Almost 88,000 people — from all 50 states and 20 foreign countries — attended CMA Music Fest this year, soaking in the sounds of everyone from unsigned acts to platinum-selling superstars. It was four days full of sweat (and booze)-soaked musical ecstasy, as fans were treated to round-the-clock music and plenty of unexpected moments. (Luke Bryan's set goes up in smoke — literally! Little Big Town collaborate with eight-foot-tall clowns!) Here are the moments that made our CMA Music Fest experience one to remember.
As the hours ticked toward midnight, things got a little steamy during Luke Bryan's Friday night set. He strutted right up to the lip of the LP Field stage, enticed fans with a little "catfish dinner," then got blasted — literally. A smoke machine that he just happened to be standing on top of went off, engulfing his entire body in a white cloud. The eruption only lasted a split second, powerful enough to ruffle his T-shirt but not his baseball cap — nor his confidence. After flailing out of the way, the shocked superstar looked back, threw up his arms with a smile and shook it off without missing a note.
Since they were filmed for an ABC special to air later in the summer, the LP Field performances could sometimes feel overly rehearsed. Randy Houser, however, all but shredded the script. ballad "Like a Cowboy," the Mississippi singer (who is long overdue for a Male Vocalist nomination) looked to his band and called an audible, instructing them to stop playing so he could finish the song with just his acoustic guitar. It was a bold move, and also the perfect decision.
There was only one ballad in Brad Paisley's headlining set of Sunday's LP Field Show, which included high-energy hits spanning at least a dozen years. After running through party pleasers including "Mud on the Tires," "Water" and "Crushin' It," the superstar capped the entire four-day event with the tongue-in-cheek ode to getting lit, "Alcohol," letting the audience take over lead vocals and showing off his notoriously killer guitar skills. "You're skipping work tomorrow anyway," he reasoned to the hollow-legged crowd, jolting them with the same level of energy they had four days earlier. He's a teetotaler, sure — but still everyone's favorite drinking buddy. (Paisley also gets an honorary mention for, like Luke Bryan, rolling with the punches. His microphone stopped working early in his set, followed by audio glitches with his guitar — problems which, of course, the affable entertainer only met with a joke.)
Hot off the heels of winning three CMT Music Awards, Carrie Underwood stormed the LP Field stage on Saturday with a scorching, seven-song set that never lagged for a second. She wailed through blockbusters like "Blown Away" and "Two Black Cadillacs," then jumped back in time for "Undo It," "Last Name" and "Before He Cheats." Ten years after winning American Idol, it's an understatement to say she's got legs (does she ever) and a hell of a voice too.
Following Wednesday night's CMT Awards, A Thousand Horses adjourned not to an afterparty, but to the Tin Roof bar in Nashville's honky-tonk district to do what they do best: play sweaty, honest country-rock. As an elbow-to-elbow crowd watched from the bar and balcony, singer Michael Hobby and his fellow Horses — including the band's secret weapon, its three female backing vocalists — trotted out cuts from their recently released debut Southernality. Number One hit "Smoke" was a thrilling sing-along highlight, while a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" (á la the Black Crowes) recalled the group's bar-band beginnings. Best of all: They did it all again the very next day on the Bud Light Stage.
Wynonna Judd and her band, the Big Noise, including husband-drummer Cactus Moser, delivered a scorching five-song set for invited guests Thursday at historic RCA Studio B, a taste of her all-new LP in over 10 years. From slinky, gutbucket blues to "Jesus and a Jukebox," a terrific ballad in the sweet country tradition of the Judds, the new album features blues guitarist Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi, Jason Isbell and the Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit. Judd said she hoped the music would "ripple out and make a sonic boom that means something." Based on the first reverberations, prepare for one hell of a meaningful boom to drop, most likely later this year.
In one of the most diverse sets seen at the stadium level all week, the Georgia collective offered a host of sounds to the enthusiastic LP Field crowd Friday night, from the playful sing-along "Chicken Fried" to their richly melodic recent single "Homegrown." But the band's crowning achievement — and biggest crowd-pleaser — came with their spirited and highly faithful cover of Queen's rock operatic classic "Bohemian Rhapsody," which they've been performing on their current tour. Nailing every "scaramouche," "bismilah" and "Galileo" in the epic middle section and the ecstatically rocking guitar solo, the band injected some welcome headbanging to the proceedings.
