Nashville’s Road Warriors Have Their Own Awards Event

by Dan Daley
in The Biz
CMA Touring Awards logo
CMA Touring Awards logo

There’s touring, and then there’s touring Nashville style. Country artists are the hardcore frequent flyers of the music business, even if the “flying” is being done aboard a 1993 Golden Eagle with 350,000 miles on it. If you’ve ever been to Nashville on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening during the season, just about every Kroger and Walmart parking lot has several buses idling their engines there, the drivers in the store stocking up on beer and Skittles while waiting for band members and tour techs to assemble at these ad hoc staging areas before the three- and four-day short-run tours.

(Brad Paisley’s current outing — the Weekend Warrior World Tour — is even named for the phenomenon.)

It’s a kind of throwback to modern country’s early days, when membership in the Grand Ole Opry meant that some weeks you stayed closer to home base, because you had to make yourself available for a certain number of performances each year at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. Country music’s bigger now, and so are the tours, but the culture of proximity and camaraderie remains largely intact.

That’s the sentiment behind the CMA Touring Awards, which took place at the Marathon Music Works club there on Jan. 22, where touring professionals in 15 categories fêted one another.

Some of the Touring Awards (originally launched as the SRO Awards in 1990, and renamed six years ago) are deep dives, including “Tour Caterer of the Year.” Other awards categories, like “Talent Agent of the Year” and “Publicist of the Year,” reflect the Music Row effect, where the media and agency people are virtually next door, instead of in New York or L.A.

But FRONT of HOUSE readers are almost “kin,” as they say here, with nominees for Front of House Engineer of the Year (Jared Blumenberg/Florida Georgia Line; Dan Heins/Garth Brooks; Arpad Sayko/Chris Stapleton; Frank Sgambellone/Luke Bryan; Chris Stephens/Jason Aldean) or Monitor Engineer of the Year (Marc Earp/Eric Church; Juan Gomez/Florida Georgia Line; Ed Janiszewski/Luke Bryan; Phil Robinson/Kenny Chesney; Martin Santos/Garth Brooks). (Winners: Arpad Sayko and Marc Earp.)

‡‡         The Nominees Are… Speaking

We asked a few of this year’s live-sound nominees about what sets the city’s touring culture apart. Jared Blumenberg, whom I first met when he was mixing Florida Georgia Line at the Daytona 500, said, “For me, what sets it apart is working for two guys that value and respect their band and crew, and show it by taking care of us all year long. I know a lot of people that have to worry about the next gig or next tour; I’m very fortunate to be able to focus on one artist for the whole year, whether we’re currently on a tour or not.”

Dan Heins, longtime FOH mixer for Garth Brooks and a stalwart at the Clair group of companies, noted how that sentiment extends through them from the artist to the fans, saying, “Country music fans are very loyal. They will always come out and see their favorites every year. It’s our job to ensure they enjoy the experience.”

Chris Stephens, who mixes Jason Aldean on the road, knows about those parking lots we mentioned earlier. “The most distinct aspect of country touring is the schedule — almost all acts only work weekends and travel in and out of Nashville on a weekly basis; that is what distinguishes country tours from rock and pop,” he says. “It took some adjusting for me, but now I love the schedule and the time at home that it affords me.”

I also asked about how country touring is “keeping it country” at a time when banjos and fiddles are appearing on 40-foot-high LED screens. It elicited acknowledgement that country and pop are on convergent paths when it comes to production, but also that subtle but critical differences remain.

“I think it is fair to say that the differences between country and pop/rock, from a live sound perspective, are certainly becoming more subtle,” concedes Chris Stephens. “But perhaps the easiest line to draw between the two is in how I would treat the lead vocal. At its heart, country music is still about great songs, and that puts an emphasis on vocal clarity and intelligibility that is less of a priority in some rock or pop music, where the vocal would sit back into the overall mix a little more. A lot of pop or rock production allows the vocal to [be] more about feel and less about understanding every single word perfectly, that is not the case with the country acts I have worked with.”

Blumenberg took that a step further. “It is true that country concerts have become very production heavy, with lots of video content and special effects,” he said. “But in my opinion, that just means stepping up your game to give the fans a truly great experience. And for me, I think that’s what is ‘keeping it country:’ the fans. They are a very loyal fan base, and I’m humbled to be able to be a part of something that brings smiles to people’s faces night after night.”

What’s also keeping it country is the granularity of the awards categories. The Parnelli Awards, which had its 17th season at the NAMM Show in January, honors logistical standouts in the Coach Company of the Year, Trucking Company of the Year, and Freight Forwarding Company of the Year. The CMA Touring Awards calls out the Coach/Truck Driver of the Year. (Winner: Danny Shelnut, driver for Montgomery Gentry.)

Another point I took away from the awards show was the joyful partisanship of the proceedings. This is an awards show you can bring your kids to — right after you picked them up from school. Each nominee in every category had a cheering section, with different parts of the room erupting when their particular heroes’ names were mentioned.

It helped that many of the nominees had shared allegiances to artists — Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney had multiple crewmembers as nominees. And Nashville does take care of its own — the five nominees for Venue of the Year included three Nashville ones: the Ascend Amphitheater, the Bridgestone Arena (which won) and the perennial Grand Ole Opry. Red Rocks and the Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion almost forlornly rounded the category out.

But still, the overall vibe was closer to that of a hometown high school end-of-season football trophy night than the multi-million-dollar industry that country-music touring has become. And that’s really the takeaway of the evening: country music along with EDM and — to a lesser extent — rap, continue to enjoy the sense of community that has become far more diffuse in pop music. Geographic proximity certainly helps that, but country also draws on a rather deep emotional connection between people in that genre. In a very real sense, everyone here is on the same bus.