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CMA Music Festival 2018: 30 Best Things We Saw

From Carrie Underwood and Chris Stapleton’s main-stage stunners to breakout sets by Ashley McBryde and Dillon Carmichael

Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton

Carrie Underwood and Chris Stapleton's top-flight performances at Nissan Stadium were among our favorite things during the 2018 CMA Music Festival.

Rick Diamond/REX/Shutterstock, Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

The 2018 edition of CMA Music Festival had all the requisite star power that keeps tens of thousands of fans flocking to Nashville every June. Names like Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton and Jason Aldean all performed at the nightly concerts at Nissan Stadium, while rising talent like Carly Pearce, Dillon Carmichael, Ashley McBryde and Linsday Ell dotted stages around Music City, working their way up to larger-stage slots in the years to come.

Most performances were official CMA events, but others – like Dierks Bentley’s album-release party at the Ryman Auditorium – just happened to fall during festival week. As such, we cast a wide net for our recap, resulting in these 30 best things we saw.

Carly Pearce

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Ready for the Big Time: Carly Pearce

With the wind in her sails from a big CMT Awards win, Carly Pearce was prepared to show the crowd at Riverfront Stage just why she deserved the honor. Her brief midday set was studded with shimmering anthems from her debut, charming asides between her songs and a commanding stage presence that showed her ability to work a crowd while belting the big tunes or strutting to jams like her current single “Hide the Wine.” The opening chords of Pearce’s chart-topping hit “Every Little Thing” got a roar of approval from the crowd, who all seemed perfectly happy to be hearing a gut-wrenching ballad in the blazing afternoon sun. It’s easy enough to see, she’s ready for even bigger stages. J.F.

Dierks Bentley

Zachary Belcher

Best Late Night Jam: Dierks Bentley

While Jason Aldean was wrapping up the Nissan Stadium lineup across the river Thursday night, Dierks Bentley was just getting warmed up onstage at the Ryman Auditorium, performing his new record The Mountain in its entirety. Backed by his versatile band and mandolin king Sam Bush, Bentley drove home the idea of an album as a complete body of work, committing just as much sweat to re-creating deep tracks like “Goodbye in Telluride” and “Religion” as he did to its current Number One single “Woman, Amen.” At midnight ­– the official release of The Mountain – Bentley was hitting his stride, teeing up an encore of early hits (“What Was I Thinkin'” and “Up on the Ridge,” among them) that traced the path to where he is today. J.H.

dan and shay

Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Hitting Their Stride: Dan + Shay

Maybe it was their “Can you believe this?” expressions or the everyguy chemistry they share, but Dan + Shay were the most endearing act to perform at Nissan Stadium this CMA Fest. It’s impossible to not root for the hard-working guys – in fact, when D+S won Duo Video of the Year at the CMT Awards last week, no less than Brothers Osborne tweeted their praise of the band. On the main stage Thursday night, Shay Mooney and Dan Smyers delivered a strong set full of harmonies and hits, including their Number One “From the Ground Up,” made more dazzling by a sea of cellphone lights, and an inspired cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” But it was their performance of the intoxicating “Tequila,” with Mooney’s voice extending to the far reaches of the stadium, that showed Dan + Shay are a force to be reckoned with – as potent as a shot of 100 proof. J.H. 

Lauren Alaina

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Vocal Finesse: Lauren Alaina

Still glowing from the CMT Music Awards the night before, where she won Collaborative Video of the Year with Kane Brown for “What Ifs,” Lauren Alaina took the Riverfront Stage with triumphant poise. Glitzed up in a colorful sequined jumper, she told stories behind each original song in her short but satisfying set, which also included a medley of modern covers like Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” and throwback favorites like the Backstreets Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” Although she claimed she “peaked” the night before when she posted an impromptu red-carpet duet with the BSBs themselves on Instagram, the “Road Less Traveled” singer’s soulful vocal performance across multiple genres indicated that Alaina – as her song says – is doin’ fine. L.L.

Dillon Carmichael

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Lineup: Spotify’s Hot Country at Ole Red

Blake Shelton’s Ole Red bar was the place to be this CMA Fest, where the multilevel entertainment mecca hosted Spotify’s impeccable Hot Country lineup. Whether it was Austin Jenckes’ spine-tingling opening performance on Thursday morning or Midland’s ramshackle but righteous Saturday-night free-for-all, Spotify excelled in assembling some of the most buzzworthy acts over the weekend – and best evoked the spirit of Fan Fairs past, giving an intimate audience the opportunity to catch rising talent like Dillon Carmichael, Tenille Townes and Muscadine Bloodline up-close before their inevitable graduation to headliners. Even Shelton himself popped by, crashing Hunter Hayes’ late-night set on Thursday night. J.H.

