's making fun of country's tropical obsession even as she's evoking it.

JH: And then vocally also from Kelsea Ballerini in songs like "Dibs." It was pretty striking to be in the room at her fan party and hear 70 young women doing those sung-spoken parts of "Dibs" right along with her, with that phrasing. They get it.

AP: Carvell Wallace recently wrote a piece about Meghan Trainor, who's not a country artist but who did come out of Nashville, focusing on young white performers adopting an African American accent. The truth is, that act is the very foundation of American music. It started in minstrelsy. But there's undeniably a generational divide in country around this. Some young artists who are still playing up their Southern accents, but as many are turning on that constructed pseudo-African American cadence. I heard it a lot this week.

On the other hand, musically, I think some artists pushing these boundaries are genuinely innovative. I saw a guy named Walker Hayes, whose original attempts to become a country star were more traditional, but who now uses a loops setup. His whole live act is using pedals to create loops. He also beatboxes.

JH: That's interesting.

AP: Yeah. He's very convincing, and my reaction was, well here's the future. For better or worse, here's definitely the way this generation is going.

JH: I saw a young artist called Hailey Whitters play a tiny stage for newbies who had a song called "City Girl." She spotted somebody wearing an Iowa hat in the audience and said "Oh, I'm from Iowa, I'm from the cornfields. When I was there I couldn't wait to get out, and now I can't wait to go back and visit every time I can." Which is a familiar sentiment .

AP: Oh yeah, the country and the city.

JH: But in this particular song, it was a millennial take on that, her description of city life and city girls going out and partying. It's the kind of partying we're describing where you're sort of flippant about it

AP: I also want to mention Maggie Rose when we're talking about pop crossover among younger artists. She can definitely do a classic country ballad that evokes Carrie Underwood. But she has a side to her that reminds me of Katy Perry who can rock a big empowerment anthem. She also did a pretty killer version of "Hotline Bling," which I didn't necessarily expect to hear.

But not every millennial artist was dabbing and rapping onstage. On your tip, I saw Los Bandoleros, one member of whom is the son of the late Tejano superstar Emilio Navaira. They play such an interesting mix of Tex-Mex music and power pop. They're very influenced by Doug Sahm, I think, and they brought something new to the table that's also very organically connected to tradition. I also got to see Steve Moakler there, who is a young songwriter, he wrote Dierks Bentley's hit "Riser." At one point his band reminded me of the Drive-By Truckers – the best Southern rock band to come out of punk, in my opinion — which was kind of a thrill. It was a surprise to see someone who might have at least heard the Drive-By Truckers at CMA Fest, where we think of things as being more mainstream.


The members of Little Big Town with producer Pharrell Williams, who produced the group's new album, Wanderlust.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images.

AP: In a way, this is some new twist on authenticity maybe. In mainstream country artists prove themselves as artists by dipping into different musical streams. We see it with the hitmakers too.

JH: That makes me think of when Pandora presented a show and Kip Moore played stuff off the album he released last year, Wild Ones, which has all sorts of rock-leaning influences on it. He played a Jimmy Eat World cover. I saw Jake Owen play with a stripped-down band and horn section, and he did a Ben Harper cover which he'd recorded for an EP a few years before. There was definitely an element of jam band-friendliness to what he was doing. He's an example of an artist who has been associated with feel-good, tropical songs. He'd recorded another album that he declined to release, and then he went back to the drawing board and did this. So he's sort of trying to up the ante aesthetically, musically. Working with writer-producer Shane McAnally is a good way of doing that.

AP: But don't you think there's a way that these artists who are slightly older are more self-conscious about their genre-blending, about redefining authenticity, than the younger artists are?

JH: They just work harder to emphasize that they are evolving. You see examples like Dierks Bentley, whom I saw perform at the stadium — he did some of the stuff from his new album. He has a song with a contemporary take on a funky New Orleans feel that Trombone Shorty is on. And he brought Elle King out to performer their duet. He said, "I'm about to introduce you to someone who drinks like Blake Shelton and plays banjo like Earl Scruggs." That's a way of saying she belongs. The she came s out with blue hair and her five-string banjo and they did their song together.

AP: During Little Big Town's set, Pharrell came and joined them during their song, "Miracle," which they dedicated to the victims of the shooting in Orlando.

JH: A lot of these established artists who have been on the charts and continue to be a part of the conversation are really emphasizing that they can evolve and want to evolve and are "with it." They're experimenting, and that's how I see it manifesting itself in these little tweaks — or big tweaks.


Charlie Daniels on stage at Nissan Stadium in Nashville during CMA Fest 2016.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

JH: Throughout the festival I saw artists invoking spiritual foremothers or forefathers as a way of paying tribute to this shared idea of country music tradition. The one that really stuck out to me this year was Merle Haggard. Jake Owen offered to play a Merle Haggard song; Mo Pitney has a song called "I Met Merle Haggard Today," so he told the story behind it. When I was watching Granger Smith, the Jumbotron camera operator zoomed in on his guitarist's guitar, which had Merle Haggard's autograph on it. Eric Church told a story of getting Merle Haggard to sing on a song and how Merle sang what he wanted, rather than the lyrics that Church sent. Haggard was a recurring theme, not only because he'd passed so recently, but because he symbolizes country identity from a number of different angles. There's respect for his singing and for his songwriting; or for his populist, working-class vantage point, his stoic masculinity, for being an uncompromising artist.

AP: I saw an amazing moment along those lines with a different core country artist. On the panel I saw with Opry star Jeannie Seely, she was there with Brenda Lee, one of the founding mothers of rock and roll and also a country legend, and Holly Williams, a wonderful younger singer-songwriter. Holly is the daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and the granddaughter of Hank Williams, an even more elevated figure in the history of country music than Merle Haggard. Brenda told Holly a story about meeting Hank Williams. Her grandmother, or maybe it was her mother, used to play Hank Williams' records all the time. So when she met him, she was just a girl. She said "So you're the man whose voice I heard in my mama's bedroom every night." Ha!

Holly Williams responded by saying she'd never heard that story before, and talking about how she grew up somewhat sheltered from her own father's country music career, even though she's connected by blood to country's biggest legend.

Ashley Monroe performed the song, "Like a Rose," she wrote with Guy Clark, who recently died. Jack Ingram, who had a bunch of hits in the mid-2000s and is now coming out with a new album that's more in the Texas troubadour vein, started his set with a Guy Clark song. I have to say that there was little to no response in the crowd to Guy Clark's name, which I found a little bit upsetting. But it definitely said something about who attends CMA Fest and what they listen to.

JH: Since we're on the subject of veterans and icons, I saw Charlie Daniels do a live keynote interview with Bill Cody. Daniels is a 2016 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, which has had this exhibit on Bob Dylan recording in Nashville and all this crossover between country and rock, and Charlie Daniels played guitar on a lot of those Dylan sessions, so he's been asked about that many times recently. He did a Dylan tribute album not too long ago, and so he's been in the mood to reminisce. I think when people envision Charlie Daniels they don't necessarily associate him, at this point, with being influenced by Bob Dylan. Yet he was one of the godfathers of the long-haired, southern rock movement. I saw him perform at the stadium, because they have a certain number of slots reserved for older artists; he ate it up, played "Devil Went Down to Georgia" then kissed his fiddle in front of 80-some thousand people. I was aware that there were younger people in attendance who did not know who he was. It made me think about how some artists are chosen and lionized and celebrated; ones who fit particular modes of being a rebel while also upholding tradition. Merle Haggard fits that perfectly, and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

AP: Then there are these more complicated figures who — for various reasons, some of them cultural, some of them political, some of them musical and stylistic, are often overlooked. When I went to see the Bellamy Brothers, sort of just as a kick — they have a song called "If I Told You You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?" I mean, who wouldn't want to go see that band?

But they also had a really interesting song called "Kids of the Baby Boom," which is talking about expressing feelings of entitlement, belonging to that generation, but also gently poking fun at the baby boom. It was the closest thing to Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" I'd ever heard from a country artist. Who knew the Bellamy Brothers had the same sensibility as Don Henley or Paul Simon? I mean, I guess the thousand or so fans who squeezed in front of the Durango stage did.


Miranda Lambert on stage at Nissan Stadium in Nashville during CMA Fest 2016.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

JH: Not every artist playing the Durango stage was an elder. I saw Ashton Shepherd there, a very fine country singer from rural Alabama. She's in an interesting position since she's still in her twenties and already has had the major label experience and released two great albums, and is now going it alone as an independent artist. She's very up-front about the difficulties of that approach, and simultaneously being a wife and a farmer. When I saw Aaron Tippin immediately before her performance, he thanked his fans for continuing to pay attention to him.

That is one of the central themes of performances in any context at CMA Fest: the expression of gratitude. When Miranda Lambert performed at the stadium, she said, "Thank you so much for making this a family." When Kelsea Ballerini was doing her fan party, she said, "You guys are the ones who glitter up signs and call radio stations, you're the reason that this is what it is." Then when she was setting up her final song, she said, "I've got one more song and then I get to hug you all, which I'm really excited about."

