The underlying theme at this year's CMA Music Festival, which wrapped up its four-day run on Sunday, was one of re-discovery: Both new acts and veterans reminded us just how powerful country music can be with performances that ranged from the massive (Miranda Lambert at LP Field) to the intimate (Striking Matches at the HGTV Lodge). As Nashville was inundated with dedicated fans, coming from as far away as Australia, Rolling Stone Country canvassed downtown, catching as many shows as possible and soaking in the country culture. Here's 37 of the best things we witnessed. By Adam Gold, Jewly Hight, Joseph Hudak, Katy Lindenmuth, Margaret Littman and Marissa Moss
While the Band Perry gave her a run for her money earlier in the night, Miranda Lambert provided the LP Field performance of Friday evening, if not the entire festival. Dressed in black short-shorts, a sparkly bustier and silver boots that could have been purloined from Kiss' dressing room, our cover star tore through a set that leaned heavily on songs from her stellar new album, Platinum. Whether selling the punk of "Little Red Wagon," the rockabilly of "Priscilla" or the dreamy nostalgia of "Automatic," the newly toned and fit Mrs. Shelton was in such control that the not-so-surprise appearance by Carrie Underwood to wrap things up with "Somethin' Bad" felt almost unnecessary.
Leave it to Renaissance man Zac Brown and Co. to cover country music's trajectory from Seventies' tear-in-beer ballads to Eighties pop-metal-inspired bombast in about 15 minutes. Just two songs after serenading the stadium with a faithful cover of the Steve Goodman- and John Prine-penned David Allan Coe classic "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," Brown brought out double-neck-acoustic-wielding Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora for a scorching version of "Wanted Dead or Alive." Naturally, ZBB and Sambora played for keeps — trading licks between guitar and fiddle in, hands-down, the all-out chicken-fried shred-fest of the week.
Country might be currently preoccupied with dabbling in hip-hop and rap, but it was the back-to-back afternoon sets of Chris Stapleton and Drake White on Thursday that shows what happens when you feed a little bit of the Delta blues through sturdy Nashville roots. Stapleton, a renowned songwriter who picked up a plaque earlier in the day at a Number One party for his Luke Bryan hit "Drink a Beer," has a voice that doesn't just hit the notes — it glides into them, with equal parts jazzy quiver and guttural twang that's Ray LaMontagne meets Jamey Johnson. And White, an electric performer with a gospel howl, had the audience riled up over his 2013 single "The Simple Life" and even a swampy take on the 4 Non Blondes hit "What's Up." "I'm a fan of music with soul, that's what I'm a fan of," he proclaimed. So are we.
Jessy Wilson and Kallie North cannot get close enough — in fact, during their performance at the AT&T Stage on Friday, North scooted her microphone stand an inch or two away from her Gaga-heeled bandmate so the two could sing within range to feel each other's breath. Blending Wilson's New York R&B background (she's written songs for John Legend and Fantastia) with Kallie's Texas-to-Mississippi origins, the newly-formed duo capitalizes on powerhouse vocals, no-holds-barred harmonies and a vibe that's like the Band Perry raised on Aretha Franklin — performed as if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards inhabited the Indigo Girls. "The definition of the American woman is changing," said Wilson, introducing their put-a-ring-on-it power anthem "Love It or Leave It Alone." Rumor has it they were offered a record deal on the spot, so, from the looks of it, they won't be left alone anytime soon.
Gray hair and mom jeans be damned, Alabama — appearing as one of the festival's few heritage acts — handily captivated the crowd like rock stars when opening LP Field festivities Thursday night. As the clouds cleared and the sun set, Randy Owen had, on command, tens of thousands clapping hands, stomping feet and singing along to charging, timeless, age-defying versions of "I'm in a Hurry," "Dixieland Delight" and "Mountain Music." The sounds were sweet (later inspiring Luke Bryan to declare Alabama "The greatest band to ever walk the face of the Earth!"), and the fashion-bereft visual was, well… just as endearing. Especially Jeff Cook, who rocked a black golf shirt marked with multi-colored fractal patterns and plucked away on a matching green guitar and fiddle that looked like hand-me-downs from Poison's C.C. DeVille.
Sure, part of the appeal of Charlie Worsham's fan club party was the deep-fried dough he was giving away — specifically Krispy Kreme donuts with bright, tangerine-tinted icing that matched the block lettering on the cover of his debut album, Rubberband. But the real draw was the guy himself. As it turned out, he was charming even at 10 a.m. and eager to oblige when fans yelled out questions and requested originals like "Mississippi in July" and "Young to See" and his Dierks Bentley cut "Heart of a Lonely Girl." Though Worsham made a joke out of the fact that he was up there playing guitar alone, stumping for applause for his absent band, it's safe to say nobody in the place felt at all like they were missing out.
