30 Best Things We Saw at CMA Music Fest 2015 - Rolling Stone
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30 Best Things We Saw at CMA Music Fest 2015

From a superstar’s smoke machine mishap to a new sibling trio’s Beatles makeover, the most memorable moments from country’s massive party

Carrie Underwood and Michael Hobby

Carrie Underwood and Michael Hobby

C Flanigan/Getty Images

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.

CMA Music Fest

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 10: Recording Artist Clare Dunn performs at the 2015 CMA Festival Kick-Off Concert Downtown Nashville on June 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)

Jason Davis/Getty Images

Best Split Personality: Clare Dunn

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.

CMA Music Fest

NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 18: Travis Meadows performs at the Jake Owen Beach Party at BMI on August 18, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Best Shoulda Been a CMA Fest Show: Travis Meadows

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.

Brothers Osborne

Joseph Hudak

Best Never-Ending Solo: Brothers Osborne

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

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Best Groove: Thomas Rhett

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.

CMA Music Fest 2015

Joseph Hudak

Best Trophy Winner: Sunny Sweeney

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

TWIN LAKES, WI - JULY 27: Singer/Songwriter Will Hoge performs at Country Thunder USA - Day 4 on July 27, 2014 in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Thunder)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Best Tailgate: Will Hoge

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.

CMA Music Fest 2015

Stella Cadente Entertainment

Best Harmonies: The Shuggah Pies

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.

Corey Smith

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 13: Corey Smith performs on the Chevrolet Riverfront stage during the 2015 CMA Festival on June 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)

Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

Best Capacity Crowd: Corey Smith

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.

Brett Eldredge

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 13: Musician Brett Eldredge performs onstage during the 2015 CMA Festival on June 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

John Shearer/Getty Images

Best Romantic Vibes: Brett Eldredge

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.

CMA Music Fest

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 12: Nick Strum performs at Chevrolet Roadhouse Stage for 2015 CMA Festival on June 12, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)

Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

Best Take-Me-to-Church Moment: Nick Sturms

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.

CMA Music Fest 2015

John Shearer/GettyImages

Best Hall of Famers: The Oak Ridge Boys

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.

Kelleigh Bannen

GEORGE, WA - AUGUST 01: Kelleigh Bannen performs on stage at Watershed Music Festival 2014 at The Gorge on August 1, 2014 in George, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic)

Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic

Best Kids’ Show: Kelleigh Bannen

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.

CMA Music Fest 2015

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 14: Musician Eric Church performs onstage during day 4 of the 2015 CMA Festival on June 14, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Richard Gabriel Ford/WireImage)

Richard Gabriel Ford/WireImage

Best Aphrodisiac: Eric Church

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.

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