The four nights of Nashville concerts will be distilled into an upcoming three-hour TV special sure to be jam-packed with new songs, greatest hits and stunning collaborations
The biggest stars, the greatest hits, the newest songs, the baddest collaborations: Except for one rain-soaked night, the stadium concert series at this year’s CMA Fest fully delivered the ultimate live-music experience.
Even the downpour — on Thursday, the first of four nights — didn’t spoil this party. Country fans, it turns out, love singin’ in the rain.
In all, 20 of today’s hottest names — including nightly headliners Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and Luke Bryan — took the massive covered stage at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, each performing half-hour-plus sets to the sold-out crowd. Have no FOMO. The best of the best will be trimmed to a three-hour TV network special that you can watch Aug. 4 on ABC.
The show’s editors have the unenviable task of deciding what will air, and their choices will probably lean toward newer material, but the stars also gave their live audience some of their most beloved classics. No doubt the loudest singalongs broke out with the parade of greatest hits, among them, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” Rascal Flatts’ “Life Is a Highway,” Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man,” Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane" and Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”
Two performers, Miranda Lambert and McGraw, had the moxie to perform unreleased music. A beatific Lambert introduced what she called a “country punk” song, “Locomotive;” it came with a driving beat that hearkened back to “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead” (both of which she also performed). McGraw auditioned “Hallelujahville,” a ballad tribute to small-town life that he recently debuted at the NFL Draft Party in Nashville.
Other artists trotted out songs with that just-released shine. Trisha Yearwood made a one-song appearance to introduce brand-new single “Every Girl in This Town” off her upcoming album. Old Dominion tendered “One Man Band,” and Little Big Town inspired with “The Daughters.” Luke Combs served up “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” just out to radio but already a streaming hit. And Brett Young debuted his latest single, the fetching “Catch” — which he’s described as “my absolute favorite song” off his new album.
Surprise collaborations have long been a staple of this concert series, and this year’s edition didn’t disappoint. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping pairing occurred when Underwood began what seemed like an outside-the-box cover of Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” — until the rock goddess herself suddenly materialized. The two lit up the stage with a medley of Jett’s hits, including “Bad Reputation” and “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.”
Though there’s still no answer to the eternal question, “Is ‘Old Town Road’ country?” Lil Nas X thrilled the crowd when he appeared (in fluorescent orange cowboy duds) to perform the song with Billy Ray Cyrus and Keith Urban. Cyrus’ appearance was a natural: His remix made the already viral hit even more wildly contagious. But why Urban? His fans know he posted a cover on a ganjo on his Instagram account back in April. He also played the instrument, a six-string banjo, on Friday night.
Kelsea Ballerini brought out The Chainsmokers during her set to perform their 2018 single, “This Feeling.” Maren Morris invited Americana pal Brandi Carlile to join her for “Common,” a duet that appears on Morris’ latest album, Girl.
The Brothers Osborne doubled up with Brooks & Dunn to performing “Hard Workin’ Man,” which they’d recorded for B&D’s new album of collaborations, Reboot.. The brothers then ceded the stage to the soon-to-be Hall of Famers, who brought out Ashley McBryde for another album cut, “You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I’m Gone).”
McBryde was among a small group of newer artists to earn a debut at the coveted venue, and all were surprise appearances. Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson, aka Midland, were perhaps the biggest troupers, performing new single, “Mr. Lonely,” in the pouring rain on a satellite stage. On another (and drier) night, Lindsay Ell joined Brantley Gilbert (who last appeared here in 2014) on the same stage to perform Top 20 hit “What Happens in a Small Town.” Florida Georgia Line invited Hardy to team up on “Y’all Boys,” a cut on FGL’s latest album that also features the singer-songwriter. And Dierks Bentley’s tourmate Tenille Townes ably took over Elle King’s part on his “Different for Girls.”
Last year, seven of the 20 artists on the bill debuted with full sets, but this year, 19 of the 20 were all returning performers; only Chris Janson was the lucky newbie to earn a first-time full set.
As much as the TV special will bring the live-concert experience to viewers, alas, some of the stage magic will probably have to hit the cutting-room floor. During his set, Keith Urban created one enchanted moment when he demanded the entire stadium be darkened, and he then proved that fan power (via cell phones) could still light up the stage.
Country rebel Eric Church called an audible at the last minute, sent his band home and went out on stage to perform a one-of-a-kind 30-minute acoustic set, a nonstop medley of 17 of his most iconic songs. It wowed the crowd — but hats off to the TV editors who can winnow it down for future viewing.
Whatever Luke Bryan performs on the special will be a blast of countrified dynamite, but viewers will have to multiply it by 10 to grasp the bravura of his full live performance. The concert-series closer for the second year in a row, Bryan went three songs over his seven-song set, but with all that romping, stomping and hip wiggles, who cared? He ended with an exuberant cover of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on Prayer,” which he warned he could barely sing, and then he proved it. Still, it sent the crowd off with a party-hardy afterglow — and no doubt an appetite to come back for more next year.
The 2019 edition of “CMA Fest” will air at 8 p.m. EDT Aug. 4 on ABC. Thomas Rhett and Kelsea Ballerini return as co-hosts for a third year.