#TBT to CMAFest: More Than the Music

Music City welcomed 87,680 fans in attendance at country music’s biggest event of the year. This was only my second year in attendance and yet again Nashville wowed me with its southern charm and great lineup of entertainment. With so many venues, stages, fan club parties and benefits added to the festivities it was completely impossible to take it all in.

I arrived Tuesday before the official kick off. Friends of mine took me to The Row where I was introduced to Payton Taylor, one of Nashville’s up and coming new artists. One song in particular that stuck out for me was Taylor’s rendition of Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On”. This girl brings some serious heart and soul into her performance and her set was the perfect kick off to set the mood for the week ahead. The Row’s atmosphere and food, namely the chicken fried chicken, was amazing and the perfect cap to the experience. In fact I took 3 more trips back there with different groups of friends to enjoy. This restaurant is a MUST VISIT when visiting Nashville. The night continued as we headed to Broadway to see what was going on in the heart of things. We stumbled upon Craig Campbell tearin’ it up at The Stage. Campbell not only sang the songs so many of his fans are familiar with, he threw us back with a few from the 80s/90s including Brooks and DunnI’m A Brand New Man”. Craig shared the story of how he met his wife before inviting her up on stage and when Mindy belted Trisha Yearwood’s “That’s What I Like About You”. She had all the girls in the joint singing right along with her.
             Photo Credit: Denise Ellis of Sweetwater Photography (c) 2015
Wednesday morning started bright and early, waiting outside The Grand Ole Opry with close to 500 of Chris Young’s fans. They were anxiously awaiting the annual fan club party. The community I get from his fan club is such a blessing. The group as a whole may be there for Chris himself, but within the group you will find gems who’s friendships will last a lifetime. Not only do I have any amazing job of getting to be a photographer for Got Country Online, I also get to crochet hats, wigs, and dolls for children with cancer through my organization Unraveled by Samantha Dawn. Among the masses who enjoy the sultry voice that Mr.Young delivers there is a tight knit group of people that have displayed such great support and love for what I do in my charity work. Some of the memorable moments of the performance within the virtually flawless set of many of Young’s fan favorites including a cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All”. Listening to Chris belting that infamous high note at the end of “You” (yes ladies he can hit that note even early in the morning), and Young’s band member, Terry Crisp, completely killing it on a steel guitar solo were also highlights. Young surprised and wooed the crowd with his rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” which I am pretty sure had everyone in the Opry hollering for more. The charisma and talent Young possesses is unparalleled. The party was capped off with a backstage tour of the Opry , a first for me. It was a pleasure to get to see all the behind the scenes action. On the tour fans got to shake hands, meet, and take a picture with Young’s sweet grandparents as well as get a picture with the man himself before the event was over.
Wednesday night started off with Ellie’s Miracle Benefit at Losers, where again I was impressed by Payton Taylor’s performance and entertained by a few of the artists on deck for the night including Aaron Tippin. I was honored to meet Miss Ellie herself which served as another reminder of how blessed I am that my love for country music and children with cancer seem to effortlessly blend so well. Also on tap that night was  Clay Walker’s Sixth Annual Chords of Hope Concert. I was so thrilled I got to experience Clay’s performance for a good cause. Just about the time I showed up Tim Dugger was wrapping up his set with his single, “Beer on a Boat” which made me feel right at home-
“with some beer on a boat on a saturday,
a few friends just floatin’ away,
the world looks better through a cool pair of shades,
with some beer on a boat on a saturday”
If that doesn’t remind you of livin’ in FL then I don’t know what does. A quick set change and I was transported back to my childhood. The sounds of growing up on country music in the 90’s was sweet music to my ears and Walker delivered just that. Taking us way back Walker sang favorites including “If I Could Make A Living”, “Then What”, “Dreaming With My Eyes Open”, and brought the party up a notch with “Live, Laugh, Love” where all of 3rd and Lindsley was covered in spraying streamers and confetti. Walker announced that he has been 17 years without relapse thanks to the doctors and care at Vanderbilt. This benefit among with many others has raised Walker’s “Band Against M.S.” $4.4 million dollars in funds since it’s inception in 2003.
Thursday’s events started early with Tyler Farr’s Kegs and Eggs featuring special guest Josh Dorr. As the fans were wrapped around the building waiting to enter Margaritaville for the event my partner in crime, Jessica Figueroa, and I headed in to catch up with Josh and Tyler.
After our interviews with the guys we joined the increasingly packed crowd awaiting the performances. Everyone was enjoying breakfast and sippin’ on what seemed like the drink of the day- Bloody Mary’s. Dorr got the crowd’s attention, singing songs like “Save Your Breath” on his latest EP and “Like A Rocket” which I assume will be on his upcoming album. For those who might not be as familiar with Dorr need to check his music out! Farr came to the stage and the crowd was ready to party. He threw out a few jokes before getting started and rounded his performance out with “A Guy Walks Into A Bar”, “Whiskey in my Water” and crowd favorite “Redneck Crazy”- I think about 90% of the cell phones in the room were out to record the hit single. Early morning performances are not a normality for them but both brought their A-game and entertained the crowd before taking time to take pictures with fans.
