Carrie! Keith! Luke! And Luke! CMA Fest Roars Back from Cancellations with Star-Packed Stadium Concerts

Highlights from the four nights of Nissan Stadium shows will be aired on ABC on Aug. 3

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Keith Urban. Photo: Nancy Kruh

Concert touring has been going strong for over a year now, but every act on country music's biggest live stage — the stadium concerts at Nashville's four-day CMA Fest — seemed to have saved some pent-up energy to unleash from the months of the pandemic shutdown.

As Luke Combs announced to the packed house at Nissan Stadium on Saturday night: "Damn, it's good to be back at CMA Fest. It's two years too many!"

Or as Old Dominion's Matthew Ramsey reveled on the same stage Sunday night: "CMA is back, baby! How long have we waited for nights like this? This is what country music was made for!"

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Thomas Rhett. Nancy Kruh

This year's festival is its 49th edition ("annual" can no longer apply because of the two COVID-19 cancellations), and the Country Music Association made sure to give the tens of thousands of returning fans what they wanted, packing eight downtown stages with performances by literally hundreds of acts.

But no stage is more coveted than the stadium's, if only because it offers an opportunity for a national TV audience: On Aug. 3, ABC will air highlights from the four nights in a special hosted by Dierks Bentley and Elle King. Mark that day on your calendar, and in the meantime, here are some takeaways from PEOPLE's four nights of live concert-watching:

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Luke Bryan. Nancy Kruh

KEEPING IT CLASSIC: Is it truly CMA Fest without the biggest stars trotting out their biggest blockbusters? This year, after the three-year break, the classics went down like country comfort food, and there was much to savor: Darius Rucker's "Wagon Wheel," Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane," Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)," Thomas Rhett's "Die a Happy Man," Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried," and Keith Urban's "Wasted Time."

Lady A, for one, didn't settle for a standard reprise of signature hit, "Need You Now," adding a fresh jolt by bringing out BRELAND to add his dexterous vocals. (Charles Kelley, who's been collaborating with BRELAND on songwriting, first discovered the magic that the newcomer brought to the familiar song in April: They stole the show with a "Need You Now" duet during a BRELAND benefit concert in Nashville.)

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Lady A and BRELAND. Nancy Kruh

Luke Combs also turned in a particularly touching "Beautiful Crazy," telling the crowd that the song's inspiration, his wife, Nicole, was stage-side. She's due to give birth to their first child, a boy, this week, and Combs' Saturday night appearance is his last before he becomes a father.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Luke Combs. Nancy Kruh

WHAT'S NEXT: Several artists were also looking ahead, choosing to introduce brand-new music from the big stage. Combs teased his much-anticipated third album, Growin' Up (due out June 24), with his first soulful performance of "The Kind of Love We Make," which is set to release as a single this week. Underwood just dropped her latest album, Rhinestones & Denim, on Friday, and she included the title track and current single "Ghost Story" in her electrifying set.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Carrie Underwood. Nancy Kruh

Lady A also debuted upcoming single "Summer State of Mind," a romp that's ready-made for the season. Bentley and King turned in a charmingly campy performance of their catchy new duet, "Worth a Shot." And the raucous reaction to Cole Swindell's "She Had Me at Heads Carolina" showed why he's earned the early buzz around that infectious new single. (He and ACM female artist of the year Lainey Wilson were also warmly rewarded for their performance of No. 1 duet, "Never Say Never.")

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Lainey Wilson and Cole Swindell. Nancy Kruh

STAYING POWER: If the lineup for the four nights of concerts is any indication, the juggernaut of names at the top of country's heap hasn't made room for many new entries since the last CMA Fest in 2019.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Gabby Barrett. Nancy Kruh

Of the 20 contemporary acts on the main-stage bill, only five were earning their first-time spot: King, Gabby Barrett, Carly Pearce, Parker McCollum and Russell Dickerson. Each of the five received just a two-song set, so all worked to make the most of their time.

Pearce offered up new single, "What He Didn't Do," and she also provided one of the festival's most memorable moments when she brought out idol Wynonna Judd — just weeks after losing her mom and duet partner, Naomi Judd — for a bravura duet of The Judds' 1984 hit "Why Not Me." The two traded soaring vocals before Judd finally asserted her singular pipes, and Pearce gave her proper due with an awestruck backbend.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Carly Pearce and Wynonna Judd. Nancy Kruh

Dickerson's larger-than-life performance showed that he's built for stadium settings, and besides turning in an emotional performance of his latest No. 1, "Love You Like I Used To," he shared the stage with newbie Jake Scott for their just-released duet, "She Likes It."

MORE BUZZ-WORTHY MOMENTS: Picking favorite performances out of this lineup is an impossible task, but there were some destined to linger in memories. Carrie Underwood effortlessly segued from "Jesus, Take the Wheel" to the gospel hymn "How Great Thou Art," which seemed to have been written for her divine set of vocal cords. Kelsea Ballerini found new poignance in "Homecoming Queen," which evoked a sea of phone flashlights.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Kelsea Ballerini. Nancy Kruh

Old Dominion, a last-minute replacement after Alan Jackson had to bow out, paid homage to the Hall of Famer by performing his signature hit, "Chattahoochee," and their spin brought a new vibe to that timeless classic.

Though Brothers Osborne have recently been MIA on radio, the four-time CMA vocal duo of the year showed once again why they're among the most thrilling live country performers — and this time they brought along two mammoth skeleton puppets to dance along as they drew selections from their latest album, Skeletons.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
John and TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne. Nancy Kruh

ANOTHER SPOTLIGHT: Show planners didn't waste the downtime needed to reset the main stage between the star turns, employing a satellite stage at the back of the stadium to showcase a variety of strong acts in acoustic performances. Some were no doubt familiar to concert-goers: Maddie & Tae, Dylan Scott, Priscilla Block and Mitchell Tenpenny each delivered two-song sets.

But there also was a refreshing selection of newer talent, including Lily Rose, who's already made a splash with "Villian"; Madeline Edwards, a country soul artist who shared the CMA Awards Show stage last November with Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer; husband-and-wife Kat + Alex, who brought along their Latin twist (and a few Spanish lyrics) to their set; and Frank Ray, another Latino country artist whose current single, "Country'd Look Good on You," is in radio's top 30 and climbing.

MORE AWESOME TWOSOMES: The stadium stage is known for springing surprise duets on the audience, and besides Wynonna Judd and BRELAND, several more crowd-pleasers showed up. Ashley McBryde emerged to share vocals with Elle King on King's 2015 pop-rock hit, "Ex's & Oh's." Celebrating the 30th anniversary of "Achy Breaky Heart," Billy Ray Cyrus teamed with Bentley on that lovable earworm during Bentley's set.

CMA Fest 2022 Nashville
Dierks Bentley and Billy Ray Cyrus. Nancy Kruh

There also was one surprise no-show: Jason Aldean was left to sing recent No. 1 duet, "If I Didn't Have You," with a large-screen video of Underwood on Thursday night. She saved her pipes for her own full set two nights later.

But surely the most surprising collaboration of all four nights was what Sunday show-closer Bentley helped facilitate with his microphone before his final song: a marriage proposal by a front-row fan. The crowd roared when she said yes.

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