Nashville lived up to its Music City nickname Wednesday night with the launch of Skyville Live, an online music series that got off to an auspicious start with the legendary Gladys Knight, country icon Martina McBride and British pop/R&B hitmaker Estelle. Broadcast on skyvillelive.com, the concert featured the three women delivering some of their biggest hits solo, as well as performing together, sharing such classics as Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia."
"I was freaking out a little bit," McBride told Rolling Stone Country after rehearsing the song with her co-stars. "It's a 'pinch me' moment for sure. I've always loved 'Midnight Train to Georgia.' I've always loved everything that Gladys did, but that song means a lot to me because my 20-year-old daughter, Delaney, used to perform that song when she was three. She was so into it and knew all the background vocal parts. When I told her I was going to do it, she said, 'Are you kidding?!'"
Estelle previewed the title track to her fourth album, Conqueror, due February 17th, as well as the brand-new "Something Good" and her huge, breakout hit, "American Boy." "I'm learning so much. I'm being a sponge," she told us of collaborating with Knight and McBride on Skyville Live. "As an artist, there's nothing more you can wish for. I'm sitting in a room with legends. I'm going to watch and learn. I want to be here for many years. I want to still be doing music and be as open and as joyful about the music I do. This is what I love."
Knight was also reveling in the sense of camaraderie. "I love it. They do music, and that makes us family," she said. "It doesn't matter where you come from. It doesn't matter what kind of songs people say you sing — it still touches the heart, and that's what music is all about. It's universal. So the fact that we're all doing this together makes my heart feel good."
Knight was at her usual pitch-perfect best, belting such hits as "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" and the Grammy-winning "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)." Before performing "Midnight Train to Georgia" with McBride and Estelle, Knight introduced legendary songwriter Jim Weatherly in the audience and shared the story of how the song was originally titled "Midnight Plane to Houston," before she and the Pips asked Weatherly if they could move it east. He agreed, and the rest is history.
McBride followed suit with some classic hits of her own, including "Broken Wing," and with soul and R&B favorites covered on her Everlasting album, including Etta James' "In the Basement," Van Morrison's "Wild Night" and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me by Now." Knight and Estelle joined her on Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."
Skyville Live was created by music industry veteran Wally Wilson. "There have been many great concerts streamed on the net," said Wilson, who serves as the show's executive producer, "but to my knowledge, there has never been a network-quality program featuring major artists that has appeared on the Internet first. Now, at the dawn of the era of 'smart TV,' Skyville Live has come along to change that."
The three ladies who kicked off the inaugural event are happy to be part of such an innovative venture. "It's a new day. It's a new field and I'd rather be on the cutting edge of it," Estelle said. "I like to be first."
"If you're gonna stay around here, you're gonna have to be flexible enough to change," Knight echoed. "You can't stay in your little hole and not make things happen. That's' what I love about this [show]. It's another avenue for us to speak to, touch and sing to people, and that's what it's all about. They said, 'We're gonna do this on the Internet' and I said, 'Come on! Put me on it!'"
McBride hopes Skyville Live will offer artists a new avenue for reaching fans. "We'll be able to reach people in their homes in a different and more personal way, because people can sit around in their pajamas and watch wherever they want."
Knight hopes the program is as memorable for viewers as it is for the participants. "There's a wonderful spirit on this show," she said. "I've been on at least a thousand shows and at times the spirit of the shows doesn't come together. The spirit in this show is so beautiful and so warm. We don't compete. We perform together and support each other, and I'm having a ball."