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37 Best Things We Saw at CMA Music Fest 2014

From Miranda Lambert’s sass to Richie Sambora’s surprise, what entertained us most at country’s biggest festival

Dierks Bentley, Kimberly Perry and Richie Sambora

Getty Images

 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

MamaDear

Photo Courtesy of AT&T

Best Up-and-Comer: MamaDear

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.

big smo

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Best Cult Fan Base: Big Smo

"Hick-hop" rapper Big Smo's presence at the ultimate country music festivalactually, 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."

Gwen Sebastian

Frederick Breedon IV/WireImage

Best Boot Stompin’ Time: Gwen Sebastian

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.

dustin lynch

Donn Jones/CMA

Best Sing-Along Leader: Dustin Lynch

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 crowdwhich 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.

 

craig morgan

Jason Davis/Getty Images

Best Use of FaceTime: Craig Morgan

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.

Brothers Osborne perform

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum

Best Classic Rock Cover: Brothers Osborne

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.

matthew gunnar nelson

Karen Hicks/CMA

Best Time Warp: Nelson

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 perform

Dusty Draper/CMA

Best Hometown Crowd: Sundy Best

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.

dakota bradley

Rich Polk/Getty Images

Best Surprise Stage Presence: Dakota Bradley

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

Fans sing along at CMA Music Fest

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Best Spontaneous Garth Brooks Sing-Along

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.

Jason Aldean performs

Frederick Breedon IV/WireImage

Best Version of ‘Dirt Road Anthem’: Jason Aldean

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.

 

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