A Rowdy’s breakdown of CMA Fest for first timers

Sara Custance Raised Rowdy contributor


It’s no secret that Nashville is the heartbeat of country music. Budding artists flock to the bright lights of the city and the lure of Music Row, often times with nothing more than a guitar and a dream to one day be a household name. The excitement and energy of the city draws more than just the musicians; it draws the fans. Lower Broadway, the entertainment district for Honky Tonks, live country music, restaurants and celebrity sightings, is home to CMA Fest, one of country music’s biggest events of the year.

With headliners like Jason Aldean, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and Luke Combs, it’s no wonder the festival draws thousands of fans to the city for the star-studded lineups each night. But it’s more than just the stadium shows that bring people from all over the world to Music City year after year. Pop-up stages, fan club parties, charity events and vendor booths are peppered all over town, providing non-stop entertainment for music lovers. At first glance, that seems like everything a country music fan would want in a festival and certainly what I 

thought I wanted. When I was planning my first trip people would ask me why I was going and without hesitation I babbled on about getting to see all the big names together every night. Little did I know, I would never even step foot in Nissan Stadium!

It think it’s safe to say that if you are part of the Raised Rowdy family (which you must be if you’re reading this), you can appreciate mainstream country and top 100 hits, but you crave more. You likely spend hours searching the web for new songs that get your feet tapping. Your playlists consist of artists your friends have never heard of and songs you can’t wait to tell them about. Songs that you haven’t heard on the radio or blasting through the speakers of stadiums across the country. Luckily for music lovers like us, there are side streets and dive bars overflowing with such artists itching to sing you their song and tell you their story.

Much to our benefit, these up-and-comers have to find a way to stand out and keep our attention.  After all, they don’t get paid for their time so they have to rely on the tips they collect during their sets. It’s a dog-eat-dog world trying to make a career in Nashville and while the pressure weeds out the weak, it also breeds creativity. Artists have to give their listeners more than just a second rate cover song or a lackluster karaoke hour if they are going to compete with CMA stages.

In addition to competing with the festival, they are competing with each other in a city saturated with like minded musicians. They have to bring something new and fresh to the stage, engage with listeners, keep them wanting more. And that’s just what they do!  Having not yet earned their notability, the fight is stronger than ever to give every ounce of sweat and tears to make it to the top. More often than not, they will deliver a more powerful, intimate experience for their audience when fueled with that drive. I think we can all agree when it comes to music, we crave a connection to the entire experience. It’s not just the song itself; it’s the lyrics, the performance, and the way it makes us feel.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Eric Van Houten, a Nashville based artist who is no stranger to the hustle. 4 years ago, Eric left his home town of Buffalo, NY and made the move to Music City. While up for the challenge, he knew it would be no short task to connect with fans while staying true to himself. Sure, he was prepared to work hard and give it all he had, but so was everyone else. Admittedly, Eric knew how hard it would be to be himself in the industry when it’s so easy to fall into the trap of sounding like what’s popular at the moment. Determined to maintain a balance between authenticity and marketability, Eric continues to bring originality to every performance making the fan experience one of a kind.

So, if you’re planning to step into your cowboy boots, take a tour around town on a pedal tavern, snap the obligatory photo of the What Lifts You Wings in the Gulch, or order Shut the Cluck Up level hot chicken at Hattie B’s on your next trip to Nashville, I urge you to add one more item to your itinerary.

Take a backstreet, ask a local for their go-to spot, or pick a dive bar you’ve never been to and listen to the story of someone you’ve never heard of. Find a singer or two that you can’t wait to get home and tell your friends about or maybe even the one who makes you want to skip that stadium show so you can hear their set one more time before you leave town.

This revelation changed my entire outlook on where I go every time I’m back in Nashville. When you live in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire, there are no Winners or Losers bars, no Demonbreun Streets or Nudie’s rooftops. There are plenty of venues you can go to for killer headlining tours but nothing that can put you one barstool away from the songwriters themselves. There is something special to be said about hearing a song from the writer’s perspective and feeling the emotion behind the lyrics. This is what keeps me coming back for more!

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