Inside CMA Fest: Your Essential Guide to Country's Hottest TV Special (Airing Tonight!)
Four full nights of concerts, 24 must-see performers and a staggering 137 songs: Take pity on the video editors who had to whittle all this down into a three-hour ABC special.
The concerts, held during Nashville’s annual CMA Fest in June, are arguably the most coveted performance slots in country music, and all the artists brought their A-games to the crowd of 50,000. The televised distillation will feature a total of 28 performances, and advance word is that all 24 contemporary acts who took the stage at Nissan Stadium have made the final cut.
No matter what airs, it will be a feast for country fans, but in recent days the Country Music Association and ABC have been offering hints and sneak peeks.
If previews are any indication, the show will lean heavily on the stars’ latest singles, even though most of the five- to seven-song sets offered samplings of old and new. So expect to see Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” Lady Antebellum’s “You Look Good,” and Maren Morris’ “I Could Use a Love Song.”
Fans craving “Craving You” will be more than satisfied with Morris and Rhett’s steamy duet – which has since risen to No. 1 – and Cole Swindell and Dierks Bentley should get hearts pounding with “Flatliner.” Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town (also on the bill) will be bringing feminine charm to Darius Rucker’s latest No. 1, “If I Told You.”
All of the partnerships were surprises to the live audience – something these concerts are known for. But the real shocker of the four nights was an unbilled appearance by Garth Brooks, and country’s king can be assured ample air time. In his live performance, he soared through excerpts of five classics and latest single, “Ask Me How I Know,” before settling on the ultimate crowd-pleaser, “Friends in Low Places,” which didn’t require him to sing a note since the entire crowd knew every word.
It’s a sensational set – and the TV wizards apparently went on to make it positively supernatural. A preview snippet of “Callin’ Baton Rouge” shows Brooks alone on stage with his guitar, yet getting full band accompaniment. His band wasn’t invisible; they were just on their way to his Billings, Montana, dates, and their music was added after the fact. Oh, the magic of television!
The concerts also offered the opportunity for a few up-and-comers to test their chops on a stadium crowd – and now on a TV audience, as well.
The lucky Brothers Osborne – who weren’t on the original bill at all – were penciled in after Chris Stapleton injured an essential guitar-playing finger (that since has healed). Viewers can expect to see the Osbornes turn in an explosive performance of “It Ain’t My Fault.”
Dustin Lynch gets his moment on a secondary stage, set up on the stadium’s field, to turn in his latest hit, “Small Town Boy.” Brett Young earns the same spot to perform his blockbuster No. 1, “In Case You Didn’t Know.” Old Dominion cycles through four hits already under their belt with a five-minute medley on the main stage.
Ballerini showcased her latest single, “Legends,” in her set, but it looks like her most recent hit, “Yeah, Boy” has gotten the nod for TV. Perhaps gauging crowd reaction to help her pick her next single, Miranda Lambert delivered uncaged performances of “Pink Sunglasses” and “Highway Vagabond,” both off her latest album, and the latter song appears to be the one we’ll get to watch.
What else will make it to the airwaves? We can only hope we’ll get a sentimental Brad Paisley, who lit up the stadium – literally, with cell phone flashlights – with a heart-tugging delivery of his latest No. 1, “Today.” He also turned in a warm performance of new single “Last Time for Everything.” Both songs are off his new album.
Brett Eldredge had fun showing off his wacky side with his newest hit, “Somethin’ I’m Good At,” but he reminded the audience he’s also a soulful crooner with the anthemic “The Long Way,” off his eponymous new release, which sits at No. 1 on the album sales chart this week. Chris Young torched his way through “Losing Sleep” from his upcoming record.
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Other well-established artists also obliged fans’ passion to hear signature hits, and that’s why we could see Luke Bryan give a fresh reading to “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” Florida Georgia Line take off with “Cruise,” Dierks Bentley get “Drunk on a Plane,” and Little Big Town launch into “Pontoon.” The bill is rounded out with performances by Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Eric Church and Rascal Flatts. Dan + Shay, who didn’t perform in the stadium, also will be featured in the TV special.
What won’t we see? None of the outside-the-genre artists (think Steven Tyler, Lenny Kravitz and Kid Rock) who’ve popped up in the show in previous years. This year’s edition – the 14th, if you’re counting – was determined to keep it country. Carrie Underwood fans also will be disappointed she’s not in the lineup this year; she’s off the tour circuit and was perhaps too preoccupied with the Stanley Cup playoffs at the time. They featured her hockey-playing husband, Nashville Predators captainMike Fisher (who just retired).
We also won’t see Thomas Rhett and Ballerini making any costume changes for their hosting duties. The two were kept in the same casual summer outfits all four nights, apparently to create the impossible dream that all of these performances could occur in a single evening. Come to think of it, for TV viewers, that dream will come true.
CMA Fest: The Music Event of the Summer airs at 8 p.m. (EDT) Wednesday on ABC.