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CMA Music Festival 2017: 20 Best Free Concerts

From Keith Urban and Bobby Bare to Brothers Osborne and Maren Morris

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Keith Urban and Maren Morris are among the artists you can see perform for free at CMA Music Festival in Nashville.

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Scoring a ticket to CMA Music Festival – running this Thursday through Sunday in Nashville – can be a tough prospect. Fans often buy their same seats from year to year for the nightly concerts at Music City’s NFL stadium, and even if tickets are available, they’re a financial splurge to many. But the beauty of CMA Fest – started in 1972 as Fan Fair – is its wealth of free concerts. Whether along the Cumberland on the Riverfront Stage or in the park opposite Bridgestone Arena, there are multiple stages to catch both rising artists and chart-topping country stars. Here’s the 20 free shows you just can’t miss.

Old Dominion

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Old Dominion

When: Thursday, June 8th, 10:00 a.m.
Where: Chevrolet Riverfront Stage
Old Dominion’s 2015 debut, Meat and Candy, was a sweet-and-savory collection of pop hooks and twangy guitars. Now this Nashville quintet is prepping for the follow-up, lead by their new single “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart,” a song that is full of unique, party-ready percussion and lyrics that are both smart and sensitive. CMA Fest might just be the place to catch a preview of what else this band of songwriters has in store for their second act. It could be classic country crooning, anthemic choruses or a little hip-hop-inspired vocals that fire as fast as singer Matt Ramsey’s fingers on his Telecaster. Odd are, they’ll cover all those bases and more. 

Bobby Bare

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Bobby Bare

When: Friday, June 9th, 11:15 a.m.
Where: Durango Music Spot
Contemporary stars are everywhere at CMA Fest, so don’t miss this opportunity to catch a bona fide country legend live in an intimate setting. Bare may have gotten his start with his debut album “Detroit City” and Other Hits in 1963, but the 82-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member is still writing and performing, releasing his new album Things Change on May 26th. Over the course of his 50-plus-year career, Bare collaborated with Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller and Waylon Jennings, not to mention his son, the singer-songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. See his show and witness a country legacy that is still being written.

Luke Combs

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Luke Combs

When: Sunday, June 10th, 12:15 p.m.
Where: Chevrolet Riverfront Stage
The timing couldn’t be better for Luke Combs’ three appearances at CMA Fest. With “Hurricane” blowing its way to Number One in late May and a full-length album, This One’s for You, arriving with gusto last Friday, Combs is poised to become the festival’s breakout star, straddling the line between rookie status and the seasoned credibility of a country chart-topper. Like Eric Church – a fellow North Carolina native and alum from Combs’ own alma mater, Appalachian State – he looks beyond the Music Row mainstream for inspiration, rolling R&B and Southern soul into an album that was finished long before he signed a major-label record deal. 

RaeLynn

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RaeLynn

When: Sunday, June 11th, 10:45 a.m.
Where: Chevrolet Riverfront Stage
It’s been a wild ride for RaeLynn, who, after competing on season two of The Voice, signed to Republic Nashville but was never given a fair shot at releasing a debut album. Flash forward to 2017 and RaeLynn finally had her due, unveiling Wildhorse via Warner Music Nashville – and watching it debut at Number One. Produced by Jimmy Robbins and Nicolle Galyon, Wildhorse sees RaeLynn co-writing with a who’s who of Nashville songwriters, including Hillary Lindsey, Marshall Altman and Barry Dean. The 23-year-old songwriter is as feisty as she is talented, and her three total appearances during CMA Fest (she’s also at Cracker Barrel Stage on June 10th and the HGTV Lodge on June 11th) will be among the week’s most spirited performances. 

