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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.

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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