By Shirley Nicoletta with Lyndie Wenner
Upon arriving at Nashville’s airport at 6:30 a.m., it was obvious something big was happening in country music.
I’ve never seen so many guitars, cowboy boots and hats in one place. Lyndie pre-arranged our itinerary to cover the festival for the Cayman Compass. Within a few hours, we were standing in the midst of 88,500-plus country music fans in downtown Nashville.
Bobbi Boyce, Country Music Association international director and London native, graciously invited us to the CMA international luncheon where we met artists, managers and members of the media from around the globe. Bobbi arranged all access media credentials, allowing us to report on all aspects of the festival.
Fan Fair X
The Music City Center, a 16-acre convention complex conveniently within walking distance to the honky-tonks and downtown attractions, was home to the festival’s Fan Fair X, where country fans could interact with their favorite stars. Fans patiently stood in line waiting to get autographs and photograph, and to share a few kinds words. Numerous booths filled with country music merchandise occupied the massive floor space.
With a car boot full of boxes filled with 2,500 paper folding fans branded with the Cayman Islands logo and a tagline we created that said, “We Are Country Music Fans!” generously sponsored by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, we proceeded to enthusiastically share some Caymankind with country music fans from every state in the U.S. and 25 foreign countries. Our gift prompted many conversations with tourists commenting on their love of Cayman and those who expressed a genuine interest in visiting the Cayman Islands.
Surprisingly, inside Fan Fair X, staged at a convention center where the artists hold their “meet and greets” and perform for their fans on smaller and more intimate stages, I handed out fans to a young woman and her mother who were suddenly taken aback by the familiar logo that appeared on the fans. Turns out, they too were Cayman locals who traveled to the festival. We shared how nice it felt to see someone from home while being so far away. I felt pride in representing the Cayman Islands at CMA Fest for the first time in the 45-year history of this event.
‘H.O.L.Y.’ – Nissan Stadium performances
One of the more memorable moments happened on Saturday night, the third evening of the festivities. Our seats were front and center at the sold-out 69,000-seat Nissan Stadium in downtown Nashville. The temperature was 90-plus degrees and seemed to rise by 5 degrees once inside the stadium. A sea of hard-core country music fans suddenly jumped to their feet cheering as country duo Florida Georgia Line began to perform their hit song “H.O.L.Y.” The audience sang along, they knew every word, and holding their loved ones close, they were obviously moved by the music and the lyrics.
It was eye-opening to see so many fans of one musical genre experiencing the music that appeared as if it must be part of their DNA. The connection was obvious.
It was mind-blowing coming from an island of 55,000 people and now I was sitting in an arena that could easily seat the entire population of the Cayman Islands.
Honky-tonks and the downtown scene
The evening arena shows were not the only attraction at this festival. Each day and night, foodies lined up in front of numerous food trucks parked along 5th Avenue and Demonbreun Street alongside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (where the history of the city’s music and recording artists is housed). Music poured out from every direction into the streets from a wide variety of honky-tonks and music venues up and down both sides of Lower Broadway, i.e. world famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Robert’s Western World, and Legend’s Corner. It certainly helped to illustrate just how Nashville got its nickname “Music City USA.”
An impressive 500-plus artists and celebrities participated in more than 250 hours of concerts on 11 stages, seven of which were free to the public. The festival sold out months in advance, setting records in attendance. Performance stages were scattered throughout the downtown area, closing off street traffic to accommodate the foot traffic, providing a safe and enjoyable festival experience.
Several up-and-coming young talents were on many street corners strumming their guitars and singing, doing what they love and hoping for their big break. We stopped to listen to one young girl who was passionately performing her rendition of Little Big Town’s hit, “Girl Crush.” Her voice was so beautiful, I couldn’t fathom the concept that someone so young and talented was performing on a street corner amid the roster of already established artists who rolled into town in their big tour buses with only one thing in mind – performing at their own expense for all of their loyal fans. It is just one of the ways an artist gets to personally say “thank you” for their support.
Interview with RaeLynn
On Sunday afternoon, the final day of the festival, we were invited to attend a performance and interview one of our favorite young female country singer/songwriters, RaeLynn, whose “God Made Girls” was a recent Top 20 hit. She appeared on Season 2 of “The Voice” and was coached by artist Blake Shelton. “Blake’s like a dad to me,” she said. “He’s always believed in me.”
We were fortunate to get a sneak peek preview of her forthcoming single on Warner Bros Records, “Love Triangle,” a song she wrote four years ago. She told us “when a song still raises its hand after all that time, you know it’s special.” The song, added to her upcoming album, tells the story of a child caught between parents of divorce and the heartache it brings.
When I asked RaeLynn if she had ever been to the Cayman Islands, she said, “I’ve never been but I hear it’s beautiful and the beaches are amazing!” I commented how Cayman has great food, great people, and she jumped in saying, “I’m all about great food, great people, and being in my bathing suit!” I extended an invitation for her to come to the Cayman Islands to visit and perform, and RaeLynn said, “God, I would love that, as long as I can bring my husband and my pup!”
“I put together a ‘songwriter’ dive trip with Craig Wiseman, Bob Dipero and Mark Sanders,” recalled David Conrad, a Nashville music industry executive. “All those guys have written a ton of hit songs.”
“We reconnected with Howie Tipton who had written songs with my company in Nashville and he later moved to Grand Cayman where he became a dive master and wound up working for the Lions Center.
“The Nashville/Cayman connection goes back to the mid ‘70s (maybe longer) when country music artists like Ronnie Milsap, the Gatlin Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys and probably several others invested in one or two hotels there. Was about then that George Town and Nashville became ‘sister’ cities.
“My wife Karen and I each ran country music publishing companies way back then and are both certified divers so we got in the habit of making a dive visit almost every year for a very long time. It was and is … paradise.”
Shirley Nicoletta is the principal of Halcyon Event Management, a Cayman-based company committed to producing entertainment and lifestyle events in the Cayman Islands.