NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Chris Young's been waiting 15 years for his shot at the big stage during the CMA Music Festival.
He first came to the festival as a skinny young kid after winning a pair of tickets in a singing contest. He got his career kick-started in the exhibition hall where he sold independent albums as a teenager, and he's spent the last four years performing in sight of LP Field on a smaller stage.
So when Robert Deaton, executive producer of the CMA Fest television special, told Young he'd made the cut this year, it was one of the more emotional moments of the 25-year-old singer's rising career.
"I honestly thought he was going to cry at first," Young's mother, Becky Harris, said. "He was so excited. His face got red and he said, `I'm going to finally get to play LP Field. This is the coolest thing ever.'"
Young earned his spot Saturday night through hard work and perseverance. With a deep baritone, a traditionalist's taste in material and boyish good looks, he's been steadily rising through the ranks. He's had three consecutive No. 1 singles. A fourth, "Tomorrow" from his upcoming album "Neon," out July 12, has reached the top 10 with the help of a steamy video. And he'll be the middle act on Jason Aldean's wildly popular tour later this summer.
All of that is great. But right now Young is focused on CMA Fest, which runs Thursday through Sunday in downtown Nashville.
"That's been a big deal and the fact that it's happening on the 40th birthday of CMA Music Fest makes it even more special," Young said. "This is probably the 15th year I've been at it, whether it's as a fan (or an artist). I've been going there for a long time. It's a really big deal for me."
The festival draws 50,000 to 60,000 fans each night to LP Field, the home of the Tennessee Titans. Country's biggest stars play there and the concerts are filmed for an ABC special that airs later in the summer. Before all the glitz and multimillion-dollar glamor, the festival was known as Fan Fair and the big concerts were held at the much more intimate fairgrounds grandstand.
That's where Young, then 9 or 10, first fell in love with the festival and got his first look at the mysterious world behind the songs that spilled out of his radio.
Country music stars tend to be open to the average fan and the festival has always been one of the places where artists of all levels of popularity are most accessible.
Young Chris' head was on a swivel as he waited in line for autographs from stars like Vince Gill, who he idolized, haunted the freebie tables with his sister, Dot, looking for buried treasure like a CD single of John Anderson's "Seminole Wind," and soaked up the performances of just about everyone.
"You'd get a bag of free stuff, just random stuff," Young said. "Fans, signed photos, CDs from people we'd never heard of before. We would always come back to the house with a bag of stuff, dump it and go get another bag of stuff."
Around the age of 12 or 13 Young joined a friend's band on stage at a bar-restaurant in his hometown of Murfreesboro, about 25 miles south of Nashville. He sang two songs in his professional debut.
"They gave me a free coke, something like that," Young said. "I thought that was it. It built from there. Once I started playing guitar and writing songs, it was everything I could do."
When he next returned to the festival it was with an eye toward figuring out how he could attend as a featured artist rather than a guest.
He enlisted Harris, who so believed in her son's dream that she began to take music business courses at Middle Tennessee State and eventually started a new career as a business manager. By 17 he had recorded his first independent album and wanted to join the stars in the festival's exhibition hall, hawking CDs and T-shirts.
They paid $125 for a booth and Young sold $250 in records.
"It was like, `This is awesome! I want to do this every year!'" Harris said of Young's reaction. And they did: "The next year we built light boxes and put these pictures in them and everybody started coming up and standing in line because they thought he really was somebody. The booth looked fabulous."
Each year they returned to build, stock and staff the booth with Young working right alongside his family (this is the first year he's too busy to help out). A second independent record came when he was 19. He quit college shortly after he started and took a job as a singer in a bar band in Texas and eventually caught an important break. A fan suggested he try out for a new show called "Nashville Star." He auditioned for it and eventually won the reality contest show in 2006.
That got him his deal with RCA and he's tirelessly built an audience since, releasing two albums and touring relentlessly.
Looking at photos of his teen years spent in that booth, signing autographs, taking pictures with fans, Young said he's finally reached the goal that kid in the ill-advised shirt was so starry-eyed about.
"I'm not sure the kid in that picture had any idea what he was doing when you look back," he said. "But that's six years of experience. He wanted it really bad, and I still want it really bad every day I wake up."