Lindsay Ell

Jordan O'Donnell

Best John Mayer Tribute: Lindsay Ell

Lindsay Ell was the only solo female act (trio Runaway June also performed) to play Ascend Amphitheater on the festival’s first night, a trend that would be replicated across other stages throughout the weekend. For her half-hour set, she tore through songs from her 2017 debut album The Project, offering up some serious guitar shredding whenever the opportunity presented itself. She even threw in John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” from her latest release The Continuum Project, which reimagines Mayer’s 2006 album Continuum from start to finish. B.M.

Brothers Osborne

Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

Best Guitar Solos: Brothers Osborne

And on the eighth day God gave John Osborne the ability to melt faces. Stalking Nissan Stadium like a bearded barbarian, the Brothers Osborne guitarist delivered fleet-fingered solos that all but won the Thursday-night main-stage lineup. Opening with the Pawn Shop boot-stomper “It Ain’t My Fault,” John moved up and down his fretboard, wringing out notes that complemented sibling TJ’s heavy-duty vocals. A string of new material off their latest album Port Saint Joe followed, culminating with two monster outros from John in the underrated barnstormer “Shoot Me Straight” and their breakout hit “Stay a Little Longer.” J.H.

Luke Combs

Laura Roberts/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Mr. Charisma: Luke Combs

North Carolina native Luke Combs released his debut album This One’s for You the week before he played the riverfront at CMA Fest 2017, the same week his debut single “Hurricane” was reaching the top of the Country Airplay chart. He made the leap to the big stage at Nissan Stadium for the 2018 edition, toting a couple more Number One songs along with him  – not to mention a deluxe version of his album – and made the transition look completely effortless with his abundant supply of charisma and genuinely likable everyman persona. The songs ain’t half bad in live form, either: “When It Rains It Pours,” “One Number Away” and “She Got the Best of Me” all garnered huge applause from the stadium crowd, while Combs’ album cut “Honky Tonk Highway” showed his sincere affection for (and mastery of) Nineties country styles. J.F.

Ty Herndon


Best Welcome Presence: GLAAD

There are always plenty of non-profit organizations with footprints at CMA Fest, but seeing such a widespread presence from GLAAD was especially heartening, particularly at the beginning of Pride Month. GLAAD, which stands for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, had volunteers offering information, registering voters, and collecting donations throughout the festival grounds, with strong support from social media. The organization’s third Concert for Love and Acceptance, put on in conjunction with Ty Herndon and held at Wildhorse Saloon, was a sold-out event and featured a surprise appearance from Vince Gill. B.M. 

Lee Ann Womack

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Own the Room: Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack getting a performance slot at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest was a pleasant surprise, considering that the “I Hope You Dance” singer has been spending more time with the Americana crowd over the last few years. But her Saturday night-opening set, which she delivered to a half-empty stadium (shame on you guys, seriously) while being dive-bombed by Silence of the Lambs-sized moths, was a nice reminder that she’s still the best country singer in the business. She brought her entire arsenal, pouring quavering guilt into the sinner’s plea “The Way I’m Livin'” and then zeroing in on the heart of classic country with a sterling rendition of George Jones’ “You’re Still on My Mind.” To wrap up her show, she melded blues, country and psychedelic rock in the haunting “All the Trouble,” leaning into the performance with thundering conviction. It served as good lesson that the sometimes contentious worlds of country and Americana aren’t as far apart as they seem. J.F.

Carrie underwood

Rick Diamond/REX/Shutterstock

Best Entertainer of the Year: Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood was on some Reba McEntire shit when she closed out the Friday night lineup at Nissan Stadium, emphatically staking her claim as one of country’s greatest exports. In a sparkling emerald romper, she mined McEntire’s heightened sense of the theatrical on storytelling songs “Church Bells,” “Dirty Laundry” and “Blown Away.” She also trotted out some of her decade-old favorites, including the impossibly tricky “Wasted” and rowdy “Last Name,” finishing things up as usual with the now-classic “Before He Cheats.” But her searing ballad “Cry Pretty,” placed in the middle of her set, was all of these things: powerhouse singing, gripping drama and a subtle nod to Guns N’ Roses’ “Don’t Cry” in the final moments – some acknowledgement that she deserves to be in the Entertainer of the Year conversation every year. J.F.