At first glance, Cam's whole package can be a little sunshine-and-roses overkill: She's terminally smiling, always wears yellow (we get it — you're happy) and is so squint-inducing that she even tossed branded sunglasses into the crowd, joking, "I throw like a girl — wait, no. I throw like a tomato." But Thursday at the Bud Light Plaza stage, she proved there's substance and a smart point of view behind all the glitter and curls. And pipes to boot, with songs inspired by unnerving breakup dreams ("Burning House") and country's over-glamourized image, like on "County Ain't Never Been Pretty," which challenges the more Southern California than Southern abs looks of her colleagues. "If you spend eight hours at the gym, who would bale the hay?" she sings in a dynamite voice that conjures up the female powerhouses of the Nineties. It's hard not to grin along.
If last year's scintillating performance at LP Field served as confirmation that the family trio was ready for the big time, this year's show on the stadium's stage Friday night cemented Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry as bona fide rock stars. Whether they were performing a high octane rendition of Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk," offering a reverent treatment of Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind," or roaring their way through their own fierce ode to lifelong love at any cost, "Better Dig Two," the siblings displayed an almost telepathic connection, harmonizing, dancing, and strumming with infectious energy.
Fresh off his 100th performance at the Grand Ole Opry, singer-songwriter and firecracker Chris Janson celebrated 10 years of hard work towards overnight success with a deliriously celebratory set on the Bud Light Plaza Stage on Saturday. The Missouri native is riding the wave of the explosive success of his recent out-of-nowhere hit "Buy Me a Boat," and wisely showcased his wild man energy, frenetic harmonica skills and goofy charm for a new set of ears. In addition to that hit, and the brawny anthem he wrote for Tim McGraw, "Truck Yeah," Janson impressed with the heartfelt paean to his wife, "When I'm Holding Her."
Whether it's a shirtless guy in Hee Haw overalls, a seemingly out-of-place dude in a Stryper T-shirt or Nashville's infamous Bang This twins (Google them), the people watching at CMA Music Fest is bar none. Especially when Elvis makes an appearance, as he did on Saturday, parting the sea of humanity on Lower Broadway. The crazy get-ups and über-fandom are all part of the experience, and the festival thrives because of it. Yes, country music may be three chords and the truth, but a little cosplay — or just left-field fashion choices — helps keep things colorful.
Any notion that Nashville co-star Chris Carmack was just another actor dabbling in music were obliterated during his dynamic Belk Park Stage set. Like his character Will Lexington on the ABC drama, this guy can sing. And also draw a crowd. Fans braved a late-morning downpour to hear Carmack preview songs from his upcoming EP Pieces of You. The highlight though proved to be his heartfelt tribute to B.B. King — the late bluesman's "Sweet Little Angel" — with Carmack showing off some greasy guitar licks and a soulful, yearning voice.
No one expected the teenage winner of The Voice to supply CMA Fest with its most Bonnaroo-esque mantra: "Inhale Good Vibes," scrawled in big letters on a shirt tied around her waist. Was the Carrie Underwood disciple hinting to be a "Good Girl" gone bad? Nah — there was plenty of sweetness in her set. Still, it was a nice motto for fans navigating a congested and sweltering festival. And Bradbery did hint at an edgier future, comparing forearm tattoos backstage with Charlie Worsham and playing a new song, "Friend Zone," that incorporates a little rap, a little rock vamp and plenty of her signature belting.
A salute to one of the most patriotic performers in country music kicked off Saturday's LP Field show, when Kellie Pickler took the stage to accept the Operation Troop Aid Chris Kyle Patriot Award. Named in honor of the slain Navy SEAL who wrote American Sniper (which became a blockbuster movie), the award was given to the bubbly singer-songwriter for her eight USO Tours, among other efforts to support U.S. servicemen and women. "I didn't get in line to work with the USO and the Wounded Warrior Foundation and all the other organizations to be patted on the back for it," Pickler tells Rolling Stone Country. "So for me, [this award] is not about me. It's about all of our servicemen and women and their families and the sacrifices they've made." Kyle's parents, Wayne and Deby, were on stage to present the trophy, and if that didn't induce a tear or two, Pickler's soaring national anthem performance from that same stage surely did.
Eminem has yet to (and probably never will) dabble in a country-rap collaboration like Nelly or Ludacris, but Tim Montana and the Shrednecks were intent on bringing Twang Shady to life at CMA Music Fest, where they offered up a scorching southern-rock version of "Lose Yourself," that, by pumping out those Led Zeppelin-ripped licks, made it all feel like an unearthed Lynyrd Skynyrd track. The clever cover fit in perfectly with a fearless set that melded more tributes (Katy Perry!) and wild-child originals, like the band's anthem "Weed and Whiskey," that set their guitars ripping and beards a-flyin'. "Look for our debut on Cops tomorrow," they teased the crowd, while playing dangerously enough that it was quite possible they might not have been joking.
Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman are no strangers to strutting around in high heels, but even they couldn't compete with the towering clowns on stilts that stomped around during the powerhouse "Pain Killer." They were so tall that they could walk right over the top of Jimi Westbrook – and when he took an upward glance only to see a carnival act's crotch, his look was priceless. This, folks, is how you make good television. (Well, that, and a superb, stripped-down rendition of “Girl Crush” in the middle of a football stadium.) The colorful circus performers only stuck around for one song on Saturday, but to borrow an LBT song title, we wish they could've stayed all night.
Country's preeminent longhairs the Cadillac Three turned in a high-octane set on the Cumberland River on Day One of CMA Fest, lighting into crowd favorites like "Days of Gold" and "The South." The latter is usually the showstopper, with the audience, as one, singing the "this is where I was born" refrain back to TC3's Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray. But the trio's new single "White Lightning" is building its own can't-miss rep. The unconventional but honest love song echoed throughout downtown Nashville and electrified the crowd, who displayed a special kinship with the workingman's country-rock band — who immediately after coming offstage boarded a plane to England for a slot at the Download Festival.
The Colorado native got to display both sides of her very shiny coin during multiple appearances at the festival. One day, the powerful vocalist and evocative songwriter was captivating an intimate crowd with a warm, acoustic performance and Q&A in the SiriusXM Nashville Theatre inside the Bridgestone Arena for a "Superfan Concert on the Highway" taping. Then, on Friday, she was blazing her way through an electric set that included her sultry new single "Move On," as well as a ferocious cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" and a hot, gender-blurring take on Bob Seger's "Her Strut." By the time Dunn struck the final note on her guitar, it was easy to see why Seger himself recruited her to open for him on his last tour.
The week of CMA Fest is brimming with satellite events and at the Chords for a Cause Benefit at local Irish pub Dan McGuinness, gifted singer-songwriter Travis Meadows made it clear that the festival organizers should be giving him an official showcase pronto. Backed by a lap-steel guitarist and a cajón player, the raspy-voiced storyteller raised chills with his heartrending, confessional ballad "Unfinished Business," as well as tunes of his that have been covered by some of country's elite. Among them: an emotional take on "What We Ain't Got" — a hit for Jake Owen — and "Riser," the defiant title track of Dierks Bentley's latest album.
When Brothers Osborne went into the studio with producer Jay Joyce to record their new single "Stay a Little Longer," they emerged with a song much heftier than their demo version, thanks to Joyce's encouragement for guitarist John Osborne to indulge his inner Eddie Van Halen. That advice carried over to the stage too. During the duo's Friday afternoon performance, Osborne unleashed an epic solo, full of harmonics, finger taps and inspired picking that identified the Maryland native as one of Nashville's best players. "I never know where it's going to go," he told Rolling Stone Country of the solo after coming offstage. Maybe so, but CMA Fest fans were happy to follow his lead.
Thomas Rhett is right up there with Luke Bryan in getting his audience to move. As a newcomer to the LP Field lineup, the Tennessee native glided through catchy new numbers such as "Southside" and "Crash and Burn" with undeniable charisma on Saturday. The throbbing bass line kept the first few rows trembling, even as Rhett was playing to the rafters, where he used to sit as a teenage country fan. Since then, he's earned a triple-whammy of slick, satisfying hits — "It Goes Like This," "You Make Me Wanna" and "Get Me Some of That" — to justify his main stage slot.
When Sunny Sweeney asked the women in her Saturday afternoon crowd how many had married the man of their dreams, a sizable bunch hooted and hollered. But when the Texas firecracker followed up that query by asking how many are their husband's second wife, only a brave two raised their hands. Sweeney laughed, and then dedicated her new song "Trophy" to all the "trophy wives" in the audience. A celebration of being Number Two, the sassy anthem was representative of Sweeney's entire balls-out set, which ranged from the heartbreaking "From a Table Away" to the glorious Provoked cut "Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass."
Will Hoge made the best of an hour-long set on the BMI Tailgate Party stage just before the first night of LP Field performances Thursday evening, playing for a couple hundred eager early arrivals. Most were chatting and downing pre-game beers as Hoge started, but the singer-songwriter won them over by the end, turning a casual audience into new believers of his rootsy Telecaster rock. Many recognized "Strong" from those Chevy commercials, everybody sang along to "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" (his Number One hit for Eli Young Band) and newer songs "Middle of America" and "Til I Do It Again," from his excellent latest album Small Town Dreams, scored — even though most were just hearing them for the first time.
