Luke (Bryan and Combs!), Keith, Blake, Carrie, Kelsea, Miranda and many more stars turn in electric performances for CMA Fest, ABC's annual must-see music event of the summer

By Nancy Kruh
August 03, 2019 09:00 PM
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The jaw-dropping pairing of Carrie Underwood and Joan Jett made headlines back in June when the two shared the CMA Fest stage together in Nashville. Finally, on Sunday night, you’ll get to see for yourself that the rock and country goddesses were far more dynamic duo than odd couple.

Jett’s surprise appearance is just one of the many festival highlights included in the 16th annual CMA Fest primetime special, which airs on ABC. Indeed, Jett and Underwood — a self-professed hard rock fanatic — torched the stage with a medley of the rocker’s hits, including “Bad Reputation” (which Underwood seemed to take particular delight in singing), “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” and “Crimson and Clover.”

Joan Jett and Carrie Underwood
| Credit: Nancy Kruh

Such one-of-a-kind collaborations are always a staple of the four nights of concerts at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium. So is a seemingly endless parade of stars, and this year more than 20 of today’s hottest names — including Underwood, Luke Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban and Florida Georgia Line — took the massive stage to perform before sold-out crowds. Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett return as co-host, ably assisted by special guest host Bobby Bones.

Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett
| Credit: Ed Herrera/ ABC

Most of the half-hour-plus sets included a musical mix of old and new. But viewers will get a heaping helping of recent chart-toppers, including Maren Morris’ “Girl,” Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More,” Thomas Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her” and Kane Brown’s “Good as You.” Other hot hits that get airtime: FGL’s “Talk You Out of It,” Bryan’s “Knockin’ Boots,” Dan + Shay’s “All to Myself” and Dierks Bentley’s “Living.”

Maren Morris
| Credit: Nancy Kruh

Of course there’s no bigger hit right now than “Old Town Road,” and the show’s producers don’t seem to care that no has been able to decide if it’s a country song. That means you’ll get to see the crowd going wild as Lil Nas X joins Billy Ray Cyrus and Urban on the record-breaking chart-topper. (To note: The rapper was the only one of the three to show up in traditional country wear, though, granted, the cowboy suit was fluorescent orange.) And if you’re wondering, “Why Urban?” he jumped on the “Old Town Road” bandwagon back in April when he posted a countrified version on ganjo on Instagram, and he brought the hybrid instrument with him for this performance.

Luke Combs’ two appearances on the special are just one more sign that the relative newcomer has reached the upper echelon of country stardom. The newest member of the Grand Ole Opry turns in a barn-burning “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” and then returns to add his powerful pipes to a duet with Tim McGraw on “Real Good Man.”

“Damn, that boy can sing,” McGraw exclaims as Combs exits the stage.

Tim McGraw
| Credit: Nancy Kruh

Morris and Ballerini also get second turns with more collaborations. Morris and fellow Highwoman Brandi Carlile recreate their duet, “Common,” that appears on Morris’ new album. And The Chainsmokers join Ballerini on their 2018 single, “This Feeling.”

Brooks & Dunn get ample airtime to shine a spotlight on Reboot, their recently released album of collaborations. As they did on the album, the Brothers Osborne double up with the duo for a hard-driving performance of “Hard Workin’ Man,” then the Osbornes retreat so ACM new female vocalist Ashley McBryde can join the soon-to-be Hall of Famers on their soulful album cut, “You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I’m Gone).”

Brooks & Dunn, Ashley McBryde and Brothers Osborne

Miranda Lambert brings the sass both solo and with fellow Pistol Annies Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. The trio turn in “Sugar Daddy” off their latest album, Interstate Gospel, then Lambert debuts the rollicking “Locomotive,” which she introduced as “country punk.” (It’s now available on streaming platforms and digital retails, while her new radio single, “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” is a little more domesticated.)

The TV special’s camera effects strive to give viewers a virtual “you were there” experience, but you’ll notice with a few of the performances that there’s one aspect to an outdoor concert you won’t miss: the rain that drenched the first of the four nights of shows. The covered stage kept the performers relatively dry (though they stepped gingerly on the slick lower stage). Midland was lucky that the rain briefly turned to a drizzle when they took to a mid-field satellite stage for “Mr. Lonely.”

One of the show’s highlights that you’ll get to see — and that the live audience missed — is Blake Shelton’s electric performance of “God’s Country.” Devin Dawson, who co-wrote the No. 1 song, joins Shelton on stage at his downtown Nashville honkytonk, Ole Red.

On the flip side, none of Eric Church’s 30-minute acoustic set made it into the show’s final cut. At the last minute, the renegade star called an audible, sent his band home and performed a nonstop medley of 17 of his most iconic songs. While it wowed the crowd, the show’s editors must have thrown up their hands.

Still, with 30 powerhouse performances, don’t worry: You will get your fill of country music magic. The 2019 edition of CMA Fest: The Music Event of the Summer will air at 8 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.