Count on today’s biggest stars — Carrie, Luke, Blake, Keith, Jason (surely you don’t need last names) — to be at their brightest when ABC airs its 15th-annual CMA Fest special on Wednesday. But the three-hour television event also emits a distinctive glow from many of country’s most promising breakthrough artists, including Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Dustin Lynch, Carly Pearce, Jon Pardi and Brett Young.
Hosted for a second year in a row by Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini, the TV special distills down four full nights of concerts in June at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. While a final slate of featured performances wasn’t available before broadcast, PEOPLE was at the foot of the stage for every thrilling set, and clues abound on what viewers will get to feast on.
With 29 acts in all, not even the top names will get screen time for long — one or two songs per performer is typical — but you can expect all the artists to make the most of their moments. After all, this is arguably the most important stage in country music (outside of awards shows), and everyone who took it this year delivered larger-than-life performances that surely reached the upper decks of the packed stadium.
What else can you expect? Of course, if past shows are any indication, the producers will be picking performances of latest hits and newest singles. That means no doubt Carrie Underwood — who announced her pregnancy Wednesday — will “Cry Pretty,” Florida Georgia Line will get “Simple,” and Old Dominion will unlock “Hotel Key.” Other strong candidates for airing have to include Luke Bryan’s “Sunrise Sunburn Sunset,” Jason Aldean’s “You Make It Easy,” Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It,” Dierks Bentley’s “Woman, Amen,” Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes” and Keith Urban’s “Coming Home.”
Four artists performed single songs on the stadium’s field, so it’s a near certainty those will be aired. Carly Pearce, fresh off her No. 1 “Every Little Thing,” will be showcasing new single “Hide the Wine.” You’ll see Sam Hunt stroll through the audience to the syncopation of “Downtown’s Dead.” Jake Owen will be channeling his inner Mellencamp for recent No. 1 “Jack and Diane,” and Cole Swindell will deliver an emotional reading of heart-tugger “Break Up in the End,” the lead single off his upcoming album, All of It.
The stadium shows are famous for pairing various artists — often as surprises — and these harmonic convergences always get special consideration for airing. Florida Georgia Line shared the stage three times during their show-stopping set, and at least a couple should make the cut: Bebe Rexha, in a silver-glitter cowboy hat, joined the duo for multi-week No. 1 “Meant to Be”; Morgan Wallen got to showcase “Up Down,” his first No. 1, with FGL; and all the Backstreet Boys showed up to reprise 2016 collaborative hit single “God, Your Mama and Me.”
Lauren Alaina, who first appeared on the stadium’s stage in 2011 as a recent American Idol runner-up dueting with Martina McBride, was back again this year to join Kane Brown on their No. 1 duet “What If.” The Brothers Osborne — who had their own full set the first night — made a surprise return three nights later to join Dierks Bentley on “Burning Man,” their collaboration on Bentley’s new album, The Mountain. Bentley also brought out Dwight Yoakam for a duet of the country icon’s signature hit “Fast as You” (can anyone get enough of “aw, sookie”?).
Whatever song Luke Combs showcases — perhaps latest hit “One Number Away” — viewers can know he gave his all for his performance. Once he exited the stage, he’d completely lost his voice, and he was forced to cancel concerts and go on a 10-day vocal rest. (He’s since returned to top form.)
Combs, Brown, Jon Pardi, Dustin Lynch, Brett Young and Dan + Shay all made their main-stage debuts this year. Perennial performers such as Bentley, Underwood, Shelton, Bryan, Urban and Aldean showed, with signature performances, why they are invited back to this event again and again. Brett Eldredge, Chris Stapleton, Darius Rucker, Thomas Rhett and Ballerini were other top-tier acts who obviously felt at home on this stage.
Noticeably absent this year — for whatever reason — were a number of familiar faces, including Eric Church, Little Big Town, Chris Young, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and Lady Antebellum. Maren Morris, out on tour Down Under with Niall Horan, also was MIA. Still, the current roster of popular artists is so deep, there was more than enough star power to go around.
What else won’t you see on the TV special? The fact that Luke Bryan went completely off script this year. As the last performer on the final night, he seized control of the stage, turning in a welcome set of a dozen songs, probably about twice as many as planned. The most unexpected additions — especially for Bryan’s band — were two Randy Travis standards, “On the Other Hand” and “Diggin’ Up Bones,” after Bryan spotted the Hall of Famer watching stage side.
One more live-concert highlight that didn’t go as planned involved Blake Shelton: It took him several moments — and the crowd’s yelling — for him to realize his microphone wasn’t broadcasting his opening number, “I’ll Name the Dogs.”
“Wait a minute! Stop! Stop!” he told his band just after the sound turned on. One expletive later, Shelton announced he’d be starting over, and with that, he exited the stage, got re-introduced and had his do-over.
Surely that one is on the cutting-room floor. But don’t worry. There will still be plenty of other surprises to behold on the three-hour special that airs at 8 p.m. (EDT) Wednesday on ABC.