Country music prides itself on being one big family, and last weekend’s CMA Fest certainly solidified that descriptor. Undeterred by high temperatures and having to share Broadway with an influx of hockey fans, 80,000 plus filled downtown Nashville to see their favorite artists perform at multiple stages throughout the four (official) days of the Country Music Association’s annual festival.
Even those of us who happen to call Nashville home can’t deny that CMA Fest is something special, and brings about an excitement that we don’t witness every day as we attend writers rounds, release parties, and artist showcases. While there were many special moments throughout the festival, including a surprise Nissan Stadium appearance by Garth Brooks on the first night, we picked a handful of our favorites below.
ASCEND AMPHITHEATER’S NIGHTLY SHOWS
Ascend is Nashville’s outdoor amphitheater, situated on the bank of the Cumberland River with the pedestrian bridge’s carnival ride-like lighting as its backdrop. Night one of three incredible shows at the venue brought out country music icons the Oak Ridge Boys, Deana Carter, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Big & Rich, while night two was focused solely on the women of country music.
The lineup included a mix of need-to-know up-and-comers: Danielle Bradbery (pictured above), who had the crowd swaying along with her just-released single, “Sway,” and Three Girls Rock Into A Bar, comprised of Kelleigh Bannen, Natalie Stovall, and Ruthie Collins. Aubrie Sellers (pictured below) gave an electric performance of songs off her New City Blues album, before Kellie Pickler and, later, Sara Evans took the stage. If anyone was wondering how the ladies of country music are doing, this show proved they’re doing just fine, thank you!
The final night of shows at Ascend brought about guitar shredding and crazy vocal ranges with a lineup that included Bailey Bryan, Ryan Kinder, Cale Dodds, High Valley, RaeLynn, Hunter Hayes, and Dan + Shay. The energy was electric as Hunter Hayes closed out his set and Dan + Shay took the stage to a max-capacity crowd that had no trouble singing all of their lyrics back to them.
NISSAN STADIUM’S NIGHTLY SHOWS
Besides Ascend Amphitheater’s nightly lineup, which was free, fans who had purchased festival tickets headed to Nissan Stadium for four nights of shows from some of country’s hottest acts. Thursday night’s lineup included Dierks Bentley’s high-energy set, which engaged each and every fan in attendance. Next, Miranda Lambert took the stage and performed her sassy new single “Pink Sunglasses” – and no one will ever forget the Garth Brooks surprise appearance which set the crowd buzzing with excitement.
Friday night’s highlights included a set from Blake Shelton that had fans engaged and included an appearance by Trace Adkins for a rowdy performance of “Hillbilly Bone”. Undeniably, the main event of the night was a set from Eric Church, which included “Jack Daniels,” “Smoke A Little Smoke,” “Chattanooga Lucy,” and a stadium-wide sing-along of “Give Me Back My Hometown.”
Saturday brought another packed lineup of A-Listers, including a crowd-commanding set from Maren Morris and a short (but fantastic) compilation of Old Dominion’s hits. Lady Antebellum proved they’re back – and perhaps better than ever – with performances of old favorites such as “Need You Now” and a few songs off their album Heart Break, which was released the day before.
Night four concluded with Brothers Osborne (pictured above) who came out swinging and captured the audience from the first note of their first song and had everyone clapping along to current single, “Ain’t My Fault.” Little Big Town crushed it with their hit “Girl Crush,” while Karen Fairchild donned the now-Instagram famous “Girl Crush” ball cap (below).
FAN CLUB PARTIES
One of the most special aspects of CMA Fest is the artist-fan relationship: artists plan special parties for their fans to meet and hang out with them as a thank you for supporting their music. Most attendees are selected via a drawing, or have purchased a select amount of tickets on a first come, first serve basis. Fans lucky enough to be part of these events often regard them as one of the best experiences of the weekend, and it’s easy to see why. Those in attendance at Charlie Worsham’s annual “Donuts and Jam” were treated to what felt like a very casual, comfortable hangout with the artist, and he even brought out his dog, Peggy Sue (who fans might love even more than they love Worsham himself).
GILDAN BROADWAY STAGE at HARD ROCK CAFE
Every stage had an incredible line up of artists, each playing half hour sets throughout all four days of the festival, but the Gildan-sponsored stage at the Hard Rock Cafe had a lineup that shined just a little brighter for us. With artists like Jillian Jacqueline (pictured above), Hailey Whitters, Chris Bandi – who happens to be featured on our next episode of The Hang – and our Class of 2017 members Dylan Schneider and Jo Smith, it seemed that this was the stage that built their lineup via scrolling our site and picking our favorites.
Sunday was by far the hottest day of the entire festival, but that didn’t stop Jillian Jacqueline from looking cool on stage as she effortlessly won over the audience from the second she stepped on stage rocking a Kenny Rogers t-shirt (she’s opened shows for him in the past). She performed her latest singles “Reasons” and “Hate Me” before launching into soon-to-be-released “Bleachers”.
Hailey Whitters (below) was another Sunday standout, with her humorous new song, “Legal,” about her grandfather’s turf farm whose slogan just so happens to be “Our grass is legal.” The real-life details make for an even better chorus to a song that paints a nostalgia-inducing picture of small town Midwest life. The Iowa native closed out her set with Little Big Town’s single, “Happy People,” which she wrote with the always-amazing Lori McKenna.
CHEVROLET RIVERFRONT STAGE
The Chevrolet Riverfront Stage is special not only for its incredible lineup, but almost for its atmosphere. The stage is located on the banks of the Cumberland River with crowds lining the hillside and boats, inner tubes, blow up swans and unicorns lining the waterfront. You can easily spend an entire afternoon sitting in the grass, debating if you should buy your own blow up unicorn for the future days of the festival and lazily float along as soulful acts such as A Thousand Horses (pictured above), Drake White, and Brett Young serenade you from the stage. Catching a show at the Riverfront Stage is an experience not to be missed!
No matter which stage you spent most of your time hanging at, one thing is for certain – CMA Fest is unlike any other festival. Kellie Pickler said it best at her Ascend Amphitheater show on Friday night: she got into country music because no matter if you need a happy song or a sad song, country music is all about the stories, and that’s what makes it special. It was the perfect sentiment to encapsulate why 80,000-plus fans head to Nashville for this festival every year – these songs and these artists are a part of their stories.