American music festivals used to be mostly a summer thing, but in many ways they now frame the concert experience all year round. In these temporary hot spots for pleasure and cultural conversation, new artists emerge as sensations and established ones do special things with fans. Culture watchers note fashion trends and predict whose careers will rise and fall by observing what emerges from festivals' impromptu communities. In a stretched season that arguably starts in March with South by Southwest and stretches into October with Austin City Limits (making Texas the capitol of Festival U.S.A.), festivals generate and direct that most precious of pop commodities: buzz. This applies past baby bands — Prince's opening night set at the Essence Festival 4th of July weekend has the potential to fan the flames of desire for anything new, remastered or original, from him. It's a feeling.
I attended a festival last week that was typical of this phenomenon. The CMA Music Festival is country music's biggest annual event, taking over downtown Nashville with nearly the intensity with which South by Southwest takes over Austin in the spring. Its five days of organized excitement brought together an estimated 80,000 people from around the world, to see 450 artists across 11 stages, augmented by many more private parties, nightclub shows and suddenly announced "pop-up" performances.
I managed to catch more than 50 acts in the course of five days. My highlights ranged from the biggest shows to the tiniest ones on makeshift stages in Nashville's Music City Center exhibition hall. Miranda Lambert owned her set at the football stadium LP Field, where the highest-charting stars at the festival played nightly, going hard with a pink guitar and playing the recording of Beyonce's "Girls (Run the World)" to welcome Carrie Underwood for a duet on their hit "Somethin' Bad." A few nights before that, she and husband Blake Shelton sat mostly unseen in the balcony of the club 3rd & Lindsley to watch Lambert's Pistol Annies partner Ashley Monroe deliver a perfect hour's worth of sophisticated honky tonk. On Saturday, new Nashville sensations Charlie Worsham and Robert Ellis shared the stage at a benefit hosted by Emmylou Harris, and their camaraderie demonstrated how a new generation is returning to country forms while retaining a contemporary edge. Each of these artists showed how country's younger innovators are moving with ease across the stylistic borders often associated with the genre.
There's been a lot of talk about how hip-hop is country's new undercurrent, and it was ever-present at CMA Fest. For me, one artist making that connection stood out. Sam Hunt, a college quarterback turned successful songwriter (he penned the complicated little romance "Cop Car," a hit for Keith Urban), got a young crowd dancing with his blend of beats and emotionalism — the key line in his song "House Party" exhorts a conquest to "turn your TV off, break that boombox out." He's the newest (and one of the smartest) in the notorious "bro" line that can be traced backward from festival headliners like Jason Aldean (whose LP Field set was more Nickelback than Nelly) to the veteran Travis Tritt, whose guest appearance during Aldean's set reminded fans that genre-busting machismo is hardly a new thing in the rock and rap-loving South.
Obvious connections to rap illustrated only one route into musical sources not conventionally associated with country. Judging by what I heard at CMA Fest, the long debate about what "country" can and should be isn't very interesting to its actual practitioners — and especially not to the genre's millennials, who are busy absorbing whatever they want. Sundy Best, whose set was packed with cheering fans, is a great example: the duo's songs mix up Steve Earle-style outlaw elements with Urban-like sentimentality — and keep the Latin rhythms of Kris Bentley's cajon playing central to its sound. On the same afternoon they played, the Brothers Osborne delivered rock jams heavily influenced by blues and soul, and Laura Bell Bundy, a veteran in this crowd at 33, staged a dance party complete with lessons on how to grind while doing the two-step and rap/country mashups that, she said, are "great for tailgating."
While solo artists and bands still abound at CMA Fest, something about the duo form offers the most flexibility to these younger artists. The teen-beloved Dan & Shay, who got their start on YouTube and spent their fan club party urging fans to record their performances and post them online, exist at one end of the spectrum when it comes to polish; they're like a leaner, sharper, more appealing Rascal Flatts. John & Jacob, who like Dan & Shay have written hits for others but are finding their own style, showed a deep understanding of both rockabilly and power pop during their songwriters' showcase. Two duos who opened for Monroe on Thursday left traditionalism behind for other paths: Striking Matches revolves around the metal-influenced, dual guitar solos of Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, and the Muddy Magnolias — transplanted Texan Kallie North and Brooklynite Jessy Wilson — add funk and jazz elements to their atmospheric twang.