The rest of the afternoon was spent milling around Downtown- catching a few performances including Gwen Sebastian at The Budlight Stage and Ashley Monroe down at the Chevy Riverfront Stage. It was my first time seeing both ladies live and there is no doubt in my  mind that both are clear contenders as noteworthy Women of Country.
I was in complete awe as Jess and I walked into LP field the first night. As a photographer walking into such a big venue with your camera strapped to your back is nothing short of an adrenaline rush. The night couldn’t have started out more perfect with the great Alan Jackson kicking it all off. Jackson was my first concert when I was 6 years old back home in Orlando. One of the few Christmas memories I can recall was actually the same year (1996) when I sat on Santa’s lap and he asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I replied with “I want an Alan Jackson CD”. With a puzzled look Santa quickly recanted with “don’t you want a barbie?” I was a 6 year old little girl and I can imagine that not many other girls were asking for country CDs for Christmas but I was headstrong that was all I wanted and thats exactly what I got. To turn around at almost 20 years later get to photograph him was definitely a moment for me; I was even near tears when Jackson finished out his set.
The night continued with amazing music from Sam Hunt, Rascal Flatts, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean. Hunt delivered on his debut LP field performance- a huge leap from his Bridgestone Stage show last year. The young gun had the crowd going with “Leave the Night On”, “Take Your Time” and “House Party”. Whether you think Hunt is country or not it is undeniable that his success is definitely to be admired and he knows how to entertain a crowd. Rascal Flatts consistently bring the 3 part harmonies that everyone knows and loves in their set. Bentley and Florida Georgia Line both brought immense energy in their performances- getting the crowd roaring, dancing and singing along to all their hit songs. The first night’s events was capped off with Jason Aldean. Aldean knows how to bring the party including new single “Tonight Looks Good on You”. There has yet to be a song that he sings that I haven’t liked. Aldean was the perfect end to the kick off of CMAFest’s Headline performers.
By the time Friday morning came I was thrilled for a late start. With all the excitement of photographing the night before and all the music and events that had already been attended I was thankful for a little break. We took Friday easy and by the afternoon I ran into Eric Gunderson of Love and Theft.  He invited all of us to come next door to Winner’s to join in on their Thefthead Street Team party. The duo, Gunderson and Stephen Barker Liles, in my opinion are one of country’s most underrated talents. There is no denying the talent these guys possess when you are in a bar and these two break out hits “Angel Eyes” and “Whiskey on my Breath”. The raw talent in the harmonies they bring to an acoustic performance are nothing short of incredible. In and amidst the performance the duo gave away prizes to their dedicated fans ranging from CDs to Gunderson’s baseball jersey. After the performance was over the guys allowed the fans to get a picture with them.  Stephen took the time to ask me about my gold ribbon. Since I work with children with cancer I wear my gold awareness ribbon everywhere I go. It speaks volumes when an artist takes interest in something like that.
As day turned to night, Take 2 of the LP performances kicked off with The Oakridge Boys and was packed with entertainment by The Band Perry, Maddie and Tae, Lee Brice, Randy Houser, Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum and Luke Bryan. One of the highlights from The Oakridge Boy’s performance had to be when the group ended their hit “Elvira” after only half of the song, and what seemed like a disappointed crowd turned into a frenzy when special guest Little Big Town joined the guys on the stage to sing their sultry rendition of the song.
The Band Perry delivered what everyone expects from them- a roaring good time of upbeat song and dance with their anthems of breakup and angst. The next 3 performances, because of the amount of talent squeezed into one night, were not long enough in my opinion. Maddie and Tae’s debut on the LP field stage was perfectly suited to the duo’s spunky and sweet personalities and included their cheeky “Girl in a Country Song”. The theme intertwined throughout all of the night performances was undoubtedly patriotism and Brice’s performance shared in the display! As Brice sang “Drinking Class” he was accompanied by a soldier who’s reaction and excitement of the moment was awe-inspiring! Nothing will give you goosebumps faster than experiencing that feeling and raising a hat to the men and women who so willing lay their life on the line for our freedom.
Houser held firm the level of talent displayed that night. Singing new single “We Went” and raising the bar with his performance of hit “Like A Cowboy” where he literally brought the house down as he belted out a note like no other heard during the festival. Houser’s range is impeccable and something to be recognized. Zac Brown Band and Lady Antebellum kept the energy up with ZBB’s Queen Tribute and Lady A singing fan favorites like “Freestyle” and “Hey Bartender”. The night ended by none other than Luke Bryan with his wild good time and hip shaking moves. Bryan never seems to catch a break. Known for falling off stage and other antics, Bryan had another mishap that night.  He seemed to be standing right over one of the smoke machines at the start of his set when it blew up right in his face. Bryan kept going like the performer he is and the night continued without anymore hitches.
