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Thomas Rhett’s Moves, Sam Hunt’s Struggles and Garth Brooks’ Surprise: Highlights of CMA Fest’s Stadium Concerts

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Nancy Kruh (2)

We all know Luke Bryan has his signature hip sway, but who knew Thomas Rhett has his own moves, too? Steamy voice or not, Sam Hunt just needs to show up for fans to swoon. And, yeah, Garth Brooks is still untouchable as country’s king.

Those are just some of the takeaways after four nights of gluttonous concert-watching at Nashville’s annual CMA Fest. The multi-bill shows at Nissan Stadium are arguably the most coveted performance slots in country music –which will be compressed into an ABC special to air in August – and all the artists proved not only why they’d been selected but also how the genre continues to radiate vitality.

Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini, doing double duty as hosts of the TV special, each showed in their separate sets why they’ve taken the express elevator to country stardom. Granted, both performers also took the same stage last year, but this year they clearly had full ownership, exuding a well-earned confidence and larger-than-life charisma.

Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh

Rhett especially seemed determined to give the audience something they could only experience live. He opened with “Crash and Burn,” re-imagined with a throbbing beat that ignited dance moves barely evident a year ago. In his seven-song set, Rhett was joined by Maren Morris for a molten “Craving You,” but he saved the best for last with an extended version of “Vacation” that touched off a Soul Train-worthy strut.

Ballerini also turned in high-voltage performances of her chart-toppers, but she proved her star power with “I Hate Love Songs,” a no-bells-and-whistles ballad that will appear on her upcoming sophomore album. Ballerini held the crowd of 50,000 by simply sitting on a stool under a spotlight and stabbing hearts with the self-penned song. (Are we the only ones who think it has single potential?)

FROM PEN: Lea Michele Dream-Casts Her Own Real-Life Girl Squad—from Country Darling Maren Morris to Beyoncé

The concerts offered opportunity for lots of up-and-comers to test their chops on a stadium crowd, and their presence on the bill also revealed what names the industry considers to be on the very cusp of the upper echelon.

The lucky Brothers Osborne – who weren’t on the original bill at all – were penciled in after Chris Stapleton broke an essential guitar-playing finger, and they seemed to need a few moments to adjust to the primetime saddle before turning in an explosive “It Ain’t My Fault.” Morris, who was wedged in last year to perform “My Church” with Rascal Flatts, also was rewarded this year with a full set of five cuts off her debut album, and she made the most of it.

Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh

Dustin Lynch had his moment on a small stage, set up around the 20-yard line, to perform his latest hit, “Small Town Boy.” Brett Young earned the same spot to perform his No. 1 hit, “In Case You Didn’t Know.” Old Dominion reminded the crowd they already have four hits under their belt with a five-minute medley on the main stage.

Lauren Alaina, fresh off her CMT Awards victory with Breakthrough Video of the Year, made Cole Swindell’s “Middle of a Memory” even more memorable by turning it into a duet during his set. Her appearance was a surprise — something these concerts are renowned for. Other surprise appearances included Trace Adkins, who got the crowd roaring when he joined Blake Shelton on their “Hillbilly Bone”; Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, who brought feminine charm to Darius Rucker’s “If I Told You”; and what would Chris Young’s “Think of You” be without Cassadee Pope?

But the shocker of the four nights was an appearance by Garth Brooks, who hasn’t been a festival presence in years. Accompanied only by his own guitar, he soared through snippets of five classics and new single, “Ask Me How I Know,” before settling on the ultimate crowd-pleaser “Friends in Low Places,” which wouldn’t have required him to sing a note since the entire audience demonstrated they knew every word.

Brooks, of course, is in a class of his own, but all the other well-established artists brought their A-game, as well.

Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh

Lady Antebellum’s recent months-long hiatus had industry-watchers wondering if a breakup was imminent, but their set proved the time off has only re-invigorated the trio, and they’ve never seemed more in sync. The horns that appear on new hit, “You Look Good,” now appear to be a permanent live fixture, infusing classics like “Hey, Bartender” and “We Owned the Night” with a whole new sound. Two other supergroups, Rascal Flatts and Little Big Town, also showed why they remain at the top of their game.

Brett Eldredge has been having fun showing off his wacky side with new single “Something I’m Good At” – performed here and at the ACMs and CMTs – but he reminded the audience he’s also a soulful crooner with the anthemic “The Long Way” off his upcoming album. Keith Urban, perhaps buoyed by his dominance at the CMTs, was both electrifying performer and much-needed comforter, taking a moment to poignantly console the crowd that had been rooting all Sunday evening for the Nashville Predators. The hometown hockey team, of course, lost Game 6 – and the Stanley Cup – to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Urban also dashed any hopes for a Carrie Underwood surprise appearance; the wife of Preds captain Mike Fisher was obviously otherwise occupied, and she joined Urban via a pretaped video on “The Fighter.”)

Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh
Nancy Kruh

Bryan, Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, and Brad Paisley all showed why they’d earned top billing for their respective nights. Bryan, who has turned wearing a baseball cap into sexy performance art, effortlessly moved from the sublime (“Drink a Beer”) to the sublimely ridiculous (“Country Girl (Shake It For Me)”). Paisley lit up the stadium – literally, with cell phone flashlights – with a heart-tugging delivery of his latest No. 1, “Today.”

Miranda Lambert brought out old (“Kerosene”) and new (“Pink Sunglasses”) to dazzle with a performance style just shy of unhinged. Eric Church was volcanic in a six-song set that featured “Jack Daniels” and “Chattanooga Lucy” (backed by the McCrary Sisters).

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And an unleashed Hunt galloped and prowled the stage, thrilling the crowd through a five-song set despite the fact his voice was, admittedly, not in top form. After it noticeably broke during “Take Your Time,” he confessed he’d been close to losing it all day. No matter. Whatever it lacked, the audience made up for it. How can you not know all the words to Hunt’s latest ear worm, “Body Like a Back Road”?

The three-hour special, CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock, will air at 8 p.m. EDT Aug. 16 on ABC.