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CMA Music Festival 2017: 26 Best Things We Saw

From Miranda Lambert’s fiery main-stage return to Luke Combs’ star-making turn

CMA Music Festival 2017: 20 Best Things We Saw

Miranda Lambert and Luke Combs were highlights of the 2017 CMA Music Festival in Nashville.

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The atmosphere was especially electric for the 2017 CMA Music Festival, thanks to a perfect storm of abundant country stars and the Nashville Predators’ appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. While the Preds ultimately didn’t come away victorious, country fans won big, catching concerts from mainstream A-listers like Eric Church and Keith Urban, rising stars Luke Combs and RaeLynn, and slightly under-the-radar acts like Lillie Mae. Here are the 26 best things we saw at this year’s CMA Fest.

Maren Morris

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Maren Morris

From sizzling duets with Alicia Keys and Thomas Rhett to stadium shows, Maren Morris has proven that she can meld her soulful pipes to almost any occasion, bringing lots of stage swagger along for the ride. But acoustic is where she got her start back in Texas, and it’s how she played to an intimate fan club showcase at the HGTV Lodge on Thursday, accompanied only by another guitarist and sporting super casual jeans and a baseball hat. Though she’s been singing on the road nonstop, her vocals sounded pitch-perfect and pristine, leading the audience along on versions of “My Church” and “80s Mercedes,” the latter of which she introduced by dedicating to “the drunk girl…or if you are the drunk girl.” Either way, it was intoxicating. M.M. 

Kelsea Ballerini

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Kelsea Ballerini

Like the most indomitable Disney princess in Nashville, Kelsea Ballerini was radiating joy to be a part of CMA Music Festival this year. In addition to co-hosting the event’s August 16th ABC special with Thomas Rhett, Ballerini aced her performance slot at Nissan Stadium. Her short set of hits like “Dibs” and “Love Me Like You Mean It” was augmented with a couple of new songs – the soaring first single “Legends” and the subdued “I Hate Love Songs.” And though a stadium isn’t traditionally the best place to be busting out the big ballads, the 60,000 or so people who sang a final chorus of Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” with her band at full power didn’t seem to object. J.F.

Keith Urban

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Keith Urban

From the first chord to the last bent note from his guitar, Keith Urban’s energy in Nissan Stadium on the final night of CMA Music Festival was boundless. Opening with “John Cougar, John Deer, John 3:16,” the 49-year-old bounced from its chorus into Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane” and then Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Even the breaking news of a Nashville Predators loss in game six of the Stanley Cup finals midway through his set didn’t derail Urban. He acknowledged it, told the crowd how proud he was of the home team and rolled into his last songs. “Wasted Time” finished at midfield far from the safety of the stage, Urban’s face obscured behind a forest of iPhone screens, as fans returned in full the energy he put out. J.G. 

RaeLynn

Jordan O'Donnell

RaeLynn

If there was an award for CMA Fest Team Player, the 2017 edition would go to RaeLynn. The “Love Triangle” singer-songwriter played an incredible five shows during the week – Pandora’s country showcase on Tuesday, the Cracker Barrel Stage, Radio Disney, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage and a stripped-down set at HGTV Lodge – along with signing fan autographs at multiple intervals. It was a display of generosity and stamina that fit with the classic Fan Fair mentality of engaging close-up with one’s fans, which is part of the reason her debut album Wildhorse has been so successful without a huge radio hit. The other reason: it’s just damn good. J.F.

Eric Church

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Eric Church

The stylistic range of contemporary country music was on full display at Nissan Stadium Friday night, with Eric Church falling in the lineup directly after pop-leaning sets from Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini. Whoever the crowd had originally come to see, they were converted to Church faithful after the Chief’s master class in performance. With expert pacing and a fluency in arena rock moves, Church took the crowd wherever he pleased, from rowdy odes to vices (“Jack Daniels,” “Smoke a Little Smoke”) to the epic, thrilling sprawl of “Chattanooga Lucy” and the sweet, sad “Give Me Back My Hometown.” Can we just name the guy Entertainer of the Year already? J.F.

Darius Rucker, Karen Fairchild

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Darius Rucker With Karen Fairchild

With a setlist of sing-along radio hits, Darius Rucker was revitalizing a, by now, festival-wearied crowd at the stadium when he offered them a special pick-me-up: a cameo by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, who joined Rucker onstage for his single “If I Told You.” The pair’s voices entwined beautifully in the chorus, and their chemistry, facing each other and drawing closer step by tortured step, accentuated the song’s desperate plea. Rucker’s solo version is marvelous, but the duet had us wondering if he should consider a collaboration with the LBT singer in the future. J.G.