Ashley McBryde

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Gonna Need a Bigger Stage: Ashley McBryde

The Chevy Breakout Stage in Walk of Fame Park played host to some well-attended sets, but none attracted the tremendous crowd that Ashley McBryde did. The Arkansas singer-songwriter packed in fans eager to sing along with cuts like “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega,” “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” and the magnificent “American Scandal,” which McBryde introduced by relaying how folks ask her if the Marilyn Monroe and JFK name-checking belter is a love song. That’s for the listener to decide, she said, before delivering a passionate performance that left little doubt how the songwriter felt. J.H.

Kip Moore

Anna Webber/GettyImages

Best Album Artist: Kip Moore

“You might be expecting to just hear the songs you’ve heard on the radio,” Kip Moore told the crowd at the HGTV Lodge on Friday morning, cracking a smile from beneath some dark sunglasses. “But that’s just not going to be the case right now.” In town after a score of sold-out international tour dates, Moore meant two things with that joke: that his music isn’t on the airwaves nearly as often as it should be, and his sets lean more on album cuts than singles, anyway. Flanked by his band on acoustic guitars, he played a combo of both, with versions of tracks like “The Bull,” “I’ve Been Around,” “Fast Women” and “More Girls Like You” delivered with heaps of passion, grit and enough rock & roll to make the Lodge at 11:00 am feel like a club at midnight – though where Moore really belongs is on the Nissan Stadium lineup. M.M.

Mason Ramsey

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Curiosity: Mason Ramsey

Mason Ramsey was everywhere this CMA Fest, delighting fans who helped the 11-year-old “yodeling Wal-Mart boy” become a viral sensation – and land him a joint record deal with Atlantic and Big Loud. On Thursday, when he wasn’t performing his Hank Williams homage, he was whizzing by crowds in a golf cart, eventually ending up at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville for a SiriusXM interview and performance that included Hank Sr.’s “Lovesick Blues” and Ramsey’s debut single, “Famous.” The fans – especially the young girls pressed up against the barricade – ate it up, begging a member of Ramsey’s band to help procure an autograph and generally losing their minds. It was something to behold, and will be even more interesting to see where he ends up this time next year. J.H.

Last Bandoleros

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Brotherly Love: The Last Bandoleros

A-level musicianship and blood-brothers harmony defined the Last Bandoleros’ Sunday-afternoon set at the Hard Rock Stage, which found the Texas/New York/Nashville band locked in tighter than a safe room. “Where Do You Go?” was a joyous opening number, while “I Don’t Want to Know,” with guitarist Jerry Fuentes’ sublime Flamenco style, proved fittingly ominous for the storm clouds rolling in over the foursome’s shoulders. But it was “Dancing With Irene” – a beauty of a song about overindulgence, damn the consequences – that best conveyed the bond of the band, with bassist Diego Navaira turning his mic stand around to sing to his drummer sibling Emilio. That affection for one another runs deeps – as the opening notes of the show-closing “Take Me to It” rang out, Diego planted a kiss squarely on Fuentes’ cheek. J.H. 

Darius Rucker

Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

Best Main Stage Vet: Darius Rucker

Since launching his super-successful country-music career, Darius Rucker has become a perennial main-stager at CMA Fest. But his sets never begin to feel stale. Chalk it up to his gift for choosing just the right set list, which this year included the oldie but goodie “Alright,” the stadium sing-along of “Wagon Wheel” and his latest radio hit, “For the First Time.” Of course, Rucker is no stranger to commanding large crowds since cutting his teeth during those heady Hootie days, but it’s still worth pointing out just how deft of a performer he remains – in any genre. J.H.

Chris Stapleton

Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

Best Minimalist: Chris Stapleton

Chris Stapleton did more with less during his prime-time performance slot at Nissan Stadium on Saturday night, needing only three other musicians – including producer Dave Cobb on guitar – to flatten the place. His set was surprisingly generous, running nearly 10 songs in length (compared to the usual four or five) with highlights including “Nobody to Blame,” “Hard Livin’,” “Midnight Train to Memphis,” “Second One to Know” and “Broken Halos,” the last of which was aided by an impassioned, stadium-wide chorus. While we certainly missed the exquisite harmonies of Stapleton’s wife Morgane, who recently gave birth to twin sons, it was heartening to know that all he had to do to have CMA Fest eating out of the palm of his hand was to open his mouth and let that incredible voice do the rest. J.F.

Dillon Carmichael

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Next Jamey Johnson: Dillon Carmichael

With his twangy Telecaster sound and bourbon-deep voice, onetime bouncer Dillon Carmichael is irresistible to fans of a certain type of country music. Call it “outlaw” or “honky-tonk,” but it’s a subgenre that never goes out of style, and Carmichael knows it. The Kentucky native’s sets throughout CMA Fest elicited more than a few whoops, as he previewed tracks off his upcoming Dave Cobb-produced album Hell on an Angel, like the single “It’s Simple.” But he also nodded to one of the pioneers of his brand by covering Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” While fans of Jamey Johnson continue to lament his lack of new music, a worthy substitute is emerging right before their eyes. J.H. 