Brothers Osborne

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Brothers Osborne

When: Thursday, June 8th, 12:00 p.m.
Where: Riverfront Stage
The family that CMAs together, stays together. TJ and John Osborne will kick off this year’s Fest with a Thursday double-header, hitting the banks of the Cumberland for a noontime Riverfront Stage gig before moving to the HGTV Lodge at 4:30 pm. They’ve also just gotten primo billing at Nissan Stadium for one of the ticketed shows. There’s a new album in the works, as well as plenty of material from last year’s Pawn Shop – including the Top 40 hit “It Ain’t My Fault,” which they released earlier this year – to fill all three sets. Come for “Rum,” the band’s salute to summertime slurps; stay for their live version of “Stay a Little Longer,” which grows into an epic shred-fest on the back of John’s guitar outro.

Keith Urban

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Keith Urban

When: Thursday, June 8th, 2:00 p.m.
Where: HGTV Lodge
Three days before co-headlining CMA’s biggest stage – the 69,000-capacity Nissan Stadium – alongside Brad Paisley, Keith Urban will downsize his show to a more intimate level at the HGTV Lodge, where his Thursday afternoon set is sandwiched between a performance by former tour mate Maren Morris and a Q&A session with Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Will he perform songs from last year’s platinum-selling Ripcord? Will he welcome Morris back to the stage for an old-time’s-sake performance of “We Were Us,” a live staple from the pair’s 2016 tour? All bets are off, although you can safely expect lots of wood paneling, fiery fretwork and crowd sing-alongs, with the bulk of the audience consisting of winners from an HGTV contest. 

Dan + Shay

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Dan + Shay

When: Saturday, June 10th, 9:55 p.m.
Where: Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage at Ascend Amphitheater
With record sales these days far from guaranteed, young acts like Dan + Shay are all the more noteworthy in that their music moves units. With a mere two records under their belt, the fresh-faced duo already has two Platinum-certified singles to their credit (including the most recent, “From the Ground Up,” which notched its mark in January). Even though it’s been over a year since Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney released Obsessed, they’ve stayed busy on other projects, contributing “When I Pray for You” to the film soundtrack for The Shack and providing vocals to EDM violinist Lindsey Stirling’s song “Those Days” and Warner labelmate RaeLynn’s “Say.” The pair’s February headlining show at the Ryman was an engaging mix of their radio fare and left-field covers like Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.”

Maren Morris

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Maren Morris

When: Thursday, June 8th, 12:00 p.m.
Where: HGTV Lodge
Maren Morris is one of the hottest new acts playing CMA Fest’s evening shows at Nissan Stadium this year, but if you don’t have a pass you can still catch the Grammy winner for free at the HGTV Lodge on June 8th. While Morris likely won’t bring full production to the rustic Lodge, she’ll make up for it in intimacy, giving lucky fans an increasingly rare chance to see her back on the kind of stages she was gracing just a year ago. Look for the Texas singer and songwriter to perform cuts from her acclaimed debut album, Hero, including breakout hit “My Church” and current single “I Could Use a Love Song.” Playing at noon on opening day, Morris is one of the festival’s very first performers. Get there early – this one should fill up fast.

Jon Pardi

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Jon Pardi

When: Thursday, June 8th, 11:45 a.m.
Where: Chevrolet Riverfront Stage
With his 2016 breakout California Sunrise still making waves and producing hits, a Jon
Pardi set during CMA Fest is something country fans won’t want to miss. The
West Coast native has been touring with Dierks Bentley for the last few months,
growing accustomed to big stages and bigger sounds, making his already
energetic set that much more incendiary. While Pardi told Rolling Stone Country that he’s mellowed
with age
, the 32-year-old can still throw down harder than performers a
decade younger. He’ll headline the CMT on Tour trek this fall.

Brandy Clark

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Brandy Clark

When: Saturday, June 10th, 1:00 p.m.
Where: Chevrolet Riverfront Stage
Sure, Brandy Clark may have cut her teeth
writing songs for LeAnn Rimes, Miranda Lambert and the Band Perry (including the
Number One hit “Better Dig Two”), but the Nashville vet has established herself as a commanding artist,
earning nods from critics and the music industry alike. 2016’s Grammy-nominated
Big Day in a Small Town is a rock-tinged
collection of songs about rural life that doesn’t put on airs, which makes her
current tour with Charlie Worsham a perfect pairing. Can’t make it to CMA Fest?
Clark is back in Nashville in the fall, having already committed to perform at
this year’s six-day AmericanaFest in September.