Miranda Lambert

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Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert came to CMA Fest’s main stage on Thursday with fury in her eyes, crafting a five-song set aimed at reminding fans that the Texas spitfire still knows how to rock. She offered three combustible songs from her magnificent double album The Weight of These Wings – “Highway Vagabond,” “Vice” and “Pink Sunglasses” – but it was the performance’s bookends of “Kerosene” and “Little Red Wagon” that provided the dynamite. Lambert strutted in a denim skirt and black blouse, mad-dogging the crowd with OG attitude. She may be currently exploring the more hushed side of her art with “Tin Man,” but pity those who think she’s gone soft. J.H.

Johnny Rodriguez

Johnny Rodriguez

While the Lukes, Blakes and FGLs may get the lion’s share of publicity at CMA Fest, the backbone of the festival are the veteran artists who connect today’s Nashville with its roots. Bobby Bare, Jeannie Seely and T.G. Sheppard all turned in nostalgic sets on the Fan Fair X concourse, with the appearance of Johnny Rodriquez a rare treat. Although the 65-year-old Texas singer sported a cast on his right hand that prohibited him from playing guitar, he was in excellent voice during a heartfelt performance on Friday afternoon, offering hits like “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico” and “You Always Come Back (To Hurtin’ Me).” But it was his beautiful rendition of his 1973 Number One “That’s the Way Love Goes” that reminded fans how important Rodriguez was to Seventies country. J.H. 

Lady Antebellum

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Lady Antebellum

Lady Antebellum’s new album Heart Break came out smack in the middle of CMA Fest, and Charles Kelly, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood were working hard to promote it with a series of pop-up shows at smaller stages around downtown. Their year-long hiatus preceding the album seems to have reinvigorated the trio, as their Saturday night performance at Nissan Stadium showed a group that clearly has its groove back. With the addition of a couple horn players to their live band, Lady A’s new songs like “You Look Good” and “Good Time to Be Alive” have more bite than anything on their last two albums, while older hits like “Downtown” sound fresh. Most surprising, “We Owned the Night” transformed from sweet nostalgia to the kind of massive, urgent plea for connection that makes critics lose their shit when Arcade Fire does the same thing. Maybe we could all benefit from a little time off every now and then. J.F.

Brothers Osborne

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Brothers Osborne

Chris Stapleton had to cancel his Sunday night stadium set after a finger injury impeded his guitar playing, but the rest of the lineup carried on his spirit by absolutely shredding on the guitar. As much as the evening was about country hits, Brothers Osborne (in the Stapleton slot), Keith Urban and Brad Paisley showed how the genre can be home to some of music’s finest axe folk. Urban milked “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” into a lengthy jam, swapping instruments midstream and at one point ending up flat on his back, while Paisley, in the last set of the night, drew visible gasps from the audience as he packed a million notes per minute into songs like “Alcohol,” easily showcasing why he’s one of Mick Jagger’s favorites. But the biggest unplanned victory came from BROS’ John Osborne, who slid “Stay a Little Longer” and “It Ain’t My Fault” into down and dirty extended solos, ending the latter by raising his hands above his head in euphoria. M.M. 

Ashley Campbell

Jordan O'Donnell

Ashley Campbell

Ashley Campbell is undoubtedly aware of the long shadow cast by her father Glen, but doesn’t shrink away from that influence, even as she incorporates other flavors into her work. At her brief Saturday set at the Gildan Broadway Stage, Campbell showed a mixture of grit, sass and vulnerability with songs like “Nothing Day” and “Looks Like Time,” confident in her musicianship and songwriting abilities. And in perhaps the week’s best display of family support, Campbell’s mother Kim was standing in the audience, proudly snapping photos with her smartphone. J.F.

Luke Combs

Jordan O'Donnell

Luke Combs

Sunday proved a searing day in direct sun, and Luke Combs took the Riverfront Stage just past noon, but it was standing room only for the fans assembled. Just as it was for his over-capacity acoustic set at the Radio Disney Stage on Saturday. And as it was during his HGTV Lodge set later on Sunday. And as it was earlier in the week at his genre-crossing Bonnaroo debut. (See a trend here?) Opening with new single “When It Rains It Pours,” off his projected Number One country album This One’s for You, Combs commanded the Riverfront audience with his big voice and expert song craft. By the time he got to “Hurricane,” which he introduced as “my first Number One song, my first Platinum song,” the fans were primed. Cell phones raised in hallelujah, the crowd bobbed, pumping fists to his breakout hit. For Combs, this CMA Fest was a star turn of the highest order. J.G. 

