Tens of thousands of fans descend upon Nashville this week for the 2019 edition of CMA Fest, with many of them making the pilgrimage over the pedestrian bridge on the Cumberland River to Nissan Stadium for the nightly concerts. Those cost money and require a ticket, but much of the festival is free. Here’s 25 freebies that we think you just can’t miss.
Here is a crazy thought: Billy Currington has so many hits at this point that he’ll only be able to cram about half of them into his hour-long free set opening CMA Fest. Among those are “People Are Crazy,” “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right” and “Good Directions,” but whatever the soulful singer plays, you can rest assured you’ll know every word. Thursday, Riverfront Stage, 10:00 a.m.
Shreveport, Louisiana, native Willie Jones emerged from X Factor purgatory with 2018’s “Runs in Our Blood,” a minor hit that mixed nostalgic country-pop party tropes and atmosphere with convincing hip-hop style. He’s looking for even bigger things in 2019 with a new album and the single “Down for It,” which complements his earthy baritone by grafting mandolin and banjo onto a surgical Music Row hook. Saturday, Maui Jim Broadway Stage, 12:45 p.m.
She’s a longtime CMA Fest veteran with a massive hit catalog that continues to resonate with fans, but it’s the next chapter of the fiery Texan’s musical legacy that warrants close attention: her soon-to-be-released LP, While I’m Livin’, was produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings. Listen for new songs onstage, and revel in her unexpected performance style, including a gift for deliciously unscripted stage patter. Saturday, Spotify House at Ole Red, 9:00 p.m.
One of the Nineties country boom’s oft-overlooked heroes, Joe Diffie had an extended run with hits like “John Deere Green,” “Pickup Man” and “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” that proudly showed off his honky-tonk credentials. In the intervening years, he’s also released a great bluegrass album (Homecoming) and dabbled in country-rap with “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun,” sounding just as great as he did when he first came on the scene. Thursday, Forever Country Stage, 11:00 a.m.
The Nissan Stadium mega-concerts may kick off this same night, but few things compare to witnessing the Cadillac Three in a hot and sweaty club. Be prepared to get in line early: doors are at 5:30 p.m. and only the first 150 fans get in. Hannah Dasher and Austin Jenckes open the show, which doubles as the launch of TC3’s new Country Fuzz clothing line. Thursday, The Basement, 5:30 p.m.
With an album as good as Girl Going Nowhere, Ashley McBryde should be playing the Nissan Stadium stage, which, if all is right with the world, is where we will see her some day. But on Saturday at the Riverfront, she’s sure to come armed with plenty of whiskey-fueled fire and lyrical grit for her performance — and hopefully a preview of the new music she’s been working on in the studio. Saturday, Riverfront Stage, 12:15 p.m.
Whether singing about rodeo (“Dear Rodeo”) or romance (“On My Way to You”), Cody Johnson is expert at selling his songs live onstage. Why? Because he’s an energetic showman, distinguishing himself not only from some of the stand-there-and-sing Texas artists but from Nashville’s top stars too. Saturday, Spotify House at Ole Red, 6:30 p.m.
There’s no bigger story in country music right now than that of Lil Nas X. And Spotify knows it, booking the “Old Town Road” sensation to perform at their annual Spotify House. But don’t look for him on the tiny indoor stage of Ole Red on Broadway — he’s performing on the venue’s roof. Thursday, Spotify House at Ole Red, 12:30 a.m.
One takeaway from the recent massive success of Luke Combs is that country fans love a relatable everyman. Riley Green is cut from similar cloth: an Alabama native who sings with tenderness about his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s (“Numbers on the Cars”) one minute and slyly plays loverboy who meets his match (“There Was This Girl”) the next, serving it all up with some meat-and-potatoes country-rock. Sunday, Riverfront Stage, 3:15 p.m.
Country duo the Sisterhood Band bring an impressive musical pedigree to CMA Fest — Alyssa Bonagura is the daughter of Kathy Baillie and Michael Bonagura of Eighties country hitmakers Baillie and the Boys, while Ruby Stewart is the daughter of rock icon Rod Stewart. Together, they sing like family on smartly written, sparkling country-pop offerings like “Get Up and Go” and “Bullet.” Friday, Maui Jim Broadway Stage, 1:25 p.m.
Whatever the prevailing style may be, Nashville is first and foremost a song town, and powerful publishing shop Creative Nation will showcase some of its catalog during CMA Fest. Leader Luke Laird has numerous hits including Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name,” Eric Church’s “Drink in My Hand” and Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots”; Steve Moakler and Kassi Ashton each have their own engaging recordings; and Barry Dean has written gems like Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” and Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys.” Friday, HGTV Lodge, 2:00 p.m.
The Arkansas native, whose songs have been cut by Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan, Reba and Lee Ann Womack, recently unveiled the first of four EPs she’ll release this year, in which each of the four chapters traces the narrative of a single character. Listen to her tell her Southern stories live, which crackle with raw emotion and Faulkner-esque detail. Friday, Acoustic Corner, 3:05 p.m.
Despite only launching his solo career in earnest a little over a year ago, Kyle Daniel has become a deft songwriter and powerhouse performer, delivering tight sets that aren’t afraid to take a detour into Allman Brothers jam territory. The Kentucky native will sing about life’s losers, stoners and rebels at CMA Fest on Sunday, backed by his crack band of road dogs. Sunday, Maui Jim Broadway Stage, 12:05 p.m.
No artist currently making music in Nashville is as criminally underappreciated as Charlie Worsham. And few singer-songwriters whose material is as fresh and invigorating can also shred on guitar with the same dizzying dexterity. The mainstream’s loss, however, is the discriminating music lover’s gain, as Worsham’s live sets deliver strong doses of down-to-earth wit and whimsy between bone-rattling guitar licks. Sunday, HGTV Lodge, 12:00 p.m.
Overlook Lauren Jenkins‘ debut album No Saint — the Texas native’s fresh approach to songwriting, country music and Americana — at your own peril. The same goes for her live shows, where Jenkins mesmerizes with her sharp lyricism and charisma to burn. Saturday, Maui Jim Broadway Stage, 2:45 p.m.
With introspective songs about the human condition, Devin Dawson lives up to the Dark Horse title of his debut, making him Nashville’s most enigmatic contemporary star. He’s not singing about sunny days at the lake, but looking deep into his soul. Expect him to challenge fans on the river. Saturday, Riverfront Stage, 1:45 p.m.
The HGTV Lodge is one of the best curated stages of CMA Fest — it’s also one of the most difficult to score access to. But those who do are rewarded with stripped-down sets by major talent, like Dierks Bentley, who tees up his supersized Saturday night Nissan Stadium performance with this intimate showcase. Saturday, HGTV Lodge, 2:00 p.m.
Canadian-born Tenille Townes is a storyteller through and through: she’s been opening Dierks Bentley’s arena shows with nothing but herself and a guitar, captivating audiences with songs like the beautifully empathetic “Somebody’s Daughter.” On Friday she’ll take her tales to the Chevrolet Breakout Stage, bringing plenty of introspection to the party-heavy CMA Fest — and a rock & roll spirit, too. Friday, Chevrolet Breakout Stage, 4:30 p.m.
Since bridging bluegrass and country music in the Eighties, Ricky Skaggs has been rightfully enshrined in the Halls of Fame for both art forms and remains not only Bill Monroe’s most shining disciple but an inspiration to musicians of all stripes. The legendary entertainer, who’ll play Bonnaroo four days after this gig, continues to breathe new life into vintage music, ensuring a set that will appeal to fans of all ages. Sunday, Forever Country Stage, 11:00 a.m.
A few years ago at CMA Fest, Carly Pearce was the buzzy new act with a bombshell single, her heartbreaking ballad “Every Little Thing.” This year, she’s appearing with a new album in the works, a dance-worthy track “Closer to You” and a career on a trajectory to country superstardom. Come for hits like “Hide the Wine,” stay for those pristine vocals and surefire spikes of her bluegrass roots. Friday, HGTV Lodge, 11:00 a.m.; Saturday, Riverfront Stage, 2:30 p.m.
Morgan Wallen has successfully navigated the transition from Voice also-ran to chart-topping country star, updating his image to something approaching redneck hipster and releasing his excellent debut album If I Know Me in 2018. Wallen’s songs like “Up Down” are certifiable party jams, but it’s the cleverly written burners like “Whiskey Glasses” — now a Number One hit — and Wallen’s perfectly modulated sandpaper-rough croon that make him worth another look. Thursday, HGTV Lodge, 3:00 p.m.; Friday, Riverfront Stage, 2:30 p.m.
Last month, the rock-Tejano quartet decimated a local club with a furious show that was broadcast on Nashville station Lightning 100. Here’s your chance to catch their off-the-rails performance style in the flesh and hear some of the punchy new songs the group has been working on (“No More, No Mas” is a winner), along with live favorites like the thumping “River Man.” Friday, Maui Jim Broadway Stage, 4:00 p.m.
As Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” continues its domination, fellow country-rap mixologists like Blanco Brown are on the ascent. Georgia native Brown turned heads with his delightful, looped-pedal-steel dance number “The Git Up” earlier in 2019 and just recently put out his self-titled EP with new tracks like “Georgia Power” that feature his skillful combination of acoustic country-soul and rhythm-heavy rap. Friday, Acoustic Corner, 12:45 p.m.
On Monday, Kassi Ashton debuted the swaggering new song “Field Party,” which she claims she wasn’t supposed to release until after CMA Fest. But that’s just how Ashton operates: tell her something she can’t do, and she’ll do it 10 times over. Expect that same fearless, give-no-shits approach at her CMA Fest set, along with the Missouri native’s huge, soulful voice. Thursday, Chevrolet Breakout Stage, 4:00 p.m.
If there’s a group whose potential matches all the inevitable Dixie Chicks comparisons, it’s Runaway June — the trio of Naomi Cook, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne. So far they’ve showed off a strong point of view and serious songwriting chops with singles like “Lipstick” and “Buy My Own Drinks,” currently their highest-charting release at Number 21. Thursday, Riverfront Stage, 12:00 p.m.