A moment so seemingly inevitable, it would've surprised more fans if Faith Hill did not join her hubby on stage during his LP Field headlining set Thursday night. McGraw's better half briskly sauntered on stage unannounced, mid-way through his Faith-featuring, love-lorn latest single, "Meanwhile Back at Mama's." Standing nearly nose-to-nose and locking twinkling eyes, the pair emotionally belted to each other before embracing and locking lips at song's end. The enraptured masses swooned as McGraw proclaimed, "I'm a lucky man!"
This is what it looks like when an artist who has progressed from bluegrass prodigy to hot country hit-maker to trad-country standard-bearer curates his own multi-act show at the Ryman Auditorium. Stuart darted between his tuneful 20-year-old hit "Tempted" and the keening bluegrass standard "In the Pines" before bringing out a diverse array of guests: his golden-voiced, Hall of Famer wife Connie Smith; Sam Moore, of beloved Sixties soul duo Sam & Dave; Travis Tritt, Stuart's Southern-rocking contemporary; LeAnn Rimes, whom he had watched grow up in the spotlight; Emi Sunshine, the yodeling wunderkind he found on YouTube; and plenty others. Playing well past midnight, Stuart and his motley, rootsy crew made sleep feel all but unnecessary.
Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert snuck into the balcony. Vince Gill stood against the wall downstairs. You know you're in for a good show when the crowd is dotted with stars who are actually there to see it, not to be seen. Ashley Monroe and her frisky, Fifties-style band treated the packed Nashville club 3rd and Lindsley to hardcore country of the highest order, from bruised ballads to rollicking honky-tonk numbers, most of them such strong songs that anybody in town would be proud to claim them. Ditto her fine-grained, down-from-the mountain vocal curlicues, and even her endearingly quirky song intros. Monroe dedicated "Weed Instead of Roses" not to the celebs in attendance but to her hard-of-hearing grandparents, who used to think it was a song about garden variety weeds. "I don't know why that didn't get played on radio," she quipped.
If you looked out on any of the Riverfront Stage shows from the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge, you'd chuckle at the two distinct audiences: the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds crammed on the sloping riverbank facing the massive stage, and the handful of chilled-out, boat-owning country fans dotting the Cumberland River behind it. These buoyant festival-goers didn't exactly get photo-pit-worthy views, but they did get to take in packed sets from Maggie Rose, Eric Paslay, and the Cadillac Three — plus the stunning Nashville skyline — without all that soul-draining, nose-invading body heat.
Rascal Flatts have always taken as many cues from Top 40 pop as they have from Nashville twang. Such sensibility was in full effect during the group's set at LP Field Thursday night. Not just because the well-coiffed trio opened it with their true-to-form cover of Tom Cochrane's "Life Is a Highway" that made all too much sense, but because they went barbershop on an a cappella cover of Pharrell Williams' relentlessly ubiquitous "Happy." Not only did the stadium-captivating, beat-box-boasting rendition show off Gary LeVox & Co.'s killer vocal chops, it came as a refreshing contrast in the middle of a bro-country-heavy bill dominated by the likes of Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley.
As country music fans become increasingly industry savvy, they're paying more attention to who writes their favorite songs. On Saturday at the HGTV Lodge, they had an audience with some of the best pens in town — Josh Kear, Jessi Alexander, Chris DeStefano and Ashley Gorley — who performed the hit songs they've written. For Alexander, it was a stunning interpretation of the grieving ballad "I Drive Your Truck," recorded by Lee Brice. The highlight though was Kear, who sang Tim McGraw's "Highway Don't Care" and enlisted a female audience member to near perfectly re-create Taylor Swift's "I can't live without you, baby" refrain.
The rubbery-legged performer warned the audience at the SiriusXM Highway Stage that they were about to hear a "Waylon meets the Ramones" version of Rodney Crowell's "Ain't Living Long Like This," and he wasn't lying. Janson turned the song, made famous by proto-outlaw Jennings, into a cow-punk barnburner, egging on his band to play faster and faster. Despite, or perhaps even because of, a malfunctioning electric guitar, Janson threw himself into the performance, ditching the guitar for his harmonica, spinning wildly and aggressively engaging the audience as if he was playing not Nashville in 2014, but on a New York Bowery stage circa the Seventies. Captivating.
