For the first time in years, the 2016 CMA Music Festival was defined more by artistry than mass appeal. While country's most populist stars, from Luke Bryan to Carrie Underwood, did their thing — and did it well — it was the more outside-the-lines artists that provided the four-day gathering with some of its most thrilling moments. Eric Church eschewed his biggest radio hits for the more nuanced work of his Mr. Misunderstood album during his main-stage set; Charlie Worsham reminded fans why he's one of the genre's best stewards with a raucous, and sweltering, Midnight Jamboree; and Maren Morris energized with what were arguably the freshest sounds of the entire festival. Here are the 25 best performances we saw at this year's CMA Fest.
Maren Morris was everywhere during CMA Fest: performing her own set at the Riverfront, guesting with Rascal Flatts at Nissan Stadium later that night, and just an hour or so later, popping up at Wheeler Walker Jr.'s party across town to show off her knack for blue lyrics. She was versatile, fluid and the Fest's MVP, especially during her own set on the Cumberland River. Sporting a flowing top and a floppy hat, she twirled like Stevie Nicks and jammed like Bob Marley on reggae-tinged songs like "Drunk Girls Don't Cry" and "Rich," off her debut album Hero. But it was her spirited run through "My Church," her breakthrough single, that best captured her bohemian vibe — and made the case that she's creating the freshest pop-country sound of the decade.
Chris Stapleton didn't try to cram in as many songs as possible into his 25-minute set at Nissan Stadium. Rather, he did the opposite: stretching out Traveller tracks into lengthy, blues-based jams. "Outlaw State of Mind," in particular, was a musical journey, ending with Stapleton ferociously strumming his guitar and creating some very non-country feedback. He also did something few main-stage performers make time for — introduce his band. Which he did by singing their names, finishing, rightly so, with wife and vocalist Morgane Stapleton, who is indispensable to Stapleton's sound. Fans anywhere outside of the first few rows, however, wouldn't have known it, since the CMA Fest cameras stayed static on Stapleton for his entire set. Next year, production should take a cue from Bonnaroo and blanket the Jumbotrons with varied, dynamic shots. The fans who make CMA Fest their annual pricey pilgrimage certainly deserve to see all of it.
With new album Storyteller to promote, Carrie Underwood could have leaned heavy on the record in her Friday-night closing set at Nissan Stadium. Sam Hunt was even in the building, able to re-create their single "Heartbeat." But Underwood decided to look back — and in one case, way back — for her performance, opening with the one-two punch of "Last Name" and "Undo It," before trotting out the unexpected 2007 Number One "Wasted." The three songs in succession illustrated how many hits Underwood has under her belt, a body of work to be envied. Finally, she turned to Storyteller, roaring through new single "Church Bells" and relishing her harmonica star turn in "Choctaw County Affair" — two more songs we'll be hoping she plays at CMA Fests in years to come.
By the time Chris Janson got to his year-defining Number One "Buy Me a Boat," he had the Riverfront audience eating out of his hand — and even flapping their arms like eagles. So he knew they'd follow him anywhere when halfway through his final song "Truck Yeah," which he co-wrote for Tim McGraw, he called a punk-rock audible. Wildly strumming his Fender electric, he nodded at his band, including kinetic lead guitarist Chalmers Croft, and launched into Social Distortion's revved-up version of Cash's "Ring of Fire." "Boat" may have been the singalong moment of Janson's set, but it was him revealing his punk roots that put the whole thing over the top.
For three nights at Ernest Tubb Record Shop on Broadway, Charlie Worsham hosted the coolest event of the entire festival — even if it was a sweltering sauna inside. Dubbed the Midnight Jamboree, after Tubb's own long-running radio show, the late-night showcase featured the criminally underrated Worsham playing country classics, left-field covers like Hall & Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True" and songs off his upcoming and eagerly awaited new album. He also welcomed some A-list surprise guests in the wee hours: Eric Church, Brothers Osborne, Vince Gill and Brandy Clark, among them. The demand was so great, and the temperatures inside the old storefront so high, that the final night of the Jamboree moved to a larger and air-conditioned event down the block, where artists as varied as Kid Rock and Hunter Hayes shared the stage.
