Music City Hit-Makers Pair Songwriters and Symphony at Nashville’s CMA Music Festival

brett james chris destefano music city hitmakers
Songwriters Brett James (left) and Chris DeStefano perform their hits backed by members of the Nashville Studio Symphony at CMA Fest

Nashville’s CMA Music Festival, which hosts over 80,000 country lovers each day, is a four-day celebration of country music. Some sets are explosively rock, while others dabble in pop phrasings or hip-hop-borrowed beats. What you might not expect to find is a symphony orchestra, but as the Music City Hit-Makers offering proved on Friday, it’s the perfect companion to a well-crafted country song.

Created by classically trained Charles Dixon, Music City Hit-Makers combines some of country’s best songs with a symphonic arrangement. “It’s a new level of power,” says hit songwriter Brett James, who performed hits including Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On,” Kenny Chesney’s “Out Last Night,” and Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water.” “It’s crazy,” he continues of the symphonic pairing. “There’s nothing more powerful musically in my opinion than that.” 

Joining James onstage to perform his songs was Chris DeStefano, also a writer on Underwood’s “Something In The Water,” as well as songs like Brett Eldredge’s “Don’t Ya” and Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl” – between the two talents, there are over 40 hits to choose from. Dan + Shay also joined the writers to perform two of their (DeStefano penned) songs, “Nothin’ Like You” and current single “From The Ground Up.”

For “From The Ground Up,” the set was almost a sonic homecoming. On Friday’s stage were Jessica Blackwell (violin), Emily Nelson (cello), Betsy Lamb (viola) and Dixon, who played the record, and Charles Judge, who did the arrangement on the record. Judge is himself a creative force; if a record out of Nashville has any string or symphonic elements, chances are he arranged it. In many ways, Judge is the backbone of the Music City Hit-Makers offering, creating all the arrangements from scratch – ideally from a raw vocal and guitar – even if he arranged for the record. “It kind of gives me a blank canvas, and then I can just sort of play around with it and it’s much easier to imagine different things without working to a fully produced band kind of sound,” Judge says.

“It’s similar in some ways,” he says of arranging for a record as opposed to the MCHM songs, “but on the record typically whatever orchestra elements – and it’s almost always just strings – kind of are tucked in and they’re supportive but they’re not featured very much. In this kind of setting it’s more featured and a lot of times if we do a full orchestra then there’s a lot of different instruments that I don’t typically get to use on a record: the brass, the timpani, the percussion stuff.” 

Even songs that might not seem like dead ringers for the symphonic treatment can work well. “Uptempo songs in this format – to me, that’s the icing on the cake, cause people don’t think a symphony can be rock and roll,” Dixon says.

“That’s what’s so cool about it is you can change the feel, just a little bit, and it works, that symphony just takes it to a different place,” says DeStefano.

“That wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the songs weren’t great,” Judge adds. “These guys are amazing writers and that makes my job so much easier and more fun and rewarding.” Pair that with the incredible vocal ability of both writers and it’s a performance that’s so good it borders on the absurd. For those that missed Friday’s CMA Fest set, learn more and catch the incredible event live near you.