Kalie Shorr

Anna Webber/GettyImages

Best Pop-Punk Surprise: Kalie Shorr

For CMA Fest-goers who didn’t yet know Kalie Shorr, they may have been surprised to hear a cover of Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” as they approached the Hard Rock stage on Friday – though what is even more shocking is how many country fans knew the words to the pop-punk hit. But resurrecting the music she grew up with, from Lit to emo, is at the core of what makes Shorr unique, and helps her win over anyone who may have taken their confessionals at church, not from Dashboard. One of CMT’s Next Women of Country and a member of the Song Suffragettes, Shorr was everywhere at the festival, even providing the tunes for a CMT workout to kick things off. A little punk, a little twang, a little sweat and plenty of empowerment – with Shorr, it all goes hand in hand. M.M.

Maggie Rose

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Best Hippie Soul: Maggie Rose

Maggie Rose has come into her own with this current earth-conscious, trippy country-soul stage of her ever-evolving musical persona. Once a more reserved performer, Rose’s performance at the Chevy Breakout Stage (and her Sunday appearance at Bonnaroo’s Grand Ole Opry showcase) showed her embracing her inner soul diva, belting with fire on “It’s You” and the pulverizing “Pull You Through.” Just to drive the point home, Rose and her band even stretched out on a swinging cover of “The Letter,” doing a more-than-respectable impression of the funky Mad Dogs & Englishman arrangement originally sung by Joe Cocker. J.F.

Morgan Evans

Rick Diamond/REX/Shutterstock

Best One-Man Band: Morgan Evans

A certain respect is reserved for solo performers like Ed Sheeran who are able to capture the force of a full band with just a loop pedal and unflinching creative confidence. Count Morgan Evans among those artists. The Australia native proved his musical mettle at Ascend Amphitheater on Saturday night, where he played a phenomenal solo set designed to dispatch any misconception that a singer needs background musicians to get an audience on their feet and dancing. Evans embellished his current hit “Kiss Somebody,” currently docked at Number 12 on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart, with looped harmonies, guitar strums and the song’s rhythmic main riff. While a backing band can sure bring extra heat, Evans proved he’s capable of going it alone. L.L.

the Cadillac Three

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Fan: The Cadillac Three’s Cameraman

If it feels like another year, another CMA Fest Best inclusion for the Cadillac Three, it’s because the trio is that damn reliable, thrilling a Friday-morning crowd at the Riverfront stage with Southern rockers like “Hank & Jesus,” edgy love song “White Lightning” and the stomping “Tennessee Mojo,” enlivened by Neil Mason’s John Bonham-like drumming and Kelby Ray’s crunchy steel. The highlight though was “The South,” Jaren Johnston’s ode to life below the Mason Dixon that has become so universally embraced by Southern-rock and in-the-known country fans that even the onstage cameraman was mouthing every word. J.H.

Frankie Ballard

Debby Wong/REX/Shutterstock

Best Full Body Workout: Frankie Ballard

On Thursday at the Chevy Riverfront stage, Frankie Ballard was on his knees – and not just from the heat. Instead, he brought his whole body into his set thanks to a heavy dose of James Brown style that had his thighs kissing the stage and his high notes to the sky. Ballard might be known for his penchant for infusing classic rock into his breed of country, but he’s got a good dose of soul in there too, and he transported plenty to his afternoon set: along with reliable hits like “Sunshine & Whiskey” and “Helluva Life.” M.M.

Kassi Ashton

Terry Wyatt/GettyImages

Best Chameleon: Kassi Ashton

Performers with crossover potential have always had a place at CMA Fest, and Missouri native Kassi Ashton demonstrated that she can comfortably exist between the worlds of contemporary country and contemporary pop. Her debut single “California, Missouri” rang true about the frequently isolating, alienating aspects of small-town life, while another offering from her forthcoming debut boasted of her ability to throw down with her rural pals whenever she feels like city life is too suffocating. One of her tunes sounded like Shania Twain singing over the streamlined indie rock of Spoon, while the newly released “Taxidermy” took her offbeat threat of revenge (turning a no-good dude into wall art) and coupled it with a jagged, almost post-punk guitar riff. Her debut album doesn’t have a release date yet, but rest assured it’ll be a fascinating listen when it arrives. J.F.

