When Buzz Brainard went to work on Friday, June 30, the shift included a famous guest, Charles Esten, with a margarita in his hand, and a Canadian male, Jake, wiggling his tighter-than-Luke Bryan blue jeans at the crowd, encouraging women to grab his fanny.
And yes, some of them did.
Brainard is the MC for SiriusXM’s Music Row Happy Hour, a Friday afternoon-drive shift that helps workers throw on their party hats at the start of the weekend. Country stations were prone for years to signal the end of the work week by playing George Jones’ “Finally Friday” or Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” The Happy Hour stretches the revelry across four hours, beginning at 3 p.m. CT with Brainard doing his best to turn a loud, rambunctious audience at Margaritaville on Nashville’s Lower Broadway into the chatty stars of the show.
“Half those people bring a shot up with them while they’re on the air,” says Brainard. “They’ve got their drinks in their hand already, so it’s pretty easy.”
It’s not a typical radio environment. Instead of a cramped, enclosed studio with foam walls, the workplace is a massive second-story restaurant with two-foot pelican statues, tiki bars, large palm trees and a blue ceiling painted with clouds. Brainard and his team set up at one end of the room, and several hundred patrons cheer, yell and press the stage for a chance to get on the radio. Not that there’s much danger in it — security is on duty, but the guards, according to one staff member, have the easiest job in the place.
Their biggest concern this particular day isn’t protecting the talent. It’s coordinating the access routes when surprise guest Esten, of CMT’s Nashville, offers to take selfies with crowd members. And it’s helping a guest to her feet after she trips in her stacked heels on the step up to the podium.
The parade of average Joe guests is intriguing. They arrived from such diverse locations as New Jersey and New Mexico — bachelor and bachelorette parties, newly engaged couples, convention-goers in town on business and one expectant husband and wife who let Brainard divulge the gender of their baby on the air. Getting them to open up requires a different set of skills than interviewing a celebrity.
“When I talk to an artist, I’m crazy for being prepped, and I want to know exactly what I’m gonna say,” notes Brainard. “With our subscribers, we get a little bit of information from them on a card, and if I see something that looks interesting, maybe I’ll go there. The most important thing is to just listen. It’s a conversation; it’s not an interview. If you listen to these people, they’re telling you about their weekend, and inevitably, there’s something there that’s awesome.”
Margaritaville is the ideal location for the Happy Hour -- not only is it just a block from SiriusXM’s Nashville home at the Bridgestone Arena, it’s also in the heart of the city’s downtown party district. When artists play Bridgestone or the Ryman Auditorium, just half a block away, it’s convenient for last-minute visits from the likes of Brett Eldredge, Maren Morris or Blake Shelton, who trotted on over after Brainard tweeted him.
"Blake didn’t even tell me he’d be here,” says Brainard. “Next thing I know, he comes walking in with a bottle of vodka."
The Happy Hour didn’t start at Margaritaville. Brainard inherited a countdown with a live studio audience more than a year ago when he swapped dayparts with Storme Warren, who now does mornings on The Highway. Warren started taping the countdown, and that left Brainard with an audience and no structure. It soon became a party where the guests signed up in advance for 30-minute windows.
The move to Margaritaville met some resistance at SiriusXM, but once the company agreed, it brought a wealth of positives: The audience could stay longer, it created a natural cross-promotion with Jimmy Buffett’s Radio Margaritaville channel, the access to alcohol helped loosen up the crowd, and the Happy Hour now has a natural home when it visits such remote locations as Canada or Las Vegas. “When we say we’re doing Margaritaville in Vegas, people know where to show up,” says Brainard.
Musically, the Happy Hour is mostly a spirited property. Luke Combs’ “Hurricane,” Runaway June’s “Wild West” and Thomas Rhett’s “T-Shirt” all received spins during the June 30 installment, though the shift also included Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man,” an emotional ballad that’s the antithesis of a party song.
“If we’re to the point where we’ve got to drop some music, we might drop the slower songs, but the Highway’s pretty tight,” says Brainard. “We spend a lot of time and effort figuring out what our identity is musically, so I think we pretty much just stick to that and just let the party atmosphere take care of itself.”
The good times come across on the air, though the scope of the celebration isn’t quite as obvious. The listeners can’t see the line outside the building before the venue opens to Happy Hour visitors at 2 p.m. They don’t see the mass of patrons at the bar, or the preening and posing of tourists looking to score on their vacation, and they don’t get to witness Brainard wading into the crowd to take photos.
“Some of them drive for days,” he says. “We can’t get everybody on, and I just can’t imagine disappointing people. If you show up there, I owe it to you [to reach out]. I don’t want to force myself on anybody for a selfie, but I at least want to shake your hand and meet you, get your name and say hi.”
And keep the party going, even for the patrons who may not be able to remember it the next day.
“That’s why we take selfies,” says Brainard. “So that we can document it.”