All of these sets stood out as ones that would have generated buzz at other festivals. They represent where country is going, beyond the obvious trends at the top of the charts. What's great about CMA Fest, though, is that its buzz is gentle. People did walk away from every one of the performances I've mentioned talking excitedly about what they'd seen; but no hierarchy of cool rose up over the course of the festival's five days. CMA Fest originated in 1972 as Fan Fair, an event mostly devoted to the doling out of autographs, and accessibility is the norm; most artists, including the huge ones, still spend hours signing away during the week. The welcoming atmosphere baked into its bones makes CMA Fest a great place to discover music free of the usual noise that arises during festivals — the chatter of tastemakers about which artists matter and which don't; the big footprint of Gaga-level stars who concoct marketing schemes that require fans to jump through hoops for tickets and result in impenetrable guest lists for those insistent on retaining their dignity; the creeping sense that no matter how much music you've seen, you've missed out on something.
Instead, the best qualities of country — always a more porous genre than non-enthusiasts often realize — are reflected in the small-d democratic atmosphere of CMA Fest. Number one is the genre's intergenerational generosity. The festival's unofficial opening party, Nashville stalwart Marty Stuart's Late Night Jam, filled the historic Ryman Theater on Wednesday with fans who were most wowed by a nine year old — the blue yodeling Emi Sunshine — and most moved by the 78-year-old Sam Moore shouting, in great voice, his immortal hit with his late partner Dave Prater, "Soul Man." Stuart's party deliberately dwelled on Grand Old Opry-style tradition — square dancers danced, the host played the bluegrass anthem "The Orange Blossom Special" and old-time religion even had its place, in the form of an appearance by the Chuckwagon Gang, a group originally formed in 1936. But its implicit directive to love tradition without preserving it too delicately extended over CMA Fest.
The festivals attendees, after all, were all ages — that's the kind of diversity country music excels at, even as it remains a mostly white, rural-to-suburban, working and middle class concern. But again, millennials, along with some forward-thinking Generation X artists, are pushing diversity in other ways. CMA Fest's featured performers are still overwhelmingly white, but I saw several interracial bands, including Hunt's, and that of Sugarland guitarist and songwriter Kristian Bush, who debuted his sophisticated new solo material to a big riverfront crowd on Friday. And women kept stealing the spotlight as instrumentalists and as songwriters. T.J. Osborne, for example, namechecked Natalie Hemby as cowriter of the Brothers Osborne's excellent new song "Pins & Needles"; she also cowrote several of the best tracks on Lambert's now Number One album, Platinum.
Such evolutionary shifts were in great evidence at CMA Fest, along with plenty of party anthems, cowboy-costume corniness and blatant tie-ins to corporate capitalism. The bad comes with the good in country music, and maybe because the conversation around it isn't so burdened by the restrictions of so-called good taste, it's right out there for all to see. Reality television was the most pervasive questionable element at the festival: from the rural rapper Big Smo to the cast of Farm Kings, to the many, many singing competition winners who performed, small screen personalities sometime threatened to overshadow serious musicians. The exhausting presence of brands, too — the Chevy trucks on display in the exhibition hall, the Budweiser Clydesdales kept in a pen outside in the 90-degree heat — made it impossible for the festival to ever feel like a golden sphere separate from ordinary capitalist American life, the way Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza have in their prime.
That's OK, though, because ordinary life is a place where music makes a difference. The culture of country music doesn't stand for everyone; it can feel exclusionary. But at CMA Fest it didn't. The festival illustrated how country is always shifting to be open to new elements, even when its makers invoke the rhetoric of tradition to keep it distinct. As an experience, it felt less like magic and more like the excellent everyday. That's a fantasy in which music can thrive, too.