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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.

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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