Keeping it in the family is a country tradition, and the Shuggah Pies — sisters Amy, Angela and Courtney Kretchel — used their DNA to their advantage in their Friday Chevrolet Roadhouse Stage set. Sharing the same genetics certainly seems to help when it comes to harmonizing flawlessly (Amy and Angela are twins), and singing in haunting, perfect union is a specialty of the ladies, who count classic country, the Eagles and even Guns N' Roses as influences (though you could easily catch a little bluegrass in there too). It was their performance of the Beatles' "Because" that really stood out, however. While it's not easy to match the George Martin-tweaked studio sound of the Abbey Road classic, the Pies gave it solid, impressive shot.
Shortly into the Jefferson, Georgia singer-songwriter's set on the Riverfront stage, CMA Fest organizers were forced to close the gates. Such was the demand to see Smith, an artist wildly popular among college kids (and those long since out of the dorms) for coming-of-age songs like "Twenty-One," "If I Could Do It Again" and the winking "Ain't Going Out Tonight." In a denim-vest-on-denim ensemble, Smith may have looked like the cool guy who never leaves campus, but his set revealed a soul-searching that only comes from equal parts experience and intellect. He'll further those themes on his new album, While the Gettin' Is Good, out June 23rd.
With a sweet song like "Mean to Me," Brett Eldredge basically turned a cold beer and a cardboard pretzel into a candlelight dinner during his LP Field set on Saturday. The stylish singer-songwriter invited the audience to turn on their phone flashlights, which is a familiar gimmick by now, but with the sentimental message of the ballad, plus the fact that it was a perfectly comfortable summer night, that flickering backdrop totally captured the moment. Although every artist takes the time to express love for the fans, the CMA's reigning Best New Artist bestowed a truly suitable soundtrack.
At 26, Texas native Nick Sturms has been writing music professionally for a decade, but he didn't get much credit for his collaboration with Travis Meadows, "Hearts I Leave Behind" – a tribute to American Sniper Chris Kyle recorded by the Pete Scobell Band with Wynonna. But Sturms took it in stride, offering a sweetly solemn version at his Friday solo set, where his little licks of soul and tasteful guitar helped the lyrics cut even deeper. And tracks like "Amen," currently a hit on SiriusXM's the Highway, made festival-goers who stopped by the Roadhouse Stage for the free charging stations stay well past their battery hitting 100 percent — far from a party anthem, it's a rumination on guilt, murder and the fickle mistress of redemption, delivered by a singer more worried about craft than machismo.
Invigorated by their forthcoming Country Music Hall of Fame induction in the fall, the Oak Ridge Boys brought an extra dose of "oom papa mow-mow" to LP Field on Friday night. Led by the ageless Joe Bonsall, who bounded across the vast stage, the Oaks treated fans to their instantly recognizable country classics. "American Made" was a patriotic sing-along; "Bobbie Sue" was all joyful energy, with baritone Richard Sterban's voice shaking the seats; and the requisite "Elvira" featured some special guests: Little Big Town, who slowed it down into a bluesy jam. It may have been a little hard to sing along to, but the collaboration was the perfect illustration of country's vocal group past meeting its future.
It was already steaming hot by the time Kelleigh Bannen took the Bud Light stage at noon on Saturday, but there was one red-faced fan she probably didn't anticipate spotting in the crowd: Elmo. In a surreal clash of timing, an early-morning production of Sesame Street Live was just filtering out of the adjacent Bridgestone Arena minutes before the leopard-print-clad Bannen started her set, which tempted some traumatized parents in desperate need of sonic salvation to wrestle their toddlers, clutching Elmo balloons, into watching her blast through songs like the devilish "Smoke When I Drink." Sounding looser and more rocking than she does on her debut, Bannen juggled genres with enough twang to earn her stripes (or, actually, spots) — and a gain a few three-year-old admirers in the process.
Eric Church is pretty much a guys' guy — a whiskey-swigging, unapologetic ball of testosterone. But not even his dapper "Raise 'Em Up" duet partner Keith Urban had more women salivating Sunday night than they did during Church's acoustic "Like a Wrecking Ball" performance. The love song with a dash of R&B and a heavy helping of libido had female fans swaying along as they gazed at the sunglassed singer-songwriter, all surely wishing they were the lyrics' inspiration: his wife, Katherine Church. It's one of the sexiest songs in recent country music memory — he sings about backing his lover up against a wall and doing things that might shake the whole house's foundation — and certainly the steamiest of CMA Music Fest.