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CMA Music Festival 2018: 20 Best Free Concerts

From Ashley McBryde and Michael Ray to the Last Bandoleros and Midland, the must-see no-ticket-required sets this week in Nashville

michael ray, ashley mcbryde

Michael Ray and Ashley McBryde are among the must-see free concerts at the 2018 CMA Music Festival in Nashville.

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Brett Eldredge posted a photo to Instagram this week of his first-ever CMA Music Festival appearance in 2010 – a set that, by his account, attracted a whopping 30 fans. This year, he’s playing to thousands on the main stage at Nissan Stadium. It’s such a success story that earns CMA Fest its reputation as a launching pad for young talent, many of whom perform on the free stages scattered throughout downtown.

Ahead of CMA Music Fest’s official kick-off on Thursday (it runs through Sunday night), we’ve combed through the overwhelming schedule to pick the 20 must-see free sets of the long weekend. Many are new artists, some are established vets, but all are sure to command your attention. 

Jimmie Allen

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Jimmie Allen

When: Sunday, June 10th, 1:50 p.m.
Where: Chevy Breakout Stage
The Chevy Breakout Stage is an appropriate setting to see Jimmie Allen – the country upstart has truly had a breakout year. He’s found viral success through his self-titled debut EP, particularly with tracks “Blue Jean Baby” and “Best Shot.” A pop-country crooner with a touch of soul, Allen’s performances drip with charisma, an attribute that’s only sure to grow more pronounced when the Nashville-by-way-of-Delaware artist brings his songs to a live audience. B.M.

Last Bandoleros

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The Last Bandoleros

When: Sunday, June 10th, 3:25 pm
Where: Maui Jim Broadway State at Hard Rock Café
They haven’t yet released their major label debut, but that didn’t stop Rolling Stone Country from tagging the Last Bandoleros as one of country’s most important new bands: and that’s because few others are combining such a diverse sampling of influences (you can hear everything from Tejano flourishes to punk-rock fury in their sound) and coming out with something that works so damn well. It’s hard to imagine the foursome being contained by the smallish Hard Rock stage, but it’ll certainly be thrilling to see them bring their rowdy harmonies to the afternoon crowd. M.M.

Charlie Worsham

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Charlie Worsham

When: Thursday, June 7th, 10:30 a.m.
Where: Chevy Breakout Stage
Charlie Worsham deserves to play far larger stages than the Chevy Breakout Stage, but the silver lining is you get to see one of country’s most talented artists in one of the festival’s more intimate settings. Worsham has a small but formidable catalog of tunes to pull from, including debut Rubberband single “Could It Be” as well as genre-bending cuts from his excellent 2017 album Beginning of Things like “Cut Your Groove.” Regardless of the set list, expect a healthy does of shredding from Worsham, who’s as talented a guitar slinger as he is a songwriter. B.M.

Austin Jenckes

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Austin Jenckes

When: Thursday, June 7th, 3:05
Where: Nashville Acoustic Corner Stage
If you know Austin Jenckes, there’s a better than average chance that it’s from his past life – i.e., when he was a contestant on NBC’s The Voice in 2013, belting out a wrenching rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” He’s certainly got the tools to deliver a showstopper, with a set of smoky, soulful pipes that deliver a Chris Stapleton-worthy gut punch. But Jenckes, whose songs have been recorded by Lee Brice, really excels when singing his own material like the ghostly “Same Beer, Different Day” or heartland stomper “Ride Away.” Jenckes is perfectly comfortable on a big stage, but catching him in this intimate setting at the Bridgestone Arena visitor center will be the perfect up-close opportunity to hear just what the Washington state native is made of. J.G.

Cam

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Cam

When: Friday, June 8th, 10:00 a.m.
Where: Chevy Riverfront Stage
While there are plenty folks patiently (or not so patiently) awaiting a new album from Cam, catching the California-born singer-songwriter is a pretty darn good way to pass the time in between LPs. Look for Cam to play fan favorites from her 2015 debut album Untamed, and cross your fingers that she uses CMA Fest to debut some new tracks, as well – along with the criminally underplayed “Diane,” one of the best country songs of the past year. She’ll play an early morning set at the Riverfront Stage, meaning not just good tunes but a reprieve from the oppressive Tennessee heat, too. B.M.

