Maren Morris' appearance as the headliner of the latest Pandora LIVE event was destined to be remembered for any number of reasons. For one, it was the first edition of the concert series to be broadcast on SiriusXM, since Pandora was acquired by the satellite radio broadcasting company earlier this year. Then, there was the fact that the buzz around Nashville in the days leading up to the night of the concert pointed toward the possibility than a record turnout was on tap for the night, a prediction that ended up coming true.
What dawned on many in attendance by the end of the night that possibly came as a bit of a surprise, however, was that we may have witnessed the dawning of a perennial country music Entertainer of the Year candidate for years to come.
An abbreted 14-song set list gave the audience a partial glimpse at Morris' current Girl World Tour, which won't reach the Nashville area until its stop at Ascend Amphitheater on Oct. 18. The first half of the set leaned heavily on cuts from the new album unapologetically, and for good reason, as within moments it was clear that the majority of the crowd were out to prove that they knew all the singer-songwriter's lyrics by heart. One would expect the crowd to react excitedly for the singer's 2016 hit "80s Mercedes," but there was little difference to the reception it received when compared to the two new songs directly preceding it in "Girl" and "The Feels"; this was a crowd in love with the whole catalog, not just the cuts lucky enough to be embraced by country radio.
If there was anything to be disappointed with, as unwarranted as it may be, it was in only one surprise guest making an appearance during the headliner's set. Morris' husband (and co-writer) Ryan Hurd ran out to share the duties on the party anthem "All My Favorite People," and while Hurd was great, there were a few mumbles from crowdmembers who were expecting Brothers Osborne -- Morris' partners on the album track -- to appear with mics in hand. CMA Fest can be a double-edged sword: Attendees are delighted to stumble onto unannounced duets between two artists, but it can sometimes get to a point where they assume surprises are around every single corner of Nashville.
The minimalistic setup of the stage was also a factor in Morris' favor, as the Pandora LIVE events tend to favor a generic stage layout, with the eye candy -- a portable barber shop provided by hair product company Cremo over here, free sliders and corndogs from a Krystal booth over there -- left on the floor. Other than the fog machine cranking up every third song or so, the visual effects were kept to a minimum, allowing the singer to concentrate on bringing the message of her music across without worrying about an iffy hydraulic system having a bad night.
The show opened with sets from Tenille Townes and Lindsay Ell, following the all-female format that the Girl tour has promised this year. Townes continues to impress, as well as raise her profile among country music fans, performing a seven-song set taken straight from her debut EP on Columbia Nashville, Living Room Worktapes. While the between-song banter was definitely that of a young opener, with calls to clap hands and asking if there were any Maren fans in the audience, the powerhouse vocalist mesmerized with a performance that answered the unasked question of what Janis Joplin would sound like if she were born in Alberta and raised on a steady diet of Shania Twain tunes.
Lindsay Ell -- who also hit the stage Tuesday night -- continues to be one of the most interesting artists in Nashville. A more-than-credible contender for best guitarist in Nashville, the performer stalked the stage from beginning to end of her set. With the majority of the set list dedicated to her 2017 album The Project, these were songs that Ell has lived in onstage for the past two years, so she knew exactly where to place a well-crafted solo throughout the run. With guitar stylings that called to mind influences from Keith Richards to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ell is making steady progress as a songwriter, but it was with a guitar pick in hand where she is a force to be reckoned with.
As the final echoes of Morris' 2018 pop hit "The Middle" drifted through the air, the sidewalks outside the venue were full of fans refusing to let the evening end, loudly performing their own encores arm in arm while walking toward parking lots. These weren't just people showing up for any random free concert that they happen across; these were friends and family who had been sending each other excited texts for weeks, counting down the days until Morris hit town. With merch stand lines as deep and rowdy as any Hank Williams Jr. show (albeit for flower halos instead of Confederate-flag-emblazoned T-shirts), and a demo that now considers the singer's appearance onstage an unofficial holiday to build a work schedule around, Morris may indeed be an artist who helps lead country music into a new type of "outlaw" movement: If a performer draws these kinds of numbers, who has time to worry about radio?