Saturday blew by like a flash and day turned to night before I knew it. Day 3 of LP field included Wynonna Judd, Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood. Wynonna brought that red fiery spirit that everyone loves about her to the stage that night setting the scene for the rest of the performer to meet.
After missing his performance last year due to a hand injury, fans were overjoyed that Young was added to the LP lineup. This performance was undoubtedly one for the record books. Shortly after Young took the stage he had the crowd in the palm of his hands. With each song the crowd seemed to build with excitement. One of the biggest highlights of his performance had to be watching the entire stadium lit up by cellphones during his performance of “Tomorrow”. It was obvious that Chris was moved when he stepped back to thank the crowd. He couldn’t help but display the emotion and joy all over his face like a child who’s seen the first glimpe of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Those that have followed his career from the beginning had a hard time keeping their composure too.
Crash and Burn” artist Thomas Rhett and “Lose My Mind” singer Brett Eldredge had the ladies all the ladies swooning for more after both of their sets. That night was definitely a success for the 3 male artists that took the stage. Little Big Town brought a good time to the crowd with stilt walkers, beach balls, and a feel good vibe with their performance of “Painkiller” the title track of their latest album. Before their set was over LBT slowed it down with “Girl Crush” which just spent a record breaking 12 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart. The night wrapped up with Country’s royalty Carrie Underwood. This songstress with a killer voice and body to match brought just the right performance to round out the night. Any time I see Underwood in concert I am “Blown Away” by her sheer talent and powerhouse voice.
Sunday had rolled around before I knew it and denial started to set in that it was the last day of festivities. The day started by swinging by the Belk stage to see one of country’s new trio Stella//James. The trio had the crowds attention. They were listening intently and dancing to this highly talented group. Their set included my favorite “Stella” where the three composed of Rachel Bradshaw, Sarah Davidson, and Ty Graham displayed their blended harmonies to a tee.
Nightfall came and the last night of the CMAFest performances were delivered by Neal McCoy, Cole Swindell, Darius Rucker, Eric Church, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley. If you’ve seen McCoy in concert then you know first hand what a fun time he brings to his set. McCoy broke it down with a some rap and performed his hit “The Shake”. Swindell kept the good times rollin’ performing his current hits. Seeing Swindell’s career blossom from his humble beginning as Luke’s merch guy is a joy to see. Rucker, one of my favorites, kept it up with tunes “Wagon Wheel” and “Homegrown Honey”. Rucker and bass player John Mason even brought the crowd some laughs with a side display of interpretative dance.
CMAFest goers even got a little glimpse of Church. I was more than thrilled when he opened up with “Cold One” my favorite song of his. His set continued to entertain and before he exited the stage Church sang “Wrecking Ball”, a sultry song that had the ladies in the crowd begging for more from the man in the mirrored Raybans. The night’s closers were reserved for two of country’s baddest guitar players- Urban and Paisley. Give both these men a guitar and they are sure to tear it up for you. Urban’s set was filled with hit after hit including his duet with Church, “Raise ‘Em Up”, Urban introduced the crowd to his latest single “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” a song that easily gets stuck in your head with its catchy lyrics,
“And I’m a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock and roll
Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old
Just another rebel in the great wide open on the boulevard of broken dreams
And I learned everything I needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”
Paisley ended the night and the week’s festivities with an amazing performance packed with entertainment and talent. The guitar solos paired with Paisley’s vocal chords are a match made in Heaven for any fan of country music. At the end of his performance fireworks went off atop of LP field signaling the end to a very successful and entertaining week of music.
The week was so much more than I expected. Beyond the music you will find a community of almost 100K fans from all different ages and walks of life, all there for one reason, to celebrate their mutual love of country music. Beyond the revenue the visitors brought to the great city of Nashville, the week was filled with many benefits and charity concerts raising money for many deserving causes. Personally my week was surrounded by good people, great music, and a support group of people who constantly remind me that what I do for children with cancer is worthwhile. I enjoy many genres of music but by far country is my favorite and the memories created at CMA Fest will not be forgotten.
  • For more of our photos of CMAFest’s performances please click HERE
Samantha Dawn Mutschler

Samantha Dawn Mutschler

I am a country music loving cowgirl with a passion for helping kids with cancer. I was born and raised in Orlando, FL where I currently reside. When I am not submerged in country music, I am a professional photographer, social media junkie, and most importantly devoted to children with cancer. Jesus has blessed me with the gift of crocheting and I started my organization, Unraveled by Samantha Dawn, where I make crochet hats and wigs. I have also had the opportunity to meet and spend time with some of the children that I have made hats for. I look to Country Music for comfort, joy, and relaxing. It’s cool to be part of the very best fan base ever!

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