"You're still hot!" hooted an enthusiastic audience member to Waylon's widow, Jessi Colter, as she took the stage to join her son Shooter's Riverfront set on Wednesday, accompanied by the legendary Waymore's Outlaws. In a custom purple Manuel suit for the occasion (adorned with 226 rhinestones and razor blade decals), Jennings welcomed his mamma to sing and play keys on a Mickey Newbury tune. "But I never get paid," she joked. Then Jennings left Colter to perform "Storms Never Last" alone with the Outlaws, which they rocked delicately and with bittersweet reverence. "What a wonderful life we had with Waylon," she said, flanked by her husband's backing band. "He's not with us, but he's very much alive." And based on the number of winged "W" shirts in the crowd, that certainly seemed to be the case.
With all the in-da-club bass of Luke Bryan's current live show, it's easy to overlook the nimble guitar work of his bandleader, Michael Carter. During Bryan's Thursday night slot at LP Field, the spiky-haired Carter — who has also scored hits as a songwriter with Thomas Rhett's "Get Me Some of That" and Craig Campbell's "Outta My Head" — proved just how integral his playing is to his boss's sound. It was especially evident on such vintage Bryan tracks as "Rain Is a Good Thing," which, bolstered by Carter's crisp solo, far and away eclipsed anything from Crash My Party in Bryan's LP set.
While singing "Am I the Only One" on Thursday night at LP Field, Bentley proved his everydude status by pulling a presumably thirsty (and legal-aged) fan from the crowd to shotgun a beer with the gregarious performer. It should have been an ovation-worthy example of country's unique-to-the-genre star-fan bonding — had the young lady actually wanted the cold one. Instead, with her face on the jumbo screens flanking the stage, she mouthed the words, "I don't drink." Bentley looked clearly surprised and wondered how a country fan could be a teetotaler — and then proceeded to slam his beer.
"Weather won't stop County Music 2nite!" was the dispatch from the CMA's official Twitter Saturday evening. But the gates opened and thousands of festivalgoers were herded into the concourses of LP Field to take cover while an ominous lightning storm passed over downtown Nashville. Though severe weather did indeed not stop country music, it did set the show back nearly two hours. And then it rained throughout sets from Sara Evans and Little Big Town. While Evans singing "I'm acting as if this blue sky's never gonna rain down on me," or LBT's Karen Fairchild proclaiming "I'm a tornado" may have carried more weight than usual, it didn't stop a stadium full of country fans from turning out to endure the downpour. And it was a blast watching the poncho-clad crowd romp around in the rain and toss beach balls during "Pontoon." "You guys are troupers," Keith Urban told the crowd during his late-late-night closing set, "it's, like, Sunday morning now."
Hosting intimate performances and Q&As with Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts, Love and Theft and Kristian Bush, the full-size "lodge" — really a barn — erected right in the heart of downtown by cable network HGTV brought a little country cool to the city streets. With photos of cowboy boots, Western jewelry and, oddly, William Shatner (the DIY network star of home-remodeling series The Shatner Project) lining the walls and leather couches for folks to lounge, the lodge was not only a rustic venue to catch live music and get a singer's autograph, but a place to relax, rest and recharge.
Following a drawling, Rolling Stones-influenced set that featured a near-religious take on Hoge's soulful "When I Get My Wings," the Tennessee-born singer-songwriter closed his Friday afternoon performance at the Bud Light Stage not with his ballad-turned-Chevy-ad single "Strong," but with a Hank Williams homage. As he and his band finished the road anthem "The Highway's Home," each member abandoned his post to join Hoge at a singular microphone, where they harmonized on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." But with the crowd on its feet and singing along, there was nothing lonesome about it.
Brothers Reid and Neil are aces in their own right, but Kimberly Perry's performance on Friday night at LP Field was nothing short of spectacular. Whether defiantly pushing down her mike stand or showing off hip moves that would make Shakira blush, Perry looked every bit country's next superstar. Always a commanding presence onstage, the newly buff bride-to-be — she's engaged to MLB catcher J.P. Arencibia — displayed a confident, almost cocky, sexiness heretofore unseen. At times, she seemed downright dangerous, particularly during current single "Chainsaw" and the highlight of their Pioneer album, "Better Dig Two." If a fight had broken out in the crowd below, we've no doubt the fired-up Perry would have dived in to join.
