CMA Fest’s four stadium concerts — arguably country music’s most important stage outside awards shows — are meticulously planned, scripted and rehearsed. But no one could have anticipated perhaps the most defining moment of this year’s edition, held Thursday through Sunday at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.
It occurred when Sunday’s closer Luke Bryan was stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis, who was seated at the lip of the two-tiered stage. Still in mid-song of “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” Bryan dropped to his knees before his idol. Travis, silenced by a stroke five years ago, beamed as Bryan leaned over to greet the 59-year-old legend.
After finishing his second song, new single, “Sunrise Sunburn Sunset,” Bryan grabbed his acoustic guitar.
“We got Mr. Randy Travis down here, everybody,” he announced. Then, without another word, he began to sing the Travis standard “On the Other Hand,” released when Bryan, now 41, was just 10 years old. Tens of thousands of country fans — still packing the stands though it was close to midnight — joined in easily on the familiar chorus. An emotional Travis also could be seen mouthing some of the words.
“I’ve been wanting to sing to you for a long time, buddy,” Bryan said after the rousing performance. “That was unrehearsed. I didn’t know you were gonna be here. I love you.”
Was it tribute enough? Not for Bryan. “We just might make it a Randy Travis hour,” he proclaimed. “How about that?”
No problem for this crowd, judging by the roar, and when Bryan launched into Travis’ “Diggin’ Up Bones,” the massive singalong began again.
No doubt somewhere in Bryan’s home is a well-worn copy of Travis’ seminal album Storms of Life — as it should be for any country artist (or fan, for that matter). These stadium concerts are intended to highlight the newest and the brightest stars of country music, but Bryan’s impromptu salute — and the crowd’s worshipful reaction — was also a reminder that at the crux of country is its unbroken circle of past and present.
And if the stadium concerts proved anything, it’s that country also has a robust future. Of the 20 acts awarded full sets, more than a third were first-timers: Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Dustin Lynch, Old Dominion, Jon Pardi and Brett Young. (Lynch and Young both appeared at last year’s concerts, but for a single song on a satellite stage; Old Dominion also made a brief main-stage appearance last year to sing a medley of hits.)
All the newbies demonstrated they could hold a stadium crowd, particularly Dan + Shay, whose euphoria had to have reached the upper decks as they cycled through their hits (including blockbuster “Tequila”) and a cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
Old Dominion’s lead vocalist Matthew Ramsey showed off some rock star chops, thrilling the crowd with hits such as “Written in the Sand” and “Song for Another Time.” Lynch electrified the stadium with his megawatt smile and high-energy hits “Seein’ Red” and “Small Town Boy.”
And Combs literally gave his all to his six-song set; once he exited the stage on Friday night, he’d completely lost his rich voice, and he’s since canceled concerts and been ordered on a 10-day vocal rest.
Other new faces also received new — or renewed — introductions to the massive audience. Lauren Alaina, who first appeared on the main stage in 2011 as a recent American Idol runner-up dueting with Martina McBride, was back this year to join Kane Brown on their No. 1 duet “What Ifs.”
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PEOPLE’s One to Watch Carly Pearce, fresh off her No. 1 “Every Little Thing,” showcased new single “Hide the Wine” on a satellite stage. Morgan Wallen joined Florida Georgia Line during their set to perform their collaboration, “Up Down.”
Of course, as well received as the new artists were, the established acts clearly were the ones who most attracted the four nights of stadium crowds. Noticeably absent this year — for whatever reason — were a number of familiar faces who’ve made a home on this stage, including Eric Church, Little Big Town, Chris Young, Rascal Flatts, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley and Lady Antebellum. Maren Morris, just returning from her 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.
Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley boosted their voltage by bringing on surprise guests Backstreet Boys to reprise hit single “God, Your Mama and Me,” and announced performer Bebe Rexha (wearing a silver-glitter cowboy hat made by Dolly Parton‘s design team) joined the duo for their current collaborative phenomenon “Meant to Be.”
Carrie Underwood, in a green-sequined romper, cascading hair extensions and “Cry Pretty” eye glitter, opened all the throttles of her powerhouse voice and closed the Friday night show with an eight-song set, including “Cry Pretty” (of course) and “Blown Away.”
Mindful of the Nashville heat as temps soared into the 90s, Underwood advised her audience to be sure to drink their water. (No, unlike so many other performers, you couldn’t see her sweat — though she assured the audience she was feeling the heat. Before singing “Dirty Laundry,” Underwood quipped that “Sweaty Laundry” was more appropriate. “Mom joke,” she playfully added.)
Blake Shelton showed who was boss at the start of his five-song set. It took him several moments — and the crowd’s yelling — for him to realize his mic wasn’t broadcasting opening number “I’ll Name the Dogs” (the newly crowned CMT video of the year).
“Wait a minute! Stop! Stop!” he told his band just after the sound turned on. “Let’s start over!” And with that, he exited the stage, got re-introduced and had his do-over. Shelton’s otherwise flawless set also included new single “I Lived It” and perennial favorites “Austin” and “Boys ’Round Here.”
Bryan clearly stole the show Sunday night, calling an audible on his potentially shortened set (because of a rain threat) and extended it to a dozen songs, including the two Travis covers. The Saturday night closer, Urban waded out onto the field to perform “The Fighter,” rousing the throngs to be stand-ins for Underwood, his duet partner on the hit single.
Bentley turned in two surprises on Sunday night: Country icon Dwight Yoakam joined him on Yoakam’s signature hit “Fast as You” (can anyone get enough of “aw, sookie”?), and the Brothers Osborne appeared for “Burning Man,” their collaboration with Bentley on his newly released album, The Mountain.
On Thursday night, the brothers also got their own full set for the second year in a row. Last year, they were last-minute replacements for Chris Stapleton, sidelined with a hand injury, and this time around, they proved they were anything but a one-off with volcanic performances of “It Ain’t My Fault” and “Shoot Me Straight.”
Stapleton, healed and in top form, brought his magnetism to an eight-song set, including “Midnight Train to Memphis,” “Broken Halos” and “Millionaire.” Thomas Rhett, Kelsea Ballerini and Brett Eldredge all owned the stage, top to bottom; the expansive lower stage allowed them memorable close encounters with the fans crowding the lip.
Three artists — Sam Hunt, Jake Owen and Cole Swindell — who have held down the main stage in years past appeared this time on the satellite stage to each perform current singles, and they made the most of their short time.
Hunt was a surprise addition to the lineup, emerging from the stands and strolling through the delighted crowd while singing “Downtown’s Dead” (much as he did during a CMT Awards performance in downtown Nashville last week). Swindell also had an encore performance, closing down the concert series with Bryan in Monday’s wee hours with “Roller Coaster,” a Bryan single that Swindell co-wrote.
Sorry you didn’t make the pilgrimage to Nashville this year? Not to worry. Highlights from the four nights of concerts will be telecast on CMA Fest, a three-hour ABC special airing on Aug. 8. Thomas Rhett and Ballerini return for the second year as co-hosts.