Chris Janson

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Chris Janson

At the HGTV Lodge, Chris Janson shared a secret with an intimate, shoulder-to-shoulder audience: Twelve years ago he was living out of an old Chevy Monte Carlo in the very parking lot on which the stage was built. But a fierce work ethic at nearby honky-tonk Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where Janson played up to 16 hours a day for over a year, refined him into a consummate performer that few other artists can match. “You got to hustle,” the “Buy Me a Boat” artist said, summing it up. “Fix a Drink,” Janson’s new single, was a sing-along favorite, but his light-speed cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” with him stomping a kick drum so hard it rattled the stage, was so stunning and masterful that it left fans wondering what the hell they just witnessed. J.G.

Carly Pearce

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Carly Pearce

There’s more to Pearce, a Busbee protégée, than just “Every Little Thing,” her single that hit Number 24 on the Country Airplay chart last week. The Kentucky native has been in the Nashville trenches for the last eight years, writing and performing, and now, months away from her debut record, she’s road-testing her new songs. (The cat’s already out of the bag, though, as plenty of CMA Fest fans sang along to the unreleased material.) Of note: “Hide the Wine,” a tune about how adding booze with an ex-lover ends up in trouble. “It’s a dangerous thing / pouring alcohol on an old flame,” she rhymes. J.G. 

Lillie Mae

Jordan O'Donnell

Lillie Mae

Flanked by her own brother and sister, singer-songwriter Lillie Mae and band gave a demonstration of the different threads that make up her sound at the Gildan Broadway Stage. Playing selections from her Third Man Records debut Forever and Then Some, Lillie Mae mixed high-lonesome bluegrass sounds with electrified, Neil Young-style folk rock – and some serious instrumental chops. No wonder Jack White wanted to work with her. J.F.

Old Dominion

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Old Dominion

The gang of pop-minded songwriters entertained the masses with hits like “Snapback” and “Break Up With Him” during a mini-set medley at the stadium on Saturday night, but the group was able to get up-close with fans and stretch its wings during Pandora’s CMA Fest kickoff party on Tuesday. Onstage at local venue Marathon Music Works, Matt Ramsey and Co. offered songs off their 2015 debut Meat and Candy, and also showcased the refined sound of their upcoming Happy Endings, including current single “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart.” If O.D.’s ultimate goal is being country’s Maroon 5, they’re well on their way. J.H.

Lauren Alaina

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City of Hope Celebrity Softball Game

The weather was perfect for one of the most charming CMA Fest-week traditions: the 27th Annual City of Hope Celebrity Softball Game. Athletes and musicians converged on First Tennessee Park, where they joined Team Grand Ole Opry or Team iHeart to raise funds for City of Hope, a research and treatment center for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Reba McEntire sang the national anthem, Sara Evans handled “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and players like Billy Ray Cyrus, Lauren Alaina and Aaron Watson provided the athletics. The winner? Team iHeart, 9-6. B.M.

Brandy Clark

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Brandy Clark

If the world were a just place, Brandy Clark would have played one of the festival’s headlining slots at the stadium, buoyed by a huge radio hit. Nevertheless, it was a welcome sight to see throngs of people heading over to the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage to catch her outstanding daylight set. To match the lively outdoor atmosphere, Clark and band primarily stuck to her rowdier numbers, like Big Day in a Small Town cuts “Love Can Go to Hell” and “Girl Next Door,” closing with an especially twangy take on “Broke.” She may not have that coveted radio play just yet, but perhaps Clark doesn’t need it: she’s a star on any size stage. B.M.

Alex Williams

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Alex Williams

There are many different kinds of country at CMA Fest – pop country, rap country, even, Lord help us, EDM country – but when Alex Williams, with his low-slung baritone, Waylon Jennings tattoo and songs about “illegal substances,” took the stage at Hard Rock on Thursday, it just country, plain and simple. CMA Fest might be the polar opposite of the gritty biker bars that Williams has been playing for years, but he didn’t edit his set – full of outsider lyrics and “Mama Tried” vamps – for the fluorescent lunchtime crowd. With a record due in August produced by Julian Raymond (Glen Campbell) on Big Machine, he’s groomed to be the label’s Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton. It’s an unpredictable turn of events for the home of Florida Georgia Line, but a good thing indeed. M.M. 