AP: That stuff's written into the script at CMA Fest But it's also how stardom works now, in an age of so much more interactivity. Every kind of star is constantly connected with their fans.

JH: Certainly country's not the only genre where it happens, but CMA Fest began in 1972 as a convention of fan clubs for artists. You see that tradition of the fans' active engagement recognized. I heard artists say "Thank you for calling your radio stations," which is a throwback to the idea that before there were radio promoters in country music, it was often fan club members calling DJs and asking them to play their songs. And the fact that during almost every event at CMA Fest there's some kind of meet-and-greet attached.

AP: Something that ran through the CMA Fest was artists talking about their place within the country music industry, the mechanisms of the industry, and within the community of professionals. Charles Kelley talked about a song he has called "Leaving Nashville," about the struggles of working songwriters in this town. He said, "I've had four or five songwriters come up to me and say, 'That's my story.'" This was something I saw a lot: artists giving props to side players, acknowledging songwriters in the crowd, saying "Hey." There's also this permeating sense of Nashville as an industry town.

JH: That's not hidden from fans. In the artist-to-fan relationship in country music, they definitely keep a running dialogue with their fans about how things are going for them in the industry. How their careers are going, what they're excited about, what they're frustrated by, and who's important to their success. I think that's a really interesting thing because it's not just about "I am expressing myself and I want you to hear what I've been thinking about and feeling" ...

AP: "I'm a rebel and individualist and you need to follow me on my rebel path." It's more like, "I'm a master craftsperson, I'm an artisan, I'm a worker like you."

JH: You hear so many artists say. "I write about real life."

AP: To the point of tedium, actually.


Margo Price on stage during CMA Fest 2016.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

JH: Margo Price was one of those artists telling stories about the hardship she's endured to survive in Nashville. She reeled off a list of jobs she used to have. Roofing ...

AP: She also said the first time she came to CMA Fest, she busked, played in the street. Margo is an interesting figure in terms of her position in country music. She's a boundary-breaker right now, playing classic country music that's very different from the other emerging artists. I saw her perform an acoustic set and she said, "Usually I perform with a more rockin' band." Then she just blew everybody away with that big voice. What do you think about Price's CMA Fest debut and what it represents?

JH: She's on Jack White's label Third Man Records, which doesn't usually promote artists in this mainstream country space. I think it's a choice to want to participate in CMA Fest. Artists do it because they want to be associated with this particular world, they want to get in front of this audience. They feel that it will in some way get them where they want to be. Which is interesting, because Margo's also been celebrated by people who have a lot more hipster-leaning tastes.

AP: The Bonnaroo crowd, who were an hour away in Manchester the same weekend, watching Pearl Jam.

JH: Highbrow media outlets that are always looking for the authentic thing or the vintage thing. But when I saw her as part of Next Women of Country, I felt that in that setting — alongside artists going for country radio airplay — she closed the gaps between them in her interaction with them. They all bantered and traded stories about the hardships they'd endured getting to this point. So even though her vocal delivery is very different — I hear a lot of Loretta Lynn in some of her songs, while the other artists she was with that day are tapping into R&B and pop — she really has the desire and ability to bridge the gap. It's hard to really tell what it will do for her, what she wants it to do for her. I think it's cool that she was there in the mix.

AP: Perhaps a strange counterpart to Margo Price was Steven Tyler, who's releasing a country record this summer on Big Machine and who was kind of all over the place at CMA Fest too.

JH: Everywhere!

AP: It may seem a strange pair, Margo Price and Steven Tyler, and yet they both have that kind of joy, that kind of enthusiasm. I watched a very long autograph session that Tyler did and I was extremely impressed by his interactions with his fans. That guy is a genius of hugging. He is the best hugger I have ever seen. He had twelve varieties of hugs, and none of them inappropriate, by the way, even when he was hugging relatively young women. He had the firm handshake and shoulder tap for the men, he had the warm compassionate hug for some women who seemed to be telling him sad stories, he had the slightly sexy but still modest hug ...

JH: What does that one look like?

AP: Waist, but never lower. It was amazing to watch! In a strange way, although Steven Tyler's presence in country music is controversial, he truly was a vector for all these different elements. The reality television element, since he was a judge on American Idol; the rock-to-country crossover element; the celebrity-connection element. One woman coming out of the hug line said she's waited twenty years for that moment. His style is totally different than a traditional country star, but his human presence — he could have been a country star from 1950 at Fan Fair. More scarves, though. Definitely more scarves.