Cam Finds the Joys of Performing Amid the Ghosts in an Empty Ryman Auditorium: 'It's Creepy!'
No applause, no cheers, and worst of all, no eye contact. That, says Cam, is what she missed the most when she took the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Friday night — those moments when she can look out at her concert crowd, say something "spontaneous but true" and "it lights something up in them."
Nope, that definitely wasn't going to happen when she performed this time at country music's Mother Church. The pandemic took care of that.
But, the 35-year-old artist tells PEOPLE, she discovered there still were joys to be had performing a livestream concert at the Ryman even when its famous pews were empty.
Like the room's acoustics. "It was built before microphones so a preacher could stand there and deliver a sermon and it was gonna reach everybody," she says. "So, yeah, that part was fun — to have it empty for the sound. It's creepy. It feels like you've snuck in somewhere, like you're maybe not supposed to be there."
And mingling with the Ghosts of Country Past — Hank, Patsy, Johnny and June — whose voices still echo on the Ryman's walls. "They all walked around and drank and snuck out the back and did God knows what in the dressing rooms, laughing and being crass and having a good time and spilling drinks," Cam says. "It's just a big history book that you can feel."
And perhaps most of all, savoring the blessed opportunity to perform. "There were definitely moments," she said of the evening's 90-minute set, "where I would get lost in the music and almost forget that there was no one there."
Well, that is, up until the song's final note. "You'd end, and there would be no applause," she says, gamely chuckling at the memory.
Thankfully, she was surprised with a live reaction once the cameras turned off: The show's crew of about 50, scattered around the auditorium, finally rewarded her with a hearty round of applause. "And I was like, where were you guys all along?" Cam says, chuckling again. "It was this big relief at the very end. I was like, thanks, guys!"
She says she was initially nervous to even say yes to the show, but she jumped in once she learned of all safety protocols in place. Besides that, she says, "I really love the Ryman, like, deeply love the Ryman."
Not just for its history, but for her history in it. Cam first stood on the Ryman stage eight years ago as a Nashville tourist. She'd just quit her job as a psychology researcher in California, and she was visiting the city with plans to move there to pursue a music career.
The Ryman tour has a moment "where you can take a picture in front of the microphone," she recalls. "I was like, this is where I want to end up."
After scoring her first hit, "Burning House" in 2015, it didn't take her long to rack up memorable Ryman appearances: a duet of "Girl Crush" with Alicia Keys at an ACM Honors awards show in 2016, an opening slot at a Harry Styles concert in 2017, and her own headlining debut, in 2018, when she brought out Eric Church as a surprise guest.
"I did this whole ramp-up like an old-school preacher," she recalls about her Church intro. "I was like, 'I think we need someone to come save us, a country music Jesus!' And he walks out — because we're singing 'Country Music Jesus' — and people lost their f—ing minds. It was insane."
Friday night's show, of course, offered no opportunity for such moments, so planning the concert proved to be a creative challenge. For the stage set, she actually borrowed an idea from the first half of her headlining show, bringing in a living-room arrangement and performing most of the 18-song set seated on its couch.
"You felt like you were at the Ryman," she says, "but you also felt like you were kinda at home" — just like her viewers watching from their own sofas.
She also chose to go acoustic with just two guitarists and a stand-up bass player. "I didn't want to put on a show as if everything was normal," she says.
There were several nods to the Ryman's singular stature. She opened on the stage's lip, performing the gospel classic "In the Garden" a cappella, showcasing the room's acoustics and paying homage to the Ryman's beginnings as an actual church.
She also summoned two of the Ryman's "ghosts" to help her perform their hits, covering Skeeter Davis' "The End of the World" and Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams" (at "my daughter's bedtime," she said in the song's introduction; 8-month-old Lucy was backstage with dad Adam Weaver).
"I've always been obsessed with Patsy Cline," Cam says, recalling how she wore out Cline's greatest hits album as a little girl. Davis, also a 1960s star, is another fascination, and that song choice seemed a natural one. "'The End of the World' is a thought that's running through a lot of people's heads now," she says.
The doom and gloom, though, was quickly lifted with Cam's own cheerful "Road to Happiness." The rest of the setlist was a mix of old and new, fan and personal favorites.
Three of the songs, "Redwood Tree," "Classic" and "Till There's Nothing Left," are her most recent releases, all destined to appear on The Otherside, which is set to drop Oct. 30. It's her second album, after 2015's Untamed.
"The first one was just like, oh, I hope people like it, I hope it's good," she says. "And this one is just like, I know it's good. I know people are going to love it, and I can't wait for it to come out."
After her dip into the livestream market, she says she's also more than ready to keep trying new ways to entertain in the COVID-19 era.
"I'm kind of an introvert, so I don't mind the idea that we have to come up with new creative things to reach people in their own spaces," she says. "I miss concerts obviously, but it's fun to be a part of something new."
The only glitch on Friday night, she reports, was a minor wardrobe malfunction. The fashion tape she used to hold down the plunging neckline of her glitzy jumpsuit gave way during her second song.
"I was so feisty a boob almost popped out!" she cheerfully explained to her at-home audience as she adjusted her outfit after the song.
"I mean, it wouldn't have been the end of the world, but that would have been something, to have that happen," she says, recalling the moment. And then she notes yet another difference between live and livestream: "I probably would've made more boob jokes if I was in the presence of people, but just kept it to the one."
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