Russell Dickerson

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Russell Dickerson

Russell Dickerson had a five-year wait between his self-released debut album and his latest, the 2016 EP Yours, but while the title track is worth the wait alone, the biggest surprise might be “Blue Tacoma,” a song about a drive up the California coast with his wife. At the HGTV Stage, the Nashville native reached into the audience, rewarding a lucky few with the literal action from the chorus of “always having your hand to hold.” The deep cut has caught fire on Spotify – 15 million plays to date – and Dickerson said he’s now scrambling to follow up its unexpected success with an accompanying video. Add it to the to-do list, which also includes releasing a 12-song full-length this fall. J.G. 

levon

David McClister

Levon

A little bit Laurel Canyon, a little bit twang and a little bit catchy Eighties pop in the vein of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” Nashville trio Levon are helping to prove that California can inspire country music in more ways than just the Bakersfield Sound (though don’t worry, that’s part of the package, too). Led by Michael David Hall and his glorious locks, Levon slayed their harmonies at the Gildan Stage Thursday on songs like “Ms. Marianne,” from their debut EP, that are unapologetically fun while still being meticulously crafted. Think Dawes meets Old Dominion – and it actually works. M.M. 

Aubrie Sellers

Jordan O'Donnell

Sara Evans and the Ladies of Country

As part of a three-night series of free concerts at the Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage at Ascend Amphitheater, Sara Evans called up a few of her friends for “Ladies of Country,” a multi-artist show that featured a women-only bill. A number of up-and-coming artists took the stage for the packed show, with Danielle Bradbery and Aubrie Sellers each delivering sets that hinted at bigger stages in years to come. CMA veteran Kellie Pickler was also on hand, as were 3 Girls Rock Into a Bar, a trio featuring Kelleigh Bannen, Ruthie Collins and Natalie Stovall. Evans herself performed at the end of the evening, playing a number of fan favorites and her newly-released single “Marquee Sign.” B.M.

jamie kent, matthew szlachetka

Jamie Kent and Szlachetka

Not all of the must-see gigs at CMA Fest happen on the official stages. Some you have to seek out: like Jamie Kent and Matthew Szlachetka’s Durango Boots showcase inside the super cool InDo Nashville, a subterranean performance space a few blocks south of downtown. Two alumni of Rolling Stone Country‘s Artists You Need to Know, Kent and Szlachetka delivered folky but lively sets: Kent showcased his standout debut All-American Mutt, while Szlachetka previewed his Heart of My Hometown project. The highlight though – aside from Kent slinging his own All-American Mutt beer – was when the touring buddies teamed up on Kent’s show-closing “Be Your Man,” an Americana take on street-corner doo-wop. J.H. 

honey county

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Honey County

While crowds of cowboy-hatted pedestrians slowed traffic to a crawl outside, Honey County headed indoors for their Saturday afternoon set, playing a five-song set of originals on the Radio Disney Country stage. Tossed into the mix were acoustic versions of the trio’s power-ballad single “Love Someone” and the unreleased “Los Angeles,” whose minor-key melancholia and Fleetwood Mac-inspired harmonies paid tribute to the trio’s West Coast home. Performing without a rhythm section, Honey County refocused the spotlight on their layered voices, with honorary member Katie Pruitt standing in for permanent bandmate (and occasional Katy Perry sidewoman) Devon Jane. R.C. 

Jacob Davis

Hunter Airheart

Jacob Davis

It doesn’t seem like there would be much opportunity for edge at the Radio Disney stage, but newcomer Jacob Davis – a native of Shreveport, Louisiana – played songs about getting it on (and that morning-after breakfast) with a big smile on his face and a dynamic, velvety croon. With tracks like “What I Wanna Be” and “James Brown,” he showcased his blend of pop-country soul, which is at its best on his new tune “Back Me Up,” inspired by the music of Meghan Trainor. Like a softer, more polite version of Eric Church’s “Wrecking Ball,” it’s about those moments when you’re struggling to open the open the door and undo the buttons to get down to business – not exactly Disney material, but the best rides boast laughs for the kids and thrills for the adults, anyway. M.M. 

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