Luke Bryan hosts the three-hour show, drawn from 16 years of stadium concerts held during Nashville's annual CMA Fest. Among the performers are Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert, Luke Combs, Thomas Rhett, Little Big Town, Sam Hunt, Carrie Underwood and Lady A

By Nancy Kruh
July 13, 2020 04:45 PM
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Sure, it feels like a century since the last one, but remember something called "stadium concerts"? Remember how fun they were?

If you're in need of a memory jolt — and who isn't? — ABC has come to the rescue on Monday night with a three-hour special, CMA Best of the Fest. It's an exhilarating collection of live performances on arguably the most important stage (outside of awards shows) in country music: the star-packed concerts held each year in Nashville's Nissan Stadium during the city's CMA Fest.

The festival was canceled this year (see: global pandemic), but the Country Music Association, which each year distills the four nights of concerts into a much-anticipated TV special, was determined that the show must go on.

How to choose from 16 years of greatest hits, sensational collaborations and superstar surprises? Producer Robert Deaton, clearly sensing the doldrums of his concert-starved audience, has delivered 27 of the most high-energy, mood-elevating performances ever to grace the stadium's expansive stage.

You want career-making hits? Then get ready for Sam Hunt to cruise through "Body Like a Back Road" in 2017, the year that song became a chart juggernaut. And Dan + Shay with Shay Mooney's peerless pipes on "Tequila" in 2018. And Little Big Town, who kept the summer of 2012 afloat on their "Pontoon." And Luke Bryan, who brought all his party-hearty charisma — and shape-shifting hips — that same year to "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)."

You want all-time crowd favorites? You can't beat the Zac Brown Band's"Chicken Fried" in a delightful 2009 rendition that shows off Brown's crazy guitar skills. And Darius Rucker singing the joyous "Wagon Wheel" in 2014, the same year it won a Grammy for best country solo performance. And who can help but holler "Yeehaw!" watching Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins twang their way through "Hillbilly Bone" in 2010?

In all, the show features 27 performances from the CMA archives. For good measure, Bryan, the evening's host, enlists Rucker to help him perform a moving cover of John Mellencamp's "Small Town" in the empty Nashville stadium.

A total of 33 acts grace the stage for the special, several appearing in the one-of-a-kind collaborations that CMA Fest concert-goers have come to expect. From 2014, Eric Church delivers deep cut "That's Damn Rock & Roll" at his most volcanic with hard-rocker Lzzy Hale. From 2018, Dierks Bentley surprises the stadium with country icon Dwight Yoakam for a whirlwind version of Yoakam's "Fast As You." From 2019, country and rock goddesses Carrie Underwood and Joan Jett team up on hard-driving performances of Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and "I Love Rock 'N Roll." Also from last year, Billy Ray Cyrus and Little Nas X get help from Keith Urban, on the ganjo, for their megahit "Old Town Road."

Joan Jett and Carrie Underwood
Nancy Kruh

The special's lineup strives to keep it current, with 17 of the 27 performances plucked from the previous six years, which means you can revel in country's younger hitmakers singing some of their No. 1s, including Luke Combs ("When It Rains It Pours," 2018), Maren Morris ("Girl," 2019), Kelsea Ballerini ("Yeah Boy," 2017), Thomas Rhett ("Life Changes," 2018), and Kane Brown (with Lauren Alaina on "What Ifs," 2018).

Lauren Alaina and Kane Brown
Nancy Kruh

Meanwhile, the more vintage clips offer surprises, putting some of today's superstars in a rare rearview mirror. The oldest, from 2007, features a 23-year-old Miranda Lambert, her hair teased to wild distraction, torching the stage with "Kerosene." From the 2008 show, Lady A is just two years into their platinum-selling career when they perform their very first single, "Love Don't Live Here." From 2009, Kenny Chesney makes a rare CMA Fest appearance for the quintessential seasonal song, "Summertime," sizzling it with a full horn section.

Garth Brooks' single CMA Fest performance, an unbilled appearance in 2017, is shown in its entirety: a sensational 14-minute medley of seven hits, including "The Dance" and "Friends in Low Places." (CMA Fest's other most-memorable medley, Eric Church's seamless 30-minute, 17-song solo acoustic set, from 2019, may never make it onto network television, but the CMA gifted it to fans, on YouTube, on July 1.)

Other performers include Rascal Flatts (in a rock medley with Little Big Town, 2011), Tim McGraw ("Something Like That," 2010), Jason Aldean ("She's Country," 2015), Brad Paisley ("American Saturday Night," 2010), and Brooks & Dunn ("Hard Workin' Man," with the Brothers Osborne, 2019).

All are can't-miss performances, but you'll want to make sure to stay for the finale, which features Urban in a euphoric rendition of "Wasted Time," from 2017.

At the first chorus, he wades into the sea of fans, and beefy security guards struggle to move the star through the outreached arms and press of bodies. The sight, after months of social distancing, is enough to make your quarantine-weary heart soar. You might even get a little misty for what once was — and for what can't come soon enough again.

Luke Bryan
John Russell/CMA

Bryan, for one, is staying hopeful. "I know next year we'll be back in full force," he says near the show's end, "creating new memories that will last for the next two decades."

CMA Best of the Fest airs on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT/7 p.m. CDT on Monday.