Colt Ford played a big role in country rap becoming a thing, so it's fitting that he'd make a return appearance on CMA Fest's second-largest stage, the Riverfront. Though with "Dirt Road Anthem," which Ford co-wrote, performed by both Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert at LP Field, it'd have shown respect to invite him out on that stage as well. Nonetheless, Ford delivered his good-time rhymes in a baggy, brawny drawl at his American flag-flying mike stand. Mostly the songs were family-friendly, except for the occasional lyric about "doing body shots of Jäger," and plenty made backwoods joyriding sound like the ultimate way to waste a weekend. Ford saved "Dirt Road Anthem" for last, and directed the festival film crew to train their cameras on the crowd singing along, instead of on him. For a guy whose business includes boasting over beats, Ford seemed pretty dedicated to making his music about his audience.
You didn't see the Warren Brothers on any CMA Fest printed schedules, but in authentic Nashville form, the duo showed up anyway and often. The chart-topping songwriters, also two of Music City's most notorious jokesters, got a shout-out from the Riverfront stage by Maggie Rose. Later, they performed themselves during the Whiskey Jam at the BMI Tailgate Party on Saturday, playing Keith Urban's "Little Bit of Everything" and other hits that make them the best-known unknowns around. (The brothers often play at the actual Whiskey Jam, a free Monday night collaborative show at Winners bar all year long.)
It was abundantly clear that CMA Music Fest fans were having fun, but the same cannot always be discerned of the artists. However, in the intimate HGTV Lodge, duo Striking Matches channeled a pure love of playing that led a cramped early-morning audience to mid-song applause. Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis met as guitar majors at local Belmont University, and saw their stock rise as several of their songs were picked for ABC's Nashville. With their infectious smiles, funny banter and clear affection for each another ("I grew up in a small town. I didn't know girls could play guitar 'til I met Sarah," Justin says), Striking Matches offered a Sunday-morning reminder of why anyone would want to get into this business in the first place.
Before cheerfully greeting her huge, palpably anxious audience, Jamie Lynn Spears shed quite a bit of baggage somewhere backstage: Her set showed no traces of her teen-mom notoriety, hand-me-down hang-ups from big sister Britney, nor the intrinsic challenges of being a country newbie. Even better news? The girl sang her Louisiana guts out. Amid "y'all"-laden banter and a few songs from her brand new debut EP (including the twangtastic romp, "Shotgun Wedding," and the weepy single, "How Could I Want More"), Spears tackled Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" — memo to her critics, perhaps? — and even teased the crowd with a few bars of "Oops I Did It Again." The youngest Spears should look back fondly at the 2014 CMA Fest, as it may have been the unofficial kickoff to her country music career.
The Buddy Holly-meets-Hunter Hayes look of Red Bow Records' Chase Bryant was complete when his pink guitar was handed to him on stage early in his set. The lefty Telecaster with cream-colored pick guard and matching pale pink headstock was a perfect match for Bryant's retro vibe. The 21-year-old's grandfather played piano in Roy Orbison's first two bands and the instrument cements Bryant as straddling the generations.
A recent serenader on ABC's The Bachelorette, Jon Pardi performed an intimate show in the HGTV Lodge before his full-band act on the Riverfront Park stage on Sunday. With an accompanying guitarist, Pardi played some fan favorites, like "What I Can't Put Down," but also talked about the songwriting process, how he makes time to write on the road, and the pressures of having to turn around a new album in enough months — as compared with the four years it took him to write his first one, Write You a Song.
MamaDear's CMA Fest debut took place on the tiny AT&T U-Verse Showcase Stage on Saturday, which they somehow made feel like a front porch without a set change. Credit their sound — Americana and folk without being folksy — and singer Kelly Tillotson, who is charming without being saccharine. "It is great here because you know everyone around you loves country music," she told the crowd. "The feeling is contagious." The trio's warm single "Life Is Better on a River" might make you catch the bug, too.
"Hick-hop" rapper Big Smo's presence at the ultimate country music festival — actually, some critics might interject, his presence in the country world in general — is a bit of a head-scratcher. (So is the unfortunate way he spells the genre's name: kuntry.) But there was no mistaking the popularity of the soon-to-be A&E reality star's Friday afternoon set. The guy's got loads of loyal fans (they prefer "kinfoke"), who maxed out the Bud Light Stage's capacity and spilled into the adjacent streets for his raucous show. Curious passers-by paused in amazement at the throngs of people politely headbanging along to songs like "Kickin' It in Tennessee" and "Boss of the Stix."
