Hill, Yoakam Return to CMA Festival After Absence

There's a good reason why Dwight Yoakam hasn't performed at the Country Music Association's annual festival in 20 years.

No one's asked him, not in recent memory anyway.

That changed when Tammy Genovese, the CMA's chief executive officer, met up with the singer while he was in town last fall.

Click here for photos from the festival.

Click here for photos of Faith Hill.

"We talked about business and life and I said 'I'd love to have you back for the festival,"' Genovese recalled.

Sunday night, Yoakam will close the four-day event with a performance in the city's NFL stadium. The festival gives fans a chance to see big shows and mingle with stars and is Nashville's biggest country music event, with attendance topping 190,000 last year.

He's not the only one returning after a long absence. Faith Hill's performance Friday will be her first in 10 years.

Hill blames her hectic schedule. "For the past 10 years I have just been out of town touring and committed to other areas of my career that have taken me out of Nashville," she said.

But at times, both Hill and Yoakam have been regarded by some as Nashville outsiders — Yoakam as a Southern California artist who went Hollywood and Hill as a crossover star who veered too far into pop.

Genovese doesn't think that has anything to do with them being away all these years, but she does acknowledge that their return makes a statement to the Nashville industry.

"To our community it says a lot. To the music community it says a lot. They're spending their time and energy and their own dollars to be part of this," she said.

No festival, no matter how big or important, can book every headlining act every year, but over a five-year stretch, most country artists have played the CMA's bash at least once. Formerly known as "Fan Fair," the whole focus since it started in 1972 has been the personal connection between fan and artist, a bond the CMA says is specific to country music.

"The only person we really haven't been able to wrangle in is George Strait, but we're working on it," Genovese said. "Last year Reba (McEntire) was back after many, many years out. It's fun to have these guys back."

Most of the time if there's a hang-up, it's with scheduling. Artists tour in the summer and work on films and other projects. It's a busy time.

But it's also true that the CMA doesn't pay them for their participation. The organization donates half the net proceeds from the event to charity on behalf of the artists.

In February, Kix Brooks, half of the hit duo Brooks & Dunn and a member of the CMA board, caused a stir when he suggested that the city and the CMA need to find a way to pay top-level artists or they may go away.

For Yoakam, 51, a combination of things kept him away, not the least of which was the lack of an invitation.

"I was really thrilled when they asked," he said. "In the final portion of the equation, that's a large part of my being involved."

Except for Merle Haggard, no active country singer is so closely identified with the West Coast. Yoakam broke out of the Los Angeles rock clubs playing revved up Bakersfield, Calif., honky-tonk. He's lived in L.A. since the '70s where he's done most all of his recording and enjoyed a successful acting career.

"Throughout my entire career I'd be in Nashville sometimes once a year. Twice a year maybe was frequent," said Yoakam, who spoke from the set of the film "Crank 2: High Voltage," in which he'll appear next year.

There's also the expense of moving a band and crew across country. "That's the bane of living on the West Coast," Yoakam said.

Besides his CMA concert, he'll also perform on the Grand Ole Opry Saturday — his first appearance on the historic program since the early '90s.

With both shows, Yoakam said he wants to reach fans he doesn't get to play for as much as he'd like, and also thank an industry that's helped him sell millions of albums. While his hit records were all recorded in Los Angeles, they were promoted from Warner Brothers' offices in Nashville.

"I think that's really an overlooked aspect of my career — how willing they were to work with an artist who broke on the West Coast. They worked with me throughout all those year and over the great distance of geography between L.A. and Nashville that enabled those records to get to the public," said Yoakam, who now records for New West Records, an independent label based in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

Likewise, Hill, 40, said it's all about the fans.

"I feel blessed to have had the success that I've had, and I want to give the fans their favorites first," she said of her CMA show. "We will get out there and rock hard with lots of energy. An evident love for music and respect for the fans will permeate from the stage of the stadium."