While CMA Fest in Nashville will always be a draw, Myrtle Beach residents openly note that their own country music showcase has already become the beginning of tourism season for the area.
During a week that saw the largest country music festival in the world draw tourists from all over the planet to Music City, Carolina Country Music Festival in Myrtle Beach made their claim as the Cinderella music festival of the season, pulling in an audience eager to take in major musical talents while the kids build sandcastles two blocks away.
During its fourth year in existence, CCMF has made clear that their focus on being the family-friendly music festival destination isn’t going to change anytime soon. While official numbers weren’t ready at press time an early estimate showed that the 2018 totals were trending to eclipse last year’s numbers, which saw an audience that combined for attendance of 112,000 over the four days of the event, with nearly 30,000 showing up each day. That’s helped solidify support from the city that the investment they made in the beginning is paying off.
As a local Uber driver pointed out, “You’ve got the beach, you’ve got the boardwalk, the [Family Kingdom] Amusement Park, the [Ripley’s] Aquarium. I’ve been to Nashville, and it’s fun, but unless your kid really loves hanging out all night in bars there’s not a lot for families to do together once the sun goes down.”
The Thursday opening, capped off by a performance from Cole Swindell, presented its own challenges for the festival’s promoters however, when someone was shot inside a public restroom roughly a block away from the event. Two suspects were quickly arrested for the murder, and the incident had no relation to the festival other than proximity, but the 2017 Vegas shootings still hang heavy over music festivals this year. The city moved quickly to set minds at ease, with SWAT team members stationed near the entrance gates for the duration of CCMF, and police helicopters making their presence known over the long weekend.
As word of the shooting swept the eighteen-acre space on Friday afternoon, attendees didn’t seem too concerned. Whether it was because many attendees had just gotten into town that morning or if everyone coming into town realized there is an element of danger to any event being held just feet away from stores that stock Confederate flag beachwear and swords in equal numbers, the day drinking was beginning to have its desired effect under the South Carolina sun as the second day of concerts carried with it a more audible buzz of excitement. While bus issues kept Dylan Scott from starting his late afternoon set being held on the American Anthem Vodka side stage on time, the performers gracing the main stage held the audience’s attention until well after the moon reflected off the Atlantic. From the opening strains of country rapper Colt Ford’s “Chicken & Biscuits” to the red Solo cups that saluted Toby Keith upon his exit from the stage near midnight, the night took on the vibe of the highest-budgeted frat party ever.
One element that also helped bring out that frat feeling was in the booking of the festival itself. Like so many fests this season, the female talent on the schedule was lacking. One of the few women to grace the stage on Saturday was Natalie Starkweather, who married longtime fiance Brian Galletto at the fest in a wedding that took place in front of a crowd that shared the pair’s stated loves — the beach and country music. The ceremony was capped by a surprise appearance by Brett Young congratulating the couple, and celebratory shots of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey.
One Saturday night performer who brought some much-needed energy to the stage was Chris Lane, who was marking his third CCMF appearance in a row, but this would be the first since the success of “Take Back Home Girl” on the singles charts. The Kernersville, North Carolina native reflected on what Myrtle Beach has meant to him, both personally and professionally, over the years.
He tells Billboard, “Memories of the Pavilion where CCMF takes place will always be in my heart. Cruising up and down the strip in my purple Jeep Grand Cherokee with the windows rolled down, blasting Kenny Chesney and trying to pick up girls is one I won’t forget. And, I had some crazy putt putt battles with friends at Broadway At The Beach.”
Asked about the success of CCMF, despite the direct competition for country music listeners the same weekend, Lane states, “There was no doubt that CCMF would be a popular festival. Any time you mix good country music with sunshine, the beach and 20,000 country fans — it’s going to make for a special night. This festival will continue to grow every year…they have good people running it and take care of the artists. It’s top notch.”
Sunday brought exhaustion and intense heat. “Sale on melted ice, here,” yelled one of the workers at the Shriner’s tent, selling beef jerky and potato chips when not busy fanning himself. The humidity had finally arrived in full force on the final day, and was being felt both in the sand that made up much of the walking paths, as well as on the stage. Whether it was the heat, or the end of a marathon weekend that had country artists racing between the beach and Nashville with multiple showcases to be performed in each one, on Sunday afternoon there were noticeably more plastic cups of sweet tea being sipped from than aluminum cans of domestic beers being chugged.
When Billboard asked Sony/ATV artist Kasey Tyndall about the grueling schedule many performers were facing that weekend, she let out a small laugh and said, “It’s been crazy. We’ve done five shows in two days, so far. We drove here throughout the night, and as soon as we’re done here, we turn right back around and head on to our next stop. I may even get a half-day off [once we get there], so I’m pretty excited.”
This kind of itinerary may have had its worst effect on Kane Brown (“What Ifs”) when, during a much-anticipated performance, Brown left the stage at about the halfway point of what was scheduled to be an hour-long set. Seen chugging water and speaking to workers backstage, he performed two more songs before leaving for good fifteen minutes early, admitting to the crowd that the heat had gotten the better of him. Any fan unrest was quickly dissipated, however, as a combination of being under the sun for the better part of four days and the festival finale performances of recent ACM Vocal Group of the Year winners Old Dominion and beach favorites Zac Brown Band sent everyone home happy.
Organizers of CCMF had already begun publicly stating on Saturday that, with this year’s preliminary numbers beginning to trickle in, they were beginning to work on the 2019 edition. If so, they are one of the few festivals where the lineup is truly one of the only areas they have to really work on. With happy vendors, and a centrally-located performance area ready each year with help from a supportive city staff, there is no reason why CCMF can’t continue to grow.