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25 Best Things We Saw at CMA Music Fest 2016

From Eric Church’s show of artistic rebellion to Maren Morris’s bohemian spirit

Eric Church at CMA Music Fest

Eric Church's set of songs from his album 'Mr. Misunderstood' was a highlight of CMA Music Festival.

John Shearer/WireImage

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. 

Charlie Daniels

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 09: Charlie Daniels Band perform during the 2016 CMA Music Festival at Nissan Stadium on June 9, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Richard Gabriel Ford/Getty Images)

Richard Gabriel Ford/Getty Images

Best Fan Club Party: Charlie Daniels

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

SANTA ROSA, CA - JUNE 03: Craig Morgan performs during Country Summer Festival at Sonoma County Fairgrounds on June 3, 2016 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Best Patriot: Craig Morgan

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

Bob Doerschuk

Best Reminiscing: John McEuen

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.

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