Music

‘A Love Letter to Country Music’: How Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Songblazers’ Highlights Country’s Decades-Spanning Influence

Country music has always had a flair for the theatrical, from performers decked out in bedazzled suits or attention-commanding gowns, and wielding glittering guitars, to the genre’s exquisitely detailed story songs.

So the genre’s connection to stories, live musical performances and high-flying acrobatics feels natural in the upcoming Cirque du Soleil show Songblazers: A Journey into Country Music, which opens at Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) today (July 2). Songblazers, written and directed by Amy Tinkham, runs at TPAC through July 28.

The show serves as “a love letter to country music,” UMG Nashville chair/CEO Cindy Mabe tells Billboard.

The production’s story arc centers on the journey of two characters, as they work to forge their own path to country music stardom. UMG Nashville presents the new show with Cirque du Soleil, with much of the label’s catalog of country music providing the heart and soundtrack for the production. The show features roughly 30 songs, with shorter snippets of some songs featured, while others are showcased in full.

“I am sitting on this incredible catalog and watching how the storyline unfolds through the different eras and landscapes of country music,” Mabe says.

One of those decades-spanning links arrives most notably through the work of UMG Nashville artist Sam Williams, a third-generation country music performer, who is the son of Hank Williams Jr. and grandson of country music architect Hank Williams, Sr. Williams co-wrote the original song “Carnival Heart” specifically for Songblazers, marking the only full song that was newly-written for the event.

“Carnival Heart” centers on discovering renewed confidence, strength and uniqueness within oneself, despite external and internal struggles, depicted in lyrics such as “I found the magic was hidden in me/ There beneath all the sadness, somewhere in the deep and the dark.”

“I write pretty autobiographically, and this was one thing that I felt, to make it as best as it could be, needed to really come from me,” Williams tells Billboard. “What is my story? I don’t think any of our lives are as pretty or as cookie-cutter as people may think on the outside. I wrote it at a time when I felt a ‘me against the world’ narrative that I get sometimes, but in a good way — I felt like I could do all things through a power that is bigger than me. So I thought, ‘I’m going to write this chorus and I’m going to sing the hell out of it.’”

He adds of Songblazers, “It’s a beautiful marriage of comedy, music and celebration and country music and I think it’s going to be unlike anything anyone’s ever seen before.”

The show marks Cirque’s first venture using country music. “Working with this new specific music genre challenges our creative team to innovate and come up with unique ways to interpret the music,” Cirque du Soleil CEO Stéphane Lefebvre told Billboard in an earlier interview. “It pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in live entertainment. Shows like Love and MJ One have taught us that the synergy between our extraordinary performances and the power of the music can create a powerful and captivating live experience, and we are convinced that pairing our expertise with the country music genre including artists from Universal Music Group’s vast repertoire, will be a successful collaboration.”

The storyline for the theatrical event wasn’t fully fleshed out when Mabe brought up Williams’ name in meetings.

“I said, ‘Let me tell you why Sam is so special,’” she recalls, “because I do feel like he’s going to touch a different culture and a different group of people — not unlike what his father has done and what his grandfather has done, because they all did it uniquely. I first heard Sam’s music during the pandemic, when everything on the radio was a party, and about escapism from what was happening around the world. But he was doing his own thing. He wasn’t looking for me, he wasn’t looking for a record deal. He had been through a lot of things, and his music just cuts to the soul.”

Mabe pinpoints one musical moment where the main character sings Hank Williams Sr.’s classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” followed by a musical breakdown with a recording featuring Hank Sr.’s voice, which then matches up with the show closer, “Carnival Heart.”

“At that moment at the end of the show, it almost brings me to tears when I see it — because it completely links him to his grandfather, whom he never met. But you feel his voice and it is powerful,” Mabe says.

Elsewhere, songs from across the eras of country music prominence are on display — such as Billy Ray Cyrus’s 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” as the soundtrack to a dance-filled honky-tonk scene. Later, when Shania Twain’s 1999 hit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” plays, two women acrobats take things to new heights, as they twirl, flip, and spin from a bar and ropes suspended high above the stage floor — often dangling precariously from one another as they completed their aerial, graceful acrobatic moves. The late Toby Keith’s party hit “Red Solo Cup” also gets a turn in the spotlight, as one performer juggles red cups while the rest of the cast watches and cheers. Other songs featured include The Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the Willie Nelson-written hit “Hello Walls,” which became a hit for Faron Young, and the Nelson-penned Patsy Cline hit “Crazy,” as well as other country classics including Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues,” Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys’ “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” and the George Jones/Tammy Wynette collaboration “We’re Gonna Hold On.”

“Seeing all these throughlines of who we are in country music, from the circle being unbroken to these things that have held us together as a genre, is a gift,” Mabe says.

After its opening run in Nashville, Songblazers will visit Birmingham, Ala.; St. Louis, Mo.; Columbus, Ohio; Fayetteville, Ark.; New Orleans; Tulsa, Okla.; Baltimore; Green Bay, Wisc.; Dallas, and Sugar Land, Texas.

As the show crisscrosses the U.S., Williams continues forging his unique position in country music. In 2021, Williams released his debut album Glasshouse Children. Songblazers opens as Williams has just released his latest project, Scarlet Lonesome: Act 1, the first part of a trilogy of albums set to roll out over the next several months. The new release features, in addition to several original songs, Williams pairing with fellow country artist Carter Faith for a sultry rendition of the Tammy Wynette classic “’Til I Can Make It on My Own.”

“It’s a wide range of music,” he says of the overall trilogy. “I wanted to present the music in three different pieces, so I can paint a different picture for each one. Act 1 paints a picture that is very romantic and a bit dark. Then, [in the trilogy] there’s music that is introspective and emotional but there are also really big pop records and really fun trap beats.

“Sam is going to bring an entirely different audience to country music that’s never been here before,” Mabe says, adding, “There’s been no one like him before, but he is absolutely a Williams.”

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