Charlie Worsham

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Charlie Worsham

When: Friday, June 9th, 4:00 p.m.
Where: HGTV Lodge
Last CMA Fest, Charlie Worsham hosted a midnight jamboree at Ernest Tubb Record Shop that drew massive crowds and massive guests – like the Chief himself, Eric Church – and showed that this virtuoso not only has a dedicated fan base, but a lot of peer respect too. If all were right in the world, Worsham’s sophomore LP, Beginning of Things, would have finally turned that adoration into radio spins and snagged him a spot at the main stage: but, for now, he’s still banging at those iron gates, singing and slinging his version of honest, quirky and cool country-rock. Whatever the venue, Worsham treats every show like a moment he’s earned through blood, sweat and tears, often bringing as much power with just himself, a guitar and a stack of pedals as a six-piece band.   

Rhonda Vincent, Daryle Singletary

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Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary

When: Thursday, June 8th, 2:00 p.m.
Where: Budweiser Forever Country Park Stage
Bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and Nineties traditionalist Daryle Singletary have worked with one another off and on over the years, including on Singletary’s 1995 self-titled debut album. In July, Vincent and Singletary will release their first-ever duets album, titled American Grandstand, which joins the two for some choice covers and a handful of originals. Singletary, with his limber, emotive croon, plays George Jones to Vincent’s pure-voiced Tammy Wynette on a stunning version of the famed couple’s “One,” as well as “Golden Ring,” shifting effortlessly to Conway Twitty-Loretta Lynn classics like “After the Fire Is Gone” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.” If you’re concerned that traditional country sounds are lacking at CMA Fest, fear no more. 

Muscadine Bloodline

Ryan S. Smith

Muscadine Bloodline

When: Saturday, June 10th, 10:30 a.m.
Where: Chevrolet Park Stage
One of Rolling
Stone Country
‘s 10 Artists You Need to Know in February 2017,
the Alabama duo skews toward the harder side of country with distorted guitars
and catchy turns of phrase. Their single “WD-40” is an ode to
a lover “that can fix anything /
like duct tape and WD-40″
and was all over Sirius XM’s The Highway earlier this year, giving the duo a ready-made sing-along at their gigs. Catch them now, as some high-profile opening slots this summer (with Jon Pardi, and Blackberry Smoke) may let the Muscadine cat out of the bag. 

Lillie Mae

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Lillie Mae

When: Saturday, June 10th, 12:05 p.m.
Where: Gildan Broadway Stage at Hard Rock Cafe
One of Lillie Mae’s finest tracks is the softly yodeling “Honky Tonks and Taverns,” and she’s certainly played both, as a member of her family’s modern-bluegrass outfit Jypsi: but she’s also taken the stage at British superfest Glastonbury, on fiddle and backing vocal for Jack White. It was the Third Man himself who signed Mae to his label for her solo debut, Forever and Then Some, and she carries plenty of Appalachian spirit alongside her well-earned rock swagger. Few people playing CMA this year could rattle off the virtues of both Layla’s Bluegrass Inn and Bridgestone Arena, but Mae is one of them, using the trademarks of the past to inspire a guidebook for some very present heartbreak.  

Kassi Ashton

Kassi Ashton

When: Saturday, June 10th, 3:40 p.m.
Where: Music City Stage
In two short years, Maren Morris went from playing the tailgate party outside of Nissan Stadium to, this Saturday, taking the stage right smack inside. It’s the kind of rise we wouldn’t be surprised to see from Kassi Ashton, who was signed to Luke Laird’s Creative Nation publishing before she even graduated college. You practically need a football field to house the massive pipes on this Missouri native, who melds the sass of Morris and the soulful boom of Chris Stapleton with a style all her own. Case in point: a performance in 2016 when Ashton transitioned a subdued version of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” into a raging blues-rock take on Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s” by kicking her legs up from a stool and proclaiming, “God bless you, Tammy Wynette, but that ain’t gonna work for me, I’m sorry.” Only someone with both talent and guts by the boatload could pull that off – and she did.  

