Despite a weather system that delayed sets, evacuated stages and, in some cases, canceled shows altogether, the 2019 CMA Fest in Nashville featured some of the most memorable performances and artists in years. Women reigned on stages of all sizes (including the massive Nissan Stadium, where names like Brandi Carlile and Tenille Townes appeared on the bill next to the genre’s male stars) and artists of color (like Jimmie Allen and the irrepressible Lil Nas X) cultivated both buzz and energetic crowds. Then there was Luke Combs, the everyman singer who never met a cold beer he didn’t sing about and who emerged as the genre’s next superstar. From Carlile to Combs, here’s the 20 best artists we saw.
Chris Janson may have been second in the lineup at Sunday night’s Nissan Stadium show, but he took the stage with all the energy of a closer. Opening with his 2017 Everybody cut “Redneck Life,” he slid onto the stage wailing on his harmonica while a supersized light show dazzled behind him. The Missouri native showed off his instrumental chops throughout the set, playing drums on a larger-than-life version of Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah” (which Janson co-wrote) and sitting down at the piano for an emotional cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” He closed with the hit that started it all, “Buy Me a Boat,” and thanked the crowd for being part of his first full festival performance. With a set like that, it certainly won’t be his last. B.M.
“We don’t get to know why bad things happen… and realizing that paralyzed me for a second,” Bailey Bryan admitted to the crowd gathered for her Sunday midday set. The Washington state songwriter then launched into her celebration of keeping the faith, “Songbird.” But she wasn’t all about poignancy and introspection. Bryan also embraced her naughty side with the new song “Steal Your Girl,” which she attributed to the alter ego she’s still trying to cultivate à la Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce. She doesn’t need to pin her more adventurous turns on a persona however — such sharp songs are what continue to set Bryan apart from the pack. J.H.
Don’t cross Hannah Dasher. The Nashville-based songwriter will probably write a song about you and/or threaten to bust you up. During a tight set at the Acoustic Corner on Sunday, Dasher, in a red jumpsuit and gloriously high hair, sang songs about the guy who left her, taking guilt-free glee in how his life ended up in the toilet after he dumped her. With a new album on the way — featuring songs written with the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston — Dasher is poised to be country’s latest strong voice. As she promised in what turned into an all-ages singalong, “I’m gonna whoop your redneck ass.” J.H.
Wherever you land on the mullet resurgence, there’s one thing for sure about its biggest proponent, Morgan Wallen: hair aside, he sure can sing. At the HGTV Lodge on Thursday, Wallen stripped down his set to deliver versions of his hits like “Up Down” (which actually works better as an acoustic sing-along than the Florida Georgia Line-assisted single) and the Number One “Whiskey Glasses.” But Wallen, whose favorite band is apparently the War on Drugs, also found room between party anthems and drinkin’ tunes for his solemn take on Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” to show that, just like his now trademark hair, there’s more than just one side to this Tennessee native. M.M.
Jillian Jacqueline’s Thursday set at the Chevy Breakout stage was a chance to showcase her incredible versatility, as she went from belting Pam Tillis’ “Maybe It Was Memphis” one moment to stirring a dance party with the poppy “Priorities” from her EP Side B the next. The latter delivers a far more potent punch than its euphoric beat might lead one to believe: “it’s just a matter of time now, honey, before we lose all our looks and money,” she warns. With a woman in attendance who counted this as her 37th show, Jacqueline’s also pulling in a dedicated fan base, making the fact that she’s unable to find much resonance on the charts even more puzzling. M.M.
Georgia native Blanco Brown turned in several performances during CMA Fest, but his mini-set at Acoustic Corner was revealing. Where skeptics of country-rap tend to dismiss it as a gimmick, Brown showcased himself as a skilled singer and songwriter who could weave narratives about growing up (“Ghett Ol Memories”) with dance numbers (“The Git Up,” which he reproduced by looping beat-boxed percussion) that actually made a midday CMA Fest crowd get out of their seats. There was also an earnest, soaring rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” into which Brown spliced bits of “Tennessee Whiskey” and added his own vocal trills to separate it from Chris Stapleton’s version. It was one exciting glimpse at a possible future path for country, soul and the considerable space where the two overlap. J.F.
