Why Was Lenny Kravitz at CMA Fest?

Photo by John Russell/CMA

It’s been three days since Lenny Kravitz’s surprise performance at CMA Music Festival and we’re still scratching our heads over just what exactly the rock ‘n’ roller was doing in a prime Saturday-night slot at the four-day centerpiece of the country music calendar.

To be clear, we like Lenny’s songs. Whether they’re performed with Jason Aldean, like “Are You Gonna Go My Way” was on Saturday at Nashville’s LP Field, or simply by Lenny and his badass band, the Kravitz catalogue is a handbook for how to rock.

But that’s the point: There is nothing discernible in his brand of music that makes it a natural fit for a country music festival. And the bewildered response of the crowd on Saturday night proved just that, especially during Lenny’s laborious set-ending rendition of 1989’s “Let Love Rule.”

In the end, it felt like a transparent attempt by our genre to gain a credibility it feels it is lacking. But why? Does country have a cool complex?

We have nothing against such genre-bending collaborations, but at some point, you can’t help but catch a whiff of the yearning to be accepted by the “cool” kids. It’s as if country doesn’t believe it can stand on its own. When in fact, the opposite is true: It’s at its best when it stops worrying about impressing everyone. And Dierks Bentley’s performance immediately after Lenny’s was proof of that. His was a set of true country brilliance.

Country has a roster of artists, both contemporary and heritage, that is second to none. It needs no shoring up. It needs no gimmicks. And the fans who spent their money on CMA Music Festival tickets didn’t need the inclusion of Lenny Kravitz. They didn’t pay to see him; they paid to see country artists.

Surely, the full-set slot occupied by Lenny could have been better used. With so many up-and-coming acts making names for themselves on country radio, it’s hard to believe the organizers couldn’t have enlisted four of them to each play their latest single. Or better still, give more time to the country veterans. Stage a mini Grand Ole Opry performance and let Connie Smith, Jim Ed Brown and Charley Pride prove why they’re country royalty. As Joe Bonsall remarked from the LP stage on Saturday night during a thrilling performance by The Oak Ridge Boys, “[Thanks for] letting the old guys come out here and sing with some of the hot stars of the day.”

But Joe didn’t need to express his gratitude—instead, we should be thanking him. For he and the Oaks, along with many of today’s stars, continue to unashamedly carry the torch for country music. We’re happy to share some of its light and warmth with Lenny Kravitz and with whatever other pop, rock or rap artist who wants to come to the party, but, please, country music, don’t feel as if you need a rock star in order to be cool. You already are. And so are your fans.

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