Though he's quietly racked up eight Number One songs, Chris Young is frequently left out of the conversation about country's best male singers. His set at Nissan Stadium should serve as a corrective, because he showed his voice's remarkable malleability and skill for finding the emotional contours of a song, whether it was a sultry ballad like "Gettin' You Home" or a churning party track like "Aw Naw." After leveling the place with his stormy Cassadee Pope duet "Think of You," he could've rightfully issued a mic drop, but the low-key exit he chose was much more his style.
Country fans might be getting used to Lady Antebellum's absence after a year away from the spotlight, but Thursday night at Nissan Stadium, Cam helped prove they really haven't gone anywhere. She and Lady A teamed up for a surprise appearance in front of 60,000 screaming fans, adding caramel-smooth harmonies and a potent female-to-female component first to her "Burning House" breakthrough and then to the trio's epic crossover smash "Need You Now." Standing side-by-side and performing with only acoustic instruments, the chill-bump performance signaled that Lady A can get back in the game anytime they darn well please.
Sam Hunt received one of the most raucous receptions during Friday night's Nissan Stadium lineup. And the genre-blurring singer clearly fed off the energy. Instead of staying miles away from the crowd on the ginormous main stage, Hunt sprinted over to the camera platforms for a better view of his people, and even hopped down for a few high-fives. It was the mark of a showman, one who realizes that big beats can fall flat without a personal connection to back them up. For Hunt, "House Party" wasn't just the centerpiece of his four-song set — it was a realized goal.
The very last performance of CMA Music Fest was one of its most poignant. Luke Bryan sidelined his hip-shaking set to remember victims of the Orlando terrorist attack with a moment of silence, asking the audience to pray for the families of those killed and injured. He followed the massive prayer session with a stripped-down, tearjerking performance of his tune about losing loved ones, "Drink a Beer." Prayer was also on the country superstar's mind backstage, as he told reporters he asks God for the right words to explain tragedies like Orlando to his young sons and nephew. "The American spirit is about not living in fear," he said. "We need to trust what our maker has in store for us."
Blake Shelton didn't take to his drinking buddy Twitter to announce his surprise free show at the Stage on Friday, nor did he sneak in from any sort of secret artist's entrance. He simply walked in the front door of the downtown Nashville honky-tonk, speaking to several fans as he made his way to the front row to enjoy the house band's cover of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Fishin' in the Dark." He then jumped on stage, explaining he was going to perform as sort of a makeshift fan club party. His hour-long set spanned his very first hit, "Austin" to more recent "Sangria," with between-song banter ranging from the witty to the sentimental. "Whenever it's CMA Fest week, I'm always jealous of people who get to come down here and play on Broadway," he told the crowd. "[Playing Nissan Stadium] is going to be fun, and I'm proud to be doing it, but this is way better. This is how I got started, singing and playing bars. . . and drinking with my people!"
Other than the fact that country radio still hasn't figured out how to make a tasty salad, there's really no reason Ashley Monroe shouldn't be hugely famous. She's now released two albums of exquisitely crafted songs and her brief Ascend Amphitheater set demonstrated she has the versatility to keep crowds interested, veering from the gritty honky-tonk of "Two Weeks Late" to a New Orleans country-funk take on the Pistol Annies' "Bad Example" and devastating ballads like "The Blade." Through it all, she won the crowd over with her charm and tonal complexity, rather than bowling them over with phasers set to stun.
It was hard not to think of the great Gretchen Wilson (and maybe Tanya Tucker) when relatively new Big Machine signee Tara Thompson busted out an unreleased song called "W.T.F." in the scorching midday sun on Saturday. Those letters stand for "White Trash Female," which turned out to be a snarling statement on class that proudly rejected the expectations of polite middle-class society in favor of the East Tennessee-bred singer's own definition of self-worth. Though not one of the tracks from Thompson's debut EP (released June 10th), "WTF" still fit in perfectly with the biting humor of her other work like "Someone to Take Your Place" and "Side Effects" — proof that she's got plenty to say. As Gretchen might say, hell yeah.
The first song Little Big Town and Pharrell Williams wrote for the band's new Wanderlust project is a gospel-meets-disco number called "Miracle," and they used it less than 24 hours after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history took place in Orlando to ask for peace and healing. But with a full church choir and the pop/hip-hop producer by their side (playing woodblocks and rapping one verse), it wasn't a solemn moment at Nissan Stadium. Instead, LBT's Karen Fairchild called for courage in the face of hate. "We need a change," she said as a cheer of support swelled to 60,000 voices. "Love is bigger than hate. . . No one is going to tell us when to sing and how to sing and where to do it. We're not going to be afraid."
On the new Radio Disney Country Stage, Lauren Alaina seemed right at home early Thursday morning. Standing just a few feet from about 100 admirers, she connected with her audience with an intimacy that isn’t always possible in larger venues. Exuding confidence, she urged young women to embrace their uniqueness on "My Kind of People" and her upcoming single, "Road Less Traveled." The guys joined in her party too, when Alaina picked a male fan to join her on "Next Boyfriend." As he started dancing in sync with her and then joined her guitarist to sing harmony, Alaina doubled over laughing. "He knows the backup parts!" she exclaimed with delighted disbelief.
"There's a lot of conversation about women being underrepresented in country music," said Kristian Bush, who then did his part to correct the imbalance. Flanked by two instrumental virtuosi singer/songwriters who also happen to be charismatic performers and female to boot, Bush shared the spotlight generously. Lindsay Ell dazzled on guitar, whether soloing, improvising backup parts or volleying quick licks back and forth with Bush, each urging the other on with approving grins. And Natalie Stovall alternated guitar and fiddle but perhaps impressed most with her writing, particularly on the playfully suggestive "I Wanna Shoot Your Gun." "I can't believe that's my parents' favorite song," she exclaimed, to which Bush sagely replied, "I hate to break it to you, but the most recent song you've written is always your parents' favorite."
The Nashville Visitor Information Center is normally a low-key tourist browser, but on Saturday afternoon, fans piled in — pushing it beyond capacity as Mitch Goudy pumped out a solo set with all the energy of a four-piece band packed into his acoustic guitar. Harking back to the rockabilly gods of the Sixties, Goudy twitched his left ankle, swiveled his hips, sang with an urgent sensuality and accompanied himself with a restlessly inventive series of suspended chords, hammered rhythms, sudden starts and stops and a massive, golden resonance when the groove became unstoppable. Between songs, he spoke breathlessly, gulping air between sentences as if fueling up for the next lap. Never did his tank hit empty.
After 10 years with Lady Antebellum, Hillary Scott used this appearance at CMA Music Fest to remind fans of an older and more fundamental association. Joined by her mother Linda Davis, a country star in her own right, her father Lang Scott and younger sister Rylee, she soothed the throb of Saturday-night excess with songs that went down easy and conveyed faith-based messages without being preachy. Backed by members of Lady A's band, Hillary stood at center stage and sang most of the leads. As she belted her musical affirmation of belief, "Thy Will," Linda and Rylee were reduced to tears. But the strongest moments came when all four voices united — on the family-affirming "Love Remains," in the responsive harmonies to Lang's buoyant vocals on "The Old Country Church" and on the finale, Lady A's "American Honey."
With stadium-ready anthems like "Springsteen" and "Drink in My Hand" in his arsenal, Eric Church could have spoon-fed the Nissan Stadium throng exactly what they wanted. Instead, he gave them what they, and CMA Fest, needed — even if they didn't realize it at the time. His entire five-song set, one of the most anticipated of the weekend, was made up entirely of material off his surprise album Mr. Misunderstood. As such, it was sublime, touching on story songs like the magnificent "Knives of New Orleans," the tempo-changing "Mr. Misunderstood" and the rollicking "Chattanooga Lucy," during which Church proved he can re-create the song's falsetto vocal live in front of 60,000. Ending with the soul-searching "Mixed Drinks About Feelings" and ceding the spotlight to touring vocalist Joanna Cotten, the Chief threw the ultimate curveball: a finale of quiet artistry over sing-along bombast.
Martina McBride said she couldn't believe it when she picked up the phone one day and Steven Tyler introduced himself. "I was like, 'Whaaaaat?'" she said backstage at Nissan Stadium Saturday evening. Fans in the stands must have been feeling the same way later that night when she appeared as Tyler’s special guest, jumping in to test her vocal fortitude against the Aerosmith front man on the epic 1993 romance rocker "Cryin'." Tyler actually hit the highest note of the song, which caused McBride to roar with laughter, but with two powerhouse singers duking it out cheek-to-cheek, the crowd itself was the clear winner.
