The CMA Music Festival in Nashville — the yearly celebration of country music better known as CMA Fest — is a nearly round-the-clock party with hundreds of artists playing on more than a dozen stages — from the mammoth LP Field to tiny tents — at free and ticketed events throughout Music City for four straight days.
From the CMT Awards the night before the festival’s official start to satellite events at the Country Music Hall of Fame, it was a hot time — literally and figuratively — to be in Nashville last week.
Through the haze, here are 10 things we remember loving about CMA Fest.
Rock and Roll breaks out at the CMTs
The country music network staged its annual bash at the Bridgestone Arena honoring the year’s best videos. The show had a couple of strong moments — including a well-deserved tribute to Alan Jackson featuring Kacey Musgraves and Lee Ann Womack — but one stood above the rest: when Eric Church was joined onstage by Halestorm frontwoman Lzzy Hale. Befitting her name, she brought storm force vocals to Church’s already raucous “That’s Damn Rock & Roll.” The duo would reprise their duet a few days later during Church’s performance at LP Field and it was equally badass.
Celebrating country music’s roots
Every year country legend and walking roots music encyclopedia Marty Stuart hosts an all-star Late Night Jam at the “Mother Church” of country music the Ryman Auditorium, right across the street from Bridgestone Arena. If the CMTs, which directly preceded it, were all about contemporary flash and music of questionable country provenance, Stuart’s event — featuring everyone from Sam Moore of Sam and Dave to Stuart’s wife, country legend Connie Smith — is the exact opposite. It was all about classic country music tradition, the kind that rarely gets much attention these days but deserves it more than ever.
The heartbeat of Nashville
In a genre where storytelling is key and not all artists pen their own tunes, or co-write them with others, it was a treat to see two of its best songwriters perform songs they’ve written for others in a special session at the intimate Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Luke Laird and Barry Dean shared stories, both funny and poignant, behind hits like Carrie Underwood’s “So Small,” Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown,” and Little Big Town’s “Day Drinking,” among others.
Sugar-less but oh so sweet
Just as Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles tested out her solo wings earlier this year, her partner in rhyme Kristian Bush is doing the same. He electrified fans at the Chevy Riverfront Stage with a high energy set of tunes from his upcoming solo album “Southern Gravity,” including the soulful Van Morrison-esque title track, the groovy “Trailer Hitch,” and Sugarland favorites like “Baby Girl.” He even busted out a few choice dance moves. He reassured fans that Sugarland isn’t breaking up, but they definitely have something to look forward to in Bush’s solo album, due later this year, in his hiatus.
Hot up and comers
It seemed the further you got away from the big stages the closer you got to what felt more like authentic country styles. The Brothers Osborne played a hot set on the plaza in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame drawing huge cheers from a devoted group of fans. With Brother T.J. singing in the roughed up baritone of a fallen angel and Brother John playing his guitar with a dash of hