I have seen every CMA Songwriters event to grace the O2 Arena, and there are always high expectations. I love the camaraderie and collaboration of the artists and songwriters, the sprinkling of hits with little-known gems and brand new material, and how the crowd treats the performers with such reverence. There’s the stories, too; how the songs came to be and little tidbits of the aftermath of their release. This show was no different, and yet it was on a higher level than any songwriters show I had seen yet.
With Shane McAnally acting as host (thanks to his endearing, dry sense of humour and his many, many recent hits), the stage also featured Ashley Monroe, Charlie Worsham, Charles Esten (also known as Deacon Claybourne from the ABC show Nashville), and Lori McKenna. While usually the hits are predominant in a show like this, quite a lot was devoted to new material or unreleased cuts chosen to play on a spur of the moment. Still, there were plenty of offerings for the crowd to sing along to, from Kenny Chesney’s ‘American Kids’, to Ashley Monroe’s ‘Like A Rose’, plus two Kacey Musgraves offerings in ‘Merry Go Round’ and ‘Follow Your Arrow’.
Most of the biggest hits were from Shane, such as with his surprisingly great rendition of Keith Urban’s ‘John Cougar John Deere John 3:16’ (I previously wasn’t a fan of the song, but Shane’s version is great), although Lori McKenna did amusingly follow that up with a Keith Urban bonus track she wrote, joking that when she and her husband buy a boat it’ll be a crappy one, and named “Bonus Track”. That was from the only funny moment throughout the evening, and it seems songwriters are characteristically hilarious, judging by what I’ve heard at each of these shows. Shane regularly joked that he was just trying to get his picture taken (noting the comparative artist stardom of the others), although if his repertoire is anything to go by, I would argue he was the biggest star on that stage.
Still, huge hits were not the only things on offer, as one round showed when Ashley decided to follow up Shane’s ‘Follow Your Arrow’ with ‘Weed Instead of Roses’, admitting she wasn’t sure whether to play it but thought she’d carry on the theme initiated by Shane. It was very well received, and then Charlie raised the bar by playing an unknown song he and Ashley had written together, about being high when the Lord calls you home. Not only did Charlie show that he was a truly incredible guitar player that night, filling in on pretty much everyone’s songs with improvised licks and amazing dexterity, he also showed that he’s a very clever and gifted songwriter, whether on humorous songs or more heartfelt material. Ducking his radio singles, Charlie played mostly new material from his upcoming record (pausing to apologise for cancelling his UK tour but reminding everyone he’s supporting Frankie Ballard next week), along with a couple from his debut record, including my favourite ‘Mississippi In July’ and ‘Love Don’t Die Easy’. I was already a fan of his, but now I can’t wait to see him play again.
Following Charlie’s weed song, Chip (AKA Charles) followed up with a powerful love song… about beer. He sung it with such great comedic timing and delight that it was easy to see his acting ability coming through (even though he reminded us that he is not in fact Deacon – and not an alcoholic). Lori was next, declaring that she unfortunately didn’t have a weed or a beer song. “You should write with Ashley!” He quipped. Everyone erupted into laughter, even more so when Shane repeated it and accidentally said “Hashley.” Other great laughs included Shane’s performance of the song ‘Fuzzy’, about the morning after a wild night out. He sang it as written, before pausing to admit that how it was written wasn’t how it really went down. He started one verse again, painting the same picture of a bra on a lamp and him naked in a hot tub, but this time changing the name of the tattoo on his chest from Heather to Trevor. It scored one of the biggest laughs of the night, as Shane was able to poke fun at his own sexuality in a gentle and knowing way.
There were yet more surprises on the way. About two thirds of the way through the show it was Ashley’s turn, and seeing as Shane had just performed ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ she announced that a friend would be joining her for an impromptu performance. Miranda Lambert walked out on stage as pretty much everyone lost their damn minds. She stayed to sing ‘Heart Like Mine’ with Ashley (they wrote it together), and then left, all smiles.
Still, there were many emotional moments too, and I was reminded why country music is so dear to me, and why I have sacrificed so much to be able to pursue it personally and professionally. ‘Merry Go Round’, Ashley’s rendition of Jason Aldean’s ‘The Truth’ (still my favourite song of his, probably because it’s actually hers) and Lori’s performances in particular were highlights that stunned everyone into silence. The way that these songwriters can tap into our own realities, yet also make us feel things for a situation we’ve never experienced, is why country music is so special. This was proven tenfold when Lori closed the show on ‘Girl Crush’. The initial performance was already rife with audience participation, but it was when Shane asked her to play one final chorus that it really kicked in. Two thousand people joined, unaided, in a rousing, perfectly-in-tune chorus of ‘Girl Crush’ while Lori played acoustic guitar and ultimately broke down in tears.
I’m so glad I went, and thank you to the CMA and the songwriters for making it such a brilliant night. It’s moments like these that keep me returning to the C2C festivities every year, and this show is always such a highlight.