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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.

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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