June 11, 2009 — It lasted a mere seven blocks and its biggest helium-filled balloons were perhaps just six feet in diameter, so there was no mistaking the CMA Music Festival Kick-Off Parade with that mother of all parades that Macy's throws in New York.
Still, Wednesday's procession through Nashville's downtown area was the first glimpse that many of the out-of-towners got of the stars they're lining up to see Thursday through Sunday in the city's annual fair outreach to country fans from around the U.S. and the globe. Rodney Atkins, sporting a brown ballcap and T-shirt, thus became the very first star some of those visitors saw as he took the grand marshal post, waving from the bed of a red Silverado truck that also carried his wife, Tammy Jo, and son Elij ah, who inspired his hit "Watching You."
How anxious were the fans to see the people they hear on their radio or watch on GAC? In front of the historic Ernest Tubb Record Shop, they edged off the curb to take up the right lane on Broadway. Even after police on motorcycles urged them back to the curb, they pushed forward again, occupying two full lanes, just to get a sneak peak at the singers as they were driven from the parade route, which started at 6th Avenue, near the crest of a hill.
Squeezed in from both sides of the road, the parade boasted a sizeable number of artists — mostly newcomers and developing acts, but enough to give the fans a taste of what's in store in the coming days. Trent Tomlinson sported his trademark doo rag from an Indianapolis 500 car, the Oak Ridge Boys pointed to the most boisterous people along the route and waved to the rest, Michael Peterson hitched a ride on a flat-bed truck wagon with hay bales, Louisiana boy Sammy Kershaw tossed Mardi Gras beads, and Lynn Anderson beamed in her "Rose Garden"-red western duds.
Chris Young wore a black hat and black shirt, a signature look which gives him a mysterious visage, but has a more practical strategic purpose — particularly on a sunny Nashville afternoon.
"I wear black shirts a lot 'cause it's not hard to iron those, and it doesn't matter if you sweat in 'em," he laughs. "I think the hat probably does a lot of the mysterious thing, just 'cause, dependin' on where you're playin' at on stage, sometimes you can't see your face if you're wearin' a hat."
There were plenty of faces during Wednesday's parade — Ty Herndon, Caitlin & Will, former "Biggest Loser" contestant Dan Evans, Ricochet, Lonestar, Heartland, Steve Holy, Deborah Allen, Brad Cotter, One Flew South. There was a marching band, sports mascots — Gnash, of the NHL's Nashville Predators; and T-Roc, of the NFL's Tennessee Titans — Ronald McDonald, a fuzzy giraffe, flag twirlers and a Minnie Pearl impersonator. And a group of Girl Scouts who, after reaching the end of the route at the Sommet Center parking garage, squealed and gawked as the remaining stars filed past them.
There will be plenty of gawking — and probably some squealing, too — from full-grown adults over the next few days. The parade may be done, but they have a shot at getting their pictures taken with the stars and seeing a bucket-load of performances from the likes of Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, the Judds, Jason Michael Carroll, Diamond Rio, Josh Turner and Jamey Johnson, to name but a few. There were even hints that the ever-bubbly Neal McCoy might show up early on Thursday to sign autographs for fans who were so anxious to meet a star that they chose to wait in line in the early morning before the doors to the exhibit hall open.
The rest of the week will, like Wednesday's event, be a parade — a parade of stars, fans and likely of sweat, for those who choose not to follow Chris Young's man-in-black example. And tens of thousands of people will appreciate every second.