At each of her CMA Fest appearances, California, Missouri, native Kassi Ashton made an airtight case that she’s the next big thing. Whether she was vowing to an ex that she’s “never gonna take you back” in the kiss-off “Violins” or dissecting the notion of beauty in the vulnerable ballad “Pretty Shiny Things,” Ashton proved irresistible. Especially on Sunday at Spotify’s Ole Red showcase, where she kicked off her set with the biting “Taxidermy,” stomping about the stage in black combat boots for a performance that was equal parts confidence and sex appeal. J.H.
Jaida Dreyer has been carving out a spot for herself in Nashville for years, both as a solo artist and a songwriter, and thank goodness, she’s still at it. Performing Sunday on the Maui Jim stage — which, in one of the most welcome changes this year, is now located in front of Bridgestone Arena — Dreyer came off like a country & western Bettie Page, playing up her innate sass to the hilt, especially on the song “Jack It to Jesus (Spray It to Hell).” She cut that one after winning USA’s competition series Real Country in 2018, but it was one she wrote that same year with Josh Morningstar that won the set for being most irreverent: “Jerry Lee,” a what-if ode that explored the darkest corners of Jerry Lee Lewis’ legacy. J.H.
Luke Combs was the most anticipated performer of the Saturday night shows at Nissan Stadium, and possibly of CMA Fest as a whole, now that everyone has begun to realize he’s a star. He didn’t let them down, playing a barrage of hits including “When It Rains It Pours,” “Beautiful Crazy” and “Hurricane,” with the crowd singing every word and threatening to overpower Combs’ loud and rowdy band. The North Carolina singer closed things out with his new single “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” which was so massive-sounding that people in the deepest reaches of East Nashville probably had dust shaken loose from their rafters. Expect to hear it many, many more times this summer. J.F.
People at Nissan Stadium got a bit of a fakeout on Saturday night, as the all-but- guaranteed “Old Town Road” performance happened not during Billy Ray Cyrus’ set but between Brett Young’s and Miranda Lambert’s. But what a fakeout — as the lights dipped and the opening banjo chords rang out, an entire stadium tilted on its axis with excitement. Adding a little surprise to the appearance of Lil Nas X and Cyrus (who performed earlier in the week at Spotify’s Ole Red takeover) was Keith Urban, who stepped out to sing and play some banjo. The audience responded in kind, singing every word as if “Old Town Road” were a pop classic. And, come to think of it, maybe it is. J.F.
Caylee Hammack had a packed house for her set at Spotify’s Ole Red, but it was easy to imagine that she’d have given the same bravura performance even if she were playing to five people. Like a cross between Dolly Parton and Alanis Morissette, Hammack sang punchy, funny numbers — “Just Friends” and “Family Tree” — that showed off her personality. What’s more, she told vivid stories about her past and got a lively crowd to quiet down while she sang a heartbreaking ballad called “Small Town Hypocrite” about a high school love for whom she gave up all of her dreams before he unceremoniously dumped her. J.F.
Mainstream country fans who weren’t hip to Brandi Carlile before CMA Fest sure are now. The singer-songwriter-producer was seemingly everywhere all week, first appearing on Wednesday’s CMT Awards for an all-star rendition of “Delta Dawn” with Tanya Tucker. She rejoined Tucker, for whom she co-produced her new album While I’m Livin‘, Thursday night at Nissan Stadium for three more songs, and closed out the week on Sunday, taking the Nissan Stage again alongside Maren Morris for a powerful duet of Morris’ Girl track “Common.” Here’s hoping Carlile gets an official set of her own next year. B.M.
“CMA Fest, eat your fuckin’ heart out!” hollered Jaren Johnston on Thursday night as the Cadillac Three pulverized a tightly packed and sweaty crowd inside Nashville club the Basement with a hard-rocking set. Having played CMA Fest’s riverfront stage for the past few years, the local threesome of Johnston, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray decided to host their own party this year, using the concert to also launch their new Country Fuzz clothing line. The set list was peak TC3 too, touching on swaggering staples like “Cadillacin'” and “Back It Up” and muscular ballads like “White Lightning” and “Take Me to the Bottom.” New single “Crackin’ Cold Ones With the Boys,” with its Gary Glitter beat and big chorus, was a highlight, but it was the old favorite “Tennessee Mojo” that best embodied the guys’ never-give-up rebel spirit. J.H.