The Voice alum Gwen Sebastian closed out her spunky six-song set with "Annie's New Gun," a bang-bang man-huntin' anthem that had the crowd hootin' and hollerin' in all the right places. Sebastian recorded two versions of the track for her 2013 self-titled album: one solo, which is how she performed it at the festival, and one featuring seasoned shoot-him-up songstress (and close pal) Miranda Lambert. Though a cameo from Ran here would've been fun, sharpshooter Sebastian singing the whole damn thing herself was just as exciting.
When Dustin Lynch sidled up to the Riverfront Stage on Thursday afternoon, it was only a matter of time before he played his current feel-good smash, the riffy "Where It's At." He ended up saving this catchiest tune for last, after a new track from his upcoming album ("Halo") and a convincing Garth Brooks cover ("Rodeo"). It's hard to say who was having a better time by the tail end of the set: the koozie-toasting crowd — which erupted into screams when Lynch told them "Y'all sound so good!" — or Lynch himself, who complemented the closer with a little hip-swiveling and a lot of genuine grinning.
After wrapping up a moving acoustic set in front of 1,000 fans — 100 of them members of the military and their families — on the Fan Fair X convention floor, Morgan, a passionate military supporter and former Army member himself, spotted a woman in the front row enthusiastically waving her iPhone. On the screen: a live image of her soldier son, stationed in Mississippi. The "Wake Up Lovin' You" singer grabbed the phone and chatted with the man via FaceTime, showing that while music may be the great communicator, a little technology never hurts.
Country acts tackling classic rock songs at CMA Fest is a regular occurrence, but few do them the lighter-worthy justice they require. On the festival's final day, however, Brothers Osborne turned in a version of the Band's "The Shape I'm In" so faithful it could have been included as an extra on The Last Waltz. Driven by guitarist John Osborne's blistering solos and his sibling singer T.J. Osborne's impassioned vocal — which more than a few times called to mind Richard Manuel's tortured wail — the Nashville-by-way-of-Maryland duo showed their roots go well beyond the "Hank" tattoo inked on T.J.'s wrist.
Having Nineties pop-metal duo Nelson — twin brothers Matthew and Gunnar Nelson — on the CMA Festival schedule would seem to scream "throwaway," a sure-to-be poorly attended slot on the already lesser-attended final day. But nothing could have been further from the reality. Performing their pre-grunge radio staples "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection" and "After the Rain," along with new material, the sons of teen idol Rick Nelson were a revelation — and clearly maintain a passionate fan base. With Winger and Tesla t-shirts spotted in the impressive crowd, the line between modern country and hair-rock was never more blurred, resulting in an unconventional mix of fan. Even so, nearly all sang along when Nelson saluted their late dad with a show-closing "Garden Party" — and then promptly lined up for an autograph.
Sundy Best may not have an "a" in their name, a bass player or even a proper drum kit — percussionist Kris Bentley keeps time on a cajon — but the Kentucky duo sure has some willing-to-travel fans. Before Bentley and singer-guitarist Nick Jamerson took the stage, their loud and Bluegrass State proud audience had assembled, hollering out requests for the sing-along "Home." It only intensified once they played the song, reaching a roar when Jamerson sang the line "I was born here in Kentucky." No one seemed to care they were actually in Tennessee.
The sunglass-wearing Dakota Bradley had a Tom Cruise in Risky Business vibe when he took the Samsung Galaxy stage on Sunday — never mind that the film was released more than 10 years before the Tim McGraw protege's birth. At just 20 years old, Bradley may be best known for his career start on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, but he commanded the stage with more sophisticated presence than his bubblegum-friendly gee-whiz lyrics and song titles ("Somethin' Like Somethin'") would imply. On "Kick It," he threw in some reggae riffs, working the by-now-CMA-exhausted audience, who could have easily lazed on the hammocks scattered throughout the lawn, to their feet.
While Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan may be the current Prom King of country radio, the throne still awaits Garth Brooks whenever he's ready to reclaim it. That was obvious after Shelton's headlining set Friday night, when an impromptu mass sing-along of Brooks' iconic "Friends in Low Places" busted out among festivalgoers making the post-show, cattle-call-like walk across the Shelby Street Bridge from LP Field over the Cumberland River to Downtown Nashville.
Brantley Gilbert may have co-written the codeine-infused country-rap slow jam "Dirt Road Anthem," but Jason Aldean sings (and raps) the definitive version. Gilbert and Aldean both played the song within 24 hours of each other at LP Field. While Gilbert's murky rendition on Thurdsay was mostly met with blank stares across the stadium, Aldean's impassioned version the next night was received like, well, an anthem, with festivalgoers waving arms from side to side en masse at the singer's command. Sometimes having a good tune is only half the battle.