muscadine bloodline

Jordan O'Donnell

Best New Duo: Muscadine Bloodline

The Alabama twosome of Charlie Muncaster and Gary Stanton kicked off their CMA Fest with a mid-morning acoustic performance at Spotify’s Hot Country showcase at Ole Red, but plugged in later that afternoon for a full-band gig on the Chevy Breakout Stage. Both performances highlighted a duo that is poised to be the next big thing. With fan favorites like “Movin’ On,” “Porch Swing Angel” and the why-didn’t-anyone-write-this-chorus-before “WD-40,” Muscadine Bloodline captivated a sweltering crowd of supporters. But the duo’s songwriting is just part of their appeal: Muncaster’s voice draws you in with its resonant Alabama twang, while Stanton’s guitar playing, which blends rhythmic riffing and melodic leads into a deceptively tricky style, keeps you hooked J.H.

Ashley Monroe

Chad Driver

Best Conversation: Ashley Monroe and Tyler Mahan Coe

As the Saturday afternoon temperature climbed and Nashville’s streets neared stifling capacity, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater provided a calm oasis with Ashley Monroe’s performance of songs from her recently released Sparrow LP. But rather than the lush string sections accompanying her on the album, her only accoutrements were a Gibson acoustic guitar and the presence of Tyler Mahan Coe, creator of the infinitely compelling Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast. Coe’s interaction with the East Tennessee-born singer between songs was more causal conversation than straightforward interview, a perfect accompaniment to her organic, delicate storytelling. S.B.

restless road

Best Next Rascal Flatts: Restless Road

AJ McLean’s star power satisfied a crowd of Backstreet Boys fans curious to hear his new country foray, but warm-up band Restless Road was the sleeper hit of this pre-CMA Fest showcase. Made up of Zach Beeken, Jared Keim and Garrett Nichols, the X Factor alums harmonized like the heirs to Rascal Flatts’ throne on originals like “Best of Both Girls” and “Sip Away,” and a cover of “Tennessee Whiskey.” Later in the weekend, the trio headlined their own Saturday set at the Hard Rock Stage, where they nodded to the harmonies of the Eagles with a take on “Life in the Fast Lane.” J.H.

Michael Ray, Tanya Tucker, Vince Gill

Rick Diamond/GettyImages

Best Inclusivity: Concert for Love and Acceptance

Out country star Ty Herndon and openly gay CMT host Cody Alan presided over the GLAAD-sponsored Love & Acceptance Concert at the Wildhorse Saloon, now in its third year. Yet, while the event had its share of LGBT representation – including British pop-soul singer Calum Scott, country-blues belter Shelly Fairchild and country newcomers Brandon Stansell and Parson James – there were also profound messages of solidarity and inclusiveness in performances from Cam, Thompson Square, Cale Dodds, Cassadee Pope and Michael Ray, as well as country veterans Tanya Tucker, Terri Clark and Billy Dean. As surprise guest Vince Gill – a country-music statesman if ever there was one – told the crowd, “As a young child I heard the words that we were all created equal. I believed that as a little boy and I believe that as a grown man.” S.B.

Cale Dodds

Erika Goldring/GettyImages

Best Spider-Man: Cale Dodds

Cale Dodds may be a relative newcomer, but his CMA Fest performances showed the songwriter-turned-artist to be comfortable and confident in his newfound role. The Georgia-born singer performed at the Chevy Breakout Stage early in the day Friday, bringing with him a set peppered with several of his streaming hits. “People Watching,” off Dodds’ 2017 EP of the same name, got an especially big reaction from the crowd, who turned out despite the high noon heat. And he closed his set with a bit of a bang, climbing atop the stage’s Chevrolet logo despite a sign prohibiting exactly that. Last year, Dodds climbed stage-side scaffolding, and Drake White did so this year too – perhaps it’s becoming something of a CMA Fest tradition? B.M.

Jon Pardi

Jordan O'Donnell

Best Future of Country: Jon Pardi

Jon Pardi was all raw energy for his first CMA Fest performance at Nissan Stadium, bringing his bar-band swagger to an appreciative Saturday night crowd. He offered a showcase of his range as a performer and artist, flitting between the stomping country-rock of “Paycheck” and “What I Can’t Put Down,” the George Strait-evoking heartbreak balladry of “She Ain’t in It,” and the sly, workingman romance of “Night Shift.” If there’s a complaint, it’s that his delightful first Number One “Head Over Boots” was truncated to fit in a short medley. But it hardly mattered, because Pardi got the crowd moving with “Dirt on My Boots,” his state-of-the-art blend of traditional instrumentation and progressive grooves that points to country’s future. J.F.

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