Tenille Townes’ sharp, lyrically dense songs like “Somebody’s Daughter” and “Jersey on the Wall” are perfectly fine for the stripped-down coffeehouse treatment, but they also scale up beautifully. The Canadian singer-songwriter demonstrated as much during her brief set at Spotify House, cranking up and rocking out with a full band that could easily switch between psychedelia-tinged country-rock and frothy synth pop, adding new depth to some already layered compositions. Townes also had a memorable appearance at Nissan Stadium on Saturday night, playing comedic foil to Dierks Bentley with impromptu Nineties country covers and then nailing Elle King’s parts on “Different for Girls.” J.F.
One of the best parts of attending CMA Fest is catching performances from legendary artists, especially when they’re at Nissan Stadium. Jo Dee Messina mesmerized the Friday night crowd with a string of her hits, including “Heads Carolina, Tails California.” On Sunday, it was Trisha Yearwood’s turn. While fans were gearing up for Old Dominion, a spotlight shone on a small stage in the crowd, revealing the singer. It was a bittersweet surprise, however, as Yearwood performed just one song, her wistful new single “Every Girl in this Town.” Still, with only one tune, Miss Yearwood — as her husband Garth Brooks calls her — proved she’s still one of our greatest vocalists, country or otherwise. B.M.
Former X Factor contestant Willie Jones played the Maui Jim Broadway Stage on Saturday, introducing CMA Fest to his soulful, creative take on country music. Joined by a three-piece band and a hype man/DJ, Jones made the most of a lunchtime set, drawing a sizable crowd with songs like the hip-hop-influenced “Down for It” and the infectious, nostalgic “Runs in Our Blood.” Jones may have been on a small stage this year, but he’s poised to enter the big leagues. B.M.
Knoxville, Tennessee, native Emily Ann Roberts drew a standing-room-only crowd to her Sunday afternoon performance at the indoor Acoustic Corner stage, likely thanks to her time on Season 9 of The Voice. With support from a scaled-down band, Roberts showed off some serious vocal firepower, stretching out stratospheric notes and tossing in tricky runs with the easy confidence of a pro athlete. But with clever, hyper-melodic songs like “Stuck on Me & You,” Roberts also showed she’s got plenty of other weapons in her arsenal. J.F.
So what if Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman forgot to warn everyone at their Women of Nashville brunch, which they hosted with Kelsea Ballerini, that their new Day Drinking canned wines actually contained two full glasses? It would be hard to blame anyone for needing a hefty drink before the CMA festivities began, even at noon, but Tuesday’s event was about celebrating the women that keep Nashville’s musical community thriving, even if they aren’t always recognized on the radio. “I’m here to raise up the army of girls that I know are making compelling music and to fight the fight together,” Fairchild told the crowd at the Thompson Hotel before launching into an acoustic version of “Girl Crush” with Ballerini joining in. The latter helped push that fight further his week, as her single “Miss Me More” has now hit Number One. M.M.
There is no shortage of cover songs at CMA Fest — they’re surefire crowd-pleasers and an easy way to engage an audience who may not be entirely familiar with your repertoire (or just got too drunk to remember it). Rachel Wammack strayed from the usual country classics to pick from some more modern selections: on Thursday at the Chevy Breakout Stage, she offered a spitfire rendition of Brothers Osborne’s “Ain’t My Fault,” but really hit her stride on a version of Maggie Rogers’ “Light On” at the Spotify House on Friday, which showcased both her breathy breaks and soulful belt. M.M.
Decked out in animal print, a Queen shirt and a guitar strap bearing the name of his beloved grandmother Bettie, Jimmie Allen got points at the HGTV Lodge on Thursday for the most clever mash-up of the festival, blending together his hit debut single “Best Shot” with Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Allen loaded his set with even more sentimentality, including nods to how Bettie inspired him and a new song, “Still on Fire,” about the strength of long-term love that proved how romantic dedication can sound just as fresh as a clever breakup anthem. M.M.