For decades before CMA Music Festival assumed its current, rebranded form, it was known as Fan Fair, a comparatively homier, humbler production that offered fans ample opportunity to get up close and personal with their favorite stars. The original spirit of Fan Fair could be felt at Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam, held Wednesday night, and that was by design. Stuart positioned his multi-performer show at downtown Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as a traditionalist alternative to the CMT Awards that kicked off two hours earlier directly across the street at the Bridgestone Arena, and to more or less everything else going on during the festival.
Stuart has been organizing the show, a benefit for MusicCares, for 13 years, and he never reveals the entire lineup ahead of time. “Do you trust me?” he asked the audience, as he kicked off the show with his flashily dressed band the Fabulous Superlatives, all three of whom would take a brief turn as front man by the end of the night.
There was a pronounced sense of familiarity to the proceedings, and no formal script whatsoever. Stuart, the jive-talking showman, bantered with his more solemn emcee, Grand Ole Opry host, WSM DJ and walking encyclopedia of country music history Eddie Stubbs, his band members and folks in the crowd, including the woman in the balcony who cheered especially long and loud after Stuart’s solo mandolin rendition of the standard “Orange Blossom Special.”
A big believer in making the show a multi-generational occasion, Stuart reminded the audience that he’d been given his first big musical break, on that same hallowed stage, at the age of 13. Then he brought on 9 year-old viral sensation Emi Sunshine, who tore up Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6,” bending her notes and embellishing her phrasing with a vocal agility well beyond her years. The Opry Square Dancers, who executed rubber-legged moves at breakneck speed, had a couple of junior dancers along, and the smallest couldn’t have been out of preschool.
At the other end of the age spectrum were 76-year old veteran crooner-songwriter Jim Glaser, of the Glaser Brothers, and 78-year-old soul shouter Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave, both still in strikingly fine voice. Moore not only did the song he was best known for, “Soul Man,” he even ventured into hardcore country territory, trading verses with Stuart on a rendition of George Jones’s “She Thinks I Still Care.”
Stuart’s wife, Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith, his early Nineties singing partner Travis Tritt and LeAnn Rimes were among the other familiar faces who took the stage, each performing at least one of their hits, in Smith’s case “Cincinnati, Ohio,” in Rimes’ the power ballad “I Need You” and in Tritt’s the feel-good tune “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” among others. Altogether, it made for a one-of-a-kind unofficial kickoff to what Stuart pointedly and playfully called “Hillbilly Music Week.”