Joe Diffie

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Joe Diffie

When: Sunday, June 10th, 2:45 p.m.
Where: Budweiser Forever Country Stage
If Joe Diffie had only ever recorded “Honky Tonk Attitude,” “John Deere Green” and “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” that would have been enough reason to go see him at any CMA Music Festival or Fan Fair. But Diffie, one of the finest honky-tonk singers to emerge from the Nineties country boom, built up an impressive string of hits like “Ships That Don’t Come In” and “Pickup Man” that tempered his grittier blue-collar roots with a winking, dad-joke sense of humor. His chart fortunes didn’t follow him into the new millennium, but he’s continued to be a draw as a live performer and periodically put out new music – including the underrated 2010 bluegrass effort Homecoming. In 2018, Diffie released his first new music in five years with the funky “I Got This,” reasserting his blue-collar bona fides and suggesting that there’s not too much difference between skilled labor and skilled loving. J.F.

Devin Dawson

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Devin Dawson

When: Saturday, June 9th, 1:45 p.m.
Where: Chevy Riverfront Stage
Devin Dawson is one of those rare beasts of the Internet era, an artist who first came to notoriety via a viral video but has gone on to carve out his own artistic personality. In the California native’s case, it was a mash-up of Taylor Swift songs (performed with friend Louisa Wendorff) that put him on the map, but it was his own killer songwriting and silky smooth, R&B-inflected vocals that landed him a Warner Music Nashville deal. Dark Horse, Dawson’s debut LP, came out last winter, and his forward-thinking blend of styles is the stuff to make you weak in the knees — even when he throws some hints of his metal past into the mix, which he’s prone to do. J.G.

LANco

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Lanco

When: Friday, June 8th, 4:00 p.m.
Where: Chevy Riverfront Stage
If we were placing a bet, we’d wager that Lanco’s set next year will be across the river at Nissan Stadium. After all, 2018 has been a big year for the band: their debut album Hallelujah Nights scored a first-week Number One on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums survey, producing a chart-topping single in “Greatest Love Story.” There’s a reason Dierks Bentley chose the high-energy five-piece led by singer Brandon Lancaster to open his Mountain High Tour – see for yourself on Friday afternoon. B.M.

Ashley Mcbryde

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Ashley McBryde

When: Thursday, June 7th, 3:10 p.m.
Where: Chevy Breakout Stage
If you love country music with compelling storytelling, look no further than Ashley McBryde. Upon the release of her debut album Girl Going Nowhere, the Arkansas-born songwriter earned comparisons to Brandy Clark and her musical champion, Eric Church, thanks in large part to her uncanny knack for documenting the trials and tribulations of small-town life in unflinching detail. McBryde’s Thursday set at the Chevy Breakout Stage is sure to be one of the festival’s more stirring displays of songwriting – and a can’t-miss. B.M.

Michael Ray

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Michael Ray

When: Saturday, June 9th, 8:55 p.m.
Where: Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage Ascend Amphitheater
Florida native Michael Ray’s early hits like “Kiss You in the Morning” and “Think a Little Less” positioned him as a sly loverman and radio rewarded him for it with a Number One and Two song, respectively. Onstage, he’s the embodiment of that persona and then some – an ace guitar player, Ray can rip with the best of them or just as easily scale back to sing a vulnerable, stone-country ballad. He’ll have multiple opportunities to show all these sides with several performances scheduled throughout CMA Music Festival. Ray will also be coming into this year’s Fest with the wind in his sails: his new album Amos (named for his grandfather) just arrived on Friday, June 1st, and his current single “Get to You” is looking like a legitimate hit as it makes its way through the Top 20. J.F.

jenny tolman

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Jenny Tolman

When: Friday, June 8, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Nashville Acoustic Corner Stage
With her music video for “Something to Complain About” resonating with CMT viewers – it recently topped CMT Music’s 12-Pack Countdown – Jenny Tolman is succeeding in welcoming fans to Jennyville, the musical wonderland the Nashville native is creating on her forthcoming debut album. It’s a candy-colored place, populated by Tolman’s clever lyrics and sassy delivery, both of which will be on display when she performs at the Nashville Acoustic Corner Stage on Friday and later Sunday afternoon at the Music City Light Stage. Expect her grass-roots hit, which takes to task those who bitch about their diamond shoes fitting too tightly, along with a healthy dose of girl-next-door charm. J.H.