Jake Owen appears to be back in his sandy sweet spot with the upcoming release of American Love — even arriving by boat for his performance at the Riverfront Stage. But at least one track previewed Thursday morning suggests that Owen is still seeking that new direction he talked about last summer. Owen showed off a couple of sun-kissed new numbers and was looking the part in a pair of American-flag board shorts, but then he threw a curve ball — a pop-flavored R&B pick-up line called "If He Ain’t Gonna Love You," which he said features the volcanic vocals of Chris Stapleton on the new record. Stapleton wasn't around this time, but the sensual strut of Owen's voice paired with a booty-shaking beat and a three-piece horn section made a strong case for Owen's itch to branch out.
It was easy to hear the influence of Merle Haggard in Clint Black's short set at Nissan Stadium on Friday night. "Nothin' But the Taillights" is pure Hag. Which makes sense, considering that early in Black's career, he and the late country legend shared a 100-city tour and grew to be good friends. Such good friends, Black told reporters backstage, that he had the audacity to ask if he could help the Hall of Famer finish a tune he was working on. Black gave Haggard his new lyrics and received an "A-' from the workingman's poet, who remarked that one word felt like a throwaway. "I said, 'Well, what would you have used?'" Black recalled. "He tilted his head back and thought, and he came up with the word that was perfect. . . It was actually two words: 'finally leaving.'" The song was "Untanglin' My Mind."
CMA Fest is scattered with parties, both official and under-the-radar, but Thursday night's shindig thrown by Nashville cool-kids media company Thirty Tigers and Yeti Coolers stood out for its pinch-me weirdness. Kid Rock, Lucinda Williams and members of the Mavericks milled about sipping cocktails out of the much-coveted ice-cold tumblers, while Maren Morris and Jake Owen showed up to see the night's de facto host Wheeler Walker Jr. perform his filthy country songs. Walker (the alter ego of comic Ben Hoffman) was typically loose-lipped, lambasting CMT for having Pitbull on their awards show and generally talking shit about anyone and everyone. But it was his ability to coax both Morris and Owen onstage to sing songs off his raunchy Redneck Shit album that showed he was the host with the most…balls.
For his fan club celebration — which also marked his upcoming 80th birthday — Charlie Daniels threw a party in the Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, park that bears his name. His set list for the event was entirely determined by the audience, with the country legend happily taking requests for everything from his rowdy classic "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" to the tender "Little Folks." "We call it our family reunion," Daniels told Rolling Stone Country. "It's just incredible. These people are from all over the place." After performing, the musician posed for photos, signed autographs and even gave away one of his prized fiddles to a lucky fan. But it's Daniels who insists he's the biggest winner: "I thank God I can make a living doing something I enjoy so much," he said. "I love every facet of my career and most of all, I love to entertain."
Craig Morgan kicked off CMA Music Fest with his own free concert at Nashville's recently revamped Wildhorse Saloon, singing radio staples like "International Harvester" and "Bonfire," and debuting tracks off his just released new album, the varied and mature A Whole Lot More to Me. Always an energetic live entertainer, he captivated with his good ol' boy charisma. But it was his commitment to U.S. servicemen and women that distinguished the set, right down to his new American flag-themed logo. While some artists pander with jingoistic declarations, Morgan lets actual veterans do the talking. Prior to taking the stage, he brought out a Wounded Warrior for a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.
John McEuen stood on Ernest Tubb Record Shop's modest stage and observed, "There were more people on my bus this morning!" But his deep smile lines suggested he was more amused than disappointed. Then he pulled out his exotic, African-built guitar and began half an hour of reminiscence, extraordinary playing and old-fashioned entertainment. A founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, he would join his colleagues a few hours later on the Nissan Stadium stage to mark their 50th anniversary together. But at Ernest Tubb's, whether tearing through "Grandfather's Clock" on banjo with a sly quote from "Louie Louie" or chatting with visitors as if hosting them in his living room, McEuen seemed totally at home. When two teenage girls stood and began edging toward the street, he pointed to them and called out impishly, "They're leaving! Lock the door!" They did exit, but not before looking back at the white-haired entertainer and saying, "You're awesome." He beamed back at them, his day apparently made.