CMA Fest calls on fans of all segments

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It’s genius having the singing group Alabama kick off the nightly concerts at the Country Music Association’s 2014 CMA Music Festival in Nashville, going on Thursday through Sunday.

As country fans and stakeholders engage in a tug-of-war over the genre’s path, in walk the guys who have triumphed both as upstarts and as a legacy act. Alabama’s return to the stage after a 19-year absence comes at a time when “bro country,” country rock, bluegrass, Americana folk, country soul, country pop and the Bakersfield sound — just to mention a few subcategories — are duking it out to claim the title of the “true” sound of country.

 “We were the renegades when we came along,” says Teddy Gentry, 62, who formed Alabama 40 years ago with cousins Jeff Cook and Randy Owen. “I remember the record label saying ‘You guys need to clean up your act.’

“They had a consultant guy come in and dress each one of us [in leather outfits]. It was so uncomfortable, the first night I came off the stage and threw it all in the garbage can and said, ‘They need to accept us for who we are or not at all.’ Sure, there are concessions you have to make, but not to the point of changing who you are. You have to be true to yourself.”

Starting out playing for tips in a bar in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, they went on to become the most honored country music group in history, with 230 accolades (including nine CMA awards), 43 No. 1 hits and 74 million records sold.

When Alabama takes the stage Thursday night, they will open four days of concerts, jam sessions and country-themed events. The festival’s exhaustive list of performers ranges from country rockers Eric Church, Jason Aldean and Dierks Bentley (who also recorded a bluegrass album) to vocal group Little Big Town to megastars Tim McGraw and Darius Rucker. And that doesn’t even factor in subgenres such as Americana-folk-alt, represented by 26-year-old indie performer Caitlin Rose.

Americana musician Holly Williams — Hank Jr.’s daughter and Hank Sr.’s granddaughter — is one of the artists some might not expect at the CMA festival.

Although her grandfather was the king of country, her acoustic singer-songwriter sound has more in common with John Hiatt than Johnny Cash. Yet she’s going to meet her fans at the festival.

“When I was little, I used to go to it with my dad,” said Ms. Williams, 33. “Country [music insiders don’t] care that I am Hank’s daughter … but the fans know. And I love to sing for them and support the town.”

And the fans that continue to sell out the event, which started in 1972 as “Fan Fair,” no matter the type of “country” music that’s played.

“Some of it would probably make my grandfather roll over in his grave,” Ms. Williams said, adding that she embraces the various subgenres and hopes country radio will soon expand its offerings. “I just wish every aspect of it was heard: the folk side of it, the women’s side of it. I’m hoping that will come back [on radio].”

Mr. Gentry agreed, adding that showcasing such offerings is vital to country’s longevity.

“A different style of music is great to me, but it eventually comes back around to songs and it circles back to what people want,” said Mr. Gentry, whose band famously joined Brad Paisley for a 2011 CMA performance. “You have to have new blood in country music or it dies.”

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