Terri Clark

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Terri Clark

When: Thursday, June 7th, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Budweiser Forever Country
Terri Clark could be forgiven for coasting on past accomplishments at this point in her career. Owner of a dozen Number One singles between Canadian and U.S. charts and the only female member of the Grand Ole Opry from north of the border, she’s maintained a regular public profile in recent years hosting a syndicated radio show Country Gold with Terri Clark, which has earned her plaudits from the CMA and ACM alike. But the “I Wanna Do It All” singer is heading back into the recording studio this year, having dusted off the mic recently for “One Drink Ago,” a new single with fellow Canadian Dallas Smith that’s a warm-up for Clark’s next LP, due out later this year. J.G.

The Cadillac Three

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The Cadillac Three

When: Friday June 8th, 10:45 a.m.
Where: Chevy Riverfront Stage
Gritty, booming and dangerously infectious country-rock before lunch is even served? Yes, please. The Cadillac Three can turn any venue into a super sweaty, rowdy bar, which they will no doubt do in their late-morning set at the Riverfront, rattling the boats nearby and filling CMA Fest with plenty of feedback, distortion and spiraling guitars. The trio of Jaren Johnston, Kelby Ray and Neil Mason will take a break back in Nashville between dates on their Long Hair Don’t Care Tour, likely bringing songs like “Dang If We Didn’t” and the blazing ballad “White Lightning” to their set – both dynamite singles that should have made serious dents on the charts. M.M.

Erin Enderlin

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Erin Enderlin

When: Friday June 8th, 11:35 am
Where: Nashville Acoustic Corner Stage
As a songwriter, Erin Enderlin has had her work cut by Luke Bryan, Randy Travis and Lee Ann Womack, but she’s also an artist whose albums – one produced by Jamey Johnson – speak to the frailties of the human condition and the broken promises of American life through vibrant storytelling. Though singer-songwriter approaches like Enderlin’s don’t always have a place among the radio hits of CMA Fest, the new Nashville Acoustic Corner Stage will give her a unique opportunity to showcase her delicate, deeply Southern lyricism with little but a guitar: “I’m living proof that heartache still sells,” she sings on Whiskeytown Crier‘s “The Blues Are Alive and Well.” Indeed it does. M.M.

Clare Dunn

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Clare Dunn

When: Friday, June 8th, 7:00 p.m.
Where: Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage, Ascend Amphitheater
Criminally underrated Colorado native Clare Dunn is a dual threat much in the same vein as Keith Urban or Brad Paisley, a slam-bang singer who can also shred on guitar. Those chops have been on full display with country rave-ups like “Get Out” and “Tuxedo,” but despite placements on tours with everyone from Florida Georgia Line to Miranda Lambert, Dunn’s songs have yet to make a dent on the charts. The new track “More” premiered last month and bodes particularly well for Dunn – a song tailor-made for summer-anthem status that will sound just right on the Ascend Amphitheater stage. J.G.

The Wild Feathers

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The Wild Feathers

When: Friday, June 8th, 4:30 p.m.
Where: Chevy Breakout Stage
Singsong harmonies have always been a key part of the Wild Feathers’ arsenal, but as the Nashville band gears up to release its third studio LP later this month, they’re ratcheting those layered vocals up a notch. “Big Sky,” the lead single from the forthcoming Greetings From the Neon Frontier, channels the peaceful, easy feeling of early Eagles and gentle, jangly picking of peak-era Allman Brothers ballads with a rustic, rough-hewn charm. Doubtless that new Neon Frontier material, along with past fan faves like “The Ceiling,” will evoke those cool mountain breezes when Wild Feathers play the Chevy Breakout Stage. J.G.

Everette

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Everette

When: Thursday, June 7th, 7 p.m.
Where: Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage Ascend Amphitheater
One of the more intriguing label signings of late, duo Everette (Brent Rupard and Anthony Olympia) joined the Broken Bow Records roster alongside Jason Aldean and Dustin Lynch in February. Both men hail from the mostly rural Bullitt County in Kentucky and began working together when they were students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, singing cover songs for the college crowd while refining the mixture of influences that would come to be their sound, from classic rock (Tom Petty) to country (Randy Travis) to guitar pop (John Mayer). The pair combine those approaches in their songwriting and original recordings (for which they play most of the instruments), like the loping, carefree “Slow Roll,” and the stormy, Spaghetti Western-evoking “Relapse.” J.F.

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