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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. 

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

Ian Schofinski

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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