Thousands of die-hard country music fans came from all corners of the globe to take in Nashville’s signature event, CMA Music Festival, the week of June 4-10. The 47th annual celebration drew capacity crowds for concerts at Nissan Stadium, the Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage at Ascend Amphitheater, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage and other venues. And according to a CMA release, the revelers came from all 50 states and around the world, including Canada, Australia, Brazil and South Africa.
There’s a lot to take in over the course of several days. Here are some of the highlights from the week, in what we’re calling “The Best of CMA Fest.”
Stars for Second Harvest
Though not officially a CMA Music Festival event, this annual benefit presented by O’Charley’s helps get the week off to a star-studded start. Songwriter and event founder Craig Wiseman hosted the show from the Ryman Auditorium, featuring headliner Jake Owen, hit songwriters Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins, Morgan Wallen and Jillian Jacqueline, and young YouTube sensation Mason Ramsey.
A unique aspect of the show is the all-acoustic format, creating an intimate feel. Wiseman and the other writers shared the stories behind some of their best-known songs, including Wiseman’s hit for Kenny Chesney “Summertime” and Clawson’s smash for Florida Georgia Line, “Dirt.”
Owen electrified the audience with his performance, but some of the loudest applause came for Ramsey, sporting a white cowboy hat and traditional country chops (he even yodels). Following his version of “Lovesick Blues” and his debut single “Famous,” the 11-year-old entertainer received a standing ovation.
The show raises funds for Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, which works to solve hunger issues in the region.
The heat during CMA Fest often leans toward the “brutal” side. But cool respite and some terrific artists awaited fans inside this popular venue, designed to resemble a rustic lodge. From June 7-10, the lodge welcomed such acts as Ashley McBryde, Jon Pardi, Cam, Lee Ann Womack, Eric Paslay and Cassadee Pope.
Paslay’s performance on June 10th was a truly hit-laden set, featuring songs that the bearded redhead has written for other artists as well as his own singles. Paslay entertained with “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” his hit for Jake Owen, plus his own tunes ‘Song About a Girl” and new single “Young Forever.”
The Warner Sound
Warner Music Nashville offered festival-goers an off-site alternative with performances and goodies at their label office on Music Row, away from the downtown bustle. The Warner Sound hosted fan parties for Rae Lynn, Hunter Hayes, Charlie Worsham and William Michael Morgan, and introduced some new and creative talent at its SoFar Sounds showcase, June 8th. Sister duo Walker County particularly impressed at the SoFar show with tight sibling harmonies and catchy material.
Fans were also treated to some clever and tasty touches inside the label office, thanks to several generous sponsors. A surefire attention-getter was the pop-up Waffle House restaurant in the lobby, where complimentary waffles and hash browns were served. Of-age guests could enjoy a cocktail at the Crown Royal Lounge or the George Dickel Patio. Small wonder that fans were flocking to this spot.
CMA Close Up Stage: Restless Heart
How great to hear the breathtaking harmonies of the timeless band Restless Heart, which is now touring again. The five-member band participated in a Q&A session on the CMA Close Up Stage, June 10th, inside the Xfinity Fan Fair X area. The guys had interesting stories to tell about life on the road and other aspects of the music business. Lead vocalist Larry Stewart related the tale of how he came to join the band.
In between anecdotes, Restless Heart showed that they can still bring it after 30 years. Their harmonies on such hits as “Bluest Eyes in Texas” and “When She Cries” were as impeccable as ever.
The CMA Close Up Stage also featured other country legends like Exile, Ray Stevens and Bill Anderson. Nice to see that the Festival still values the stars who got us to this point.
Cracker Barrel Country Roads Stage
Ascend Amphitheater provided high profile evening entertainment in a pleasing outdoor setting, right in the heart of downtown Nashville. Lee Brice, Clare Dunn, Maddie & Tae and a slew of other acts filled the venue to capacity each night of the Festival. Michael Ray turned in a stunning performance on the Saturday night show with favorites like “Kiss You in the Morning,” while introducing fans to material from his latest album “Amos,” such as “Fan Girl” and “Get to You.”
The Saturday show also produced a poignant moment when Randy Travis received the inaugural Cracker Barrel Country Legend Award. Ray followed the presentation with his rendition of Travis’ No. 1 hit, “Forever and Ever, Amen.”
If you couldn’t make it to CMA Music Festival this year, you can catch highlights of the big event on the ABC TV special, “CMA Fest.” The show, hosted by Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett, airs August 8th at 8 p.m. ET.