The turn off to Ronnie Dunn's CMA after-party could be easy to miss. His house is only a few miles outside of downtown in an affluent suburb home to some of Nashville’s biggest names, but it only takes a few miles for the bright lights of Music City to fade like a memory. Driving on a dark fall night, I squinted at my GPS, sure I'd miss it, when suddenly a hot air balloon was illuminated in the front yard, and I knew I’d found the CMAs after-party everyone was going to. I did not know that the night would end with impromptu Reese Witherspoon and Reba McEntire seranades, and Gigi Hadid playing drums behind the open mic.
The hot air balloon is emblazoned with a Brooks & Dunn logo, Ronnie's long-time musical duo with Kix Brooks. The two have taken the balloon on tour with them, and it has made other appearances at parties on his property throughout the years. Wednesday night, after the CMAs had ended, it sat in his front yard to welcome guests.
While this might be the first time Ronnie has held a CMA after-party, he is no stranger to hosting: The event itself took place in his “party barn” (near another barn actually housing horses). My car kicked up gravel driving past Ronnie’s house to reach it, and, as if by landscaping sleight of hand, suddenly the nearest neighbor and the honky-tonks of Broadway felt hundreds of miles away.
The first thing to catch partygoers was a giant bonfire, sparking and snapping in the uncharacteristically intense early November chill (Reese Witherspoon remarked that it was freezing when she arrived with a friend). But no one had to worry too much about the rapidly dropping temperatures: once they alighted from their Ubers or valet-parked cars and hurried in, things warmed up pretty fast. Elegantly draped white curtains enclosing the barn entrance, Edison-style string lights, and strategically placed heat lamps kept things cozy.
The transformation from barn to must-hit after-party was the work of Hugh Howser, an event planner for many of Nashville’s biggest to-dos. He had created a sort of adjoining tent for the barn with two bars pouring wine from Kix’s nearby Arrington Vineyards, as well as whiskey and beer. Small bites were passed an served from a buffet, where the mini grilled cheese was a comforting hit.
Guests arrived slowly as the CMAs ended. One of the first to get there was comedian Jim Gaffigan who had presented at the awards. “Yes, I was invited,” he offered as a self-deprecating joke. Soon afterward Witherspoon rolled in wearing a sleek pantsuit that perfectly complemented the little black dress she had worn to the ceremony.
But even the most elevated party in a barn is still going to have a casual air to it. Nashville has grown and changed a lot in the past few years, but it’s still Nashville: Equal amounts of glitter and denim were on display, not to mention plenty of cowboy hats and boots. Reba McEntire, one of the show’s hosts, arrived wearing the same denim ensemble she wore before her glam squad got her ready for the show: A denim jacket and jeans with a matching leather backpack and boots. Having made headlines for walking the red carpet alone following her break-up, she came to the party with a group of female friends and family. Indeed, the whole evening had the feeling of a family get-together. Nashville can feel like a small big city, and country music is a tight-knit industry. There were enthusiastic hugs and greetings all around as guests like Martina McBride, Charles Kelley from Lady Antebellum, and actor Charles Esten arrived. Things seemed like they might start winding down after that, but the night still held surprises as late-comers Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Gigi Hadid would burn the post-midnight oil.
Guests started out in the first-floor tent area, where the crowd helped things really warm up: women who had still been clinging to their chic winter coats finally decided to brave coat check and go bare-armed. Kimberly Schlapman, who attended with the other members of Little Big Town, wore a particularly enviable fluffy white sweater that caught the eye of Holly Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and owner of Whites Mercantile, an upscale general store in town. Insisting she needed to know where Kimberly got it so she could get one, her husband, Chris Coleman, teased that she would have to “adopt it.”
As people snacked on passed apps, or warming cups of soup (tomato or chicken tortilla) from the soup bar, the party's soundtrack was mostly classic country. Eagle-eared listeners could catch Ronnie’s cover of “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” from his forthcoming album of covers, Re-Dunn, out January 10. Eventually, people began to stream upstairs, where music was live. As staff passed chocolate chip cookies for dessert, some of Nashville’s finest gathered around for a sing-along that would go on till the wee hours of the morning. After all, much of Ronnie’s extensive music collection was already there, ready to be played. As a crowd gathered around the group of musicians (with Ronnie on guitar), it didn’t take long for people to start chanting Reba’s name. After making her way to the musicians, she grabbed a microphone, and even this industry crowd couldn’t resist taking videos as she crooned “Silver Moon.”
As Reba sang a second duet with Ronnie, Reese Witherspoon watched from the sideline mouthing the words but eventually got pulled into a sing-along of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac with Karen Fairchild, Kelsea Ballerini, Morgan Evans, and others.
Kelsea had dropped in a little after midnight in the same jumpsuit she had worn for her performance earlier that night. With some encouragement from friends, she kicked off her heels and would later join in the singing. Miranda Lambert and her new husband, Brendan Mcloughlin, were also latecomers and lingered downstairs chatting with a few friends before eventually joining the crowd upstairs.
Proving that, even at the most laid-back parties, country music knows how to party, the event would go on into the wee hours of the night. Kacey Musgraves and Gigi Hadid rounded out the party, arriving well after 2:30 a.m. Kacey harmonized with Ronnie to one of his all-time hits, "Neon Moon" (she's featured on this track on the Brooks & Dunn reboot album from earlier this year). Even Gigi Hadid got in on the music, playing bongos while Emily West sang “Crying” by Roy Orbison.
Despite feeling more like a family reunion than a high-profile after party, guests were still singing and chatting well past 4 a.m. And while the setting was gorgeous, drinks were plentiful, and food delicious, it clearly wasn’t those trappings that kept people lingering into the wee hours. It was, not surprisingly, the music that stole the show.