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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.

Maggie Rose

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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