Steve Moakler

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Steve Moakler

When: Friday, June 9th, 3:50 p.m.
Where: Chevrolet Park Stage
Like Chris Stapleton and Brandy Clark before him, Steve Moakler had a
successful career as a Music Row songwriter prior to setting out on his own.
The co-writer of “Riser,” which Dierks Bentley cut as the title track
for his 2015 album, released his latest LP Steel Town in March. Filled with moments from his early life growing up near
Pittsburgh, the record is a decidedly personal project and includes the fantastic “Wheels,” a reflection on how quickly we rush through our lives. 

Jessie James Decker

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Song Suffragettes

When: June 9th at 1:15 p.m.; June 11th at 4:00 p.m.
Where: CMA Close Up Stage at Fan Fair X
“Let the girls play” is the motto of the Song Suffragettes, a women-only singer-songwriter showcase that usually lives at Nashville’s the Listening Room, plucking the best upcoming talent in town for their Monday night residency. And with names like Kalie Shorr, Lindsay Ell and Jessie James Decker (pictured) among the featured performers for the CMA Fest editions, the songs alone will speak volumes, no bells or whistles needed beyond some acoustic guitars. But in a genre that still has trouble letting women hang for long – if ever – at the top of the charts, it’s a sly political move in a festival dedicated to drinking, dancing and feelin’ good. The Suffragettes aren’t about lecturing anyone on why country needs to step up and give women a chance: they’re about showing what gets lost when they’re counted out. 

Sara Evans

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Sara Evans and the Ladies of Country

When: Friday, June 9th, 7:00 p.m.
Where: Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage at Ascend Amphitheater
The debate over women’s representation in country music (particularly on the charts) rages on. Taking matters into her own hands, Sara Evans has curated an evening of ladies-only music at the Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage at Ascend Amphitheater. On tap for the evening are 3 Girls Rock into a Bar (Kelleigh Bannen, Ruthie Collins, Natalie Stovall), Danielle Bradbery, Kellie Pickler, Aubrie Sellers and Evans, who just released her new song “Marquee Sign.”

Walker Hayes

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Walker Hayes

When: Friday, June 9th, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Chevrolet Park Stage
One of the best parts of catching free shows at CMA Fest is getting unparalleled access to country’s best and brightest upcoming artists. Walker Hayes is one of them, and there’s a good chance that this time next year he’ll be playing to crowds far larger than the Chevrolet Park Stage can accommodate. Hayes has made waves with his 8Tracks mixtapes, one of which – Vol. 1: Good Shit – produced his breakout single, “You Broke Up With Me.” Like a beachier Sam Hunt, Hayes doesn’t limit himself to just three chords and the truth, often incorporating elements of hip-hop and pop into his songs. He’s not all fun and games, though, as seen on the getting-sober cut “Beer in the Fridge.” Look for a set that reflects those myriad influences.

Hailey Whitters

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Hailey Whitters

When: Sunday, June 11th, 4:05 p.m.
Where: Gildan Broadway Stage at Hard Rock Cafe
Hailey Whitters has had her share of cuts
as a songwriter, including ones by Martina McBride and Little Big Town, who
recorded “Happy People” for their 2017 release The Breaker. But Whitters is an equally impressive artist, releasing
her debut Black Sheep in 2015. Her
publisher and label Carnival Music has a long history of providing a home for
nonconformists like Brent Cobb and Mando Saenz, so Whitters’ outside-the-box
songs are a nice palate-cleanser if CMA Music Festival acts start to blend
together. Look for her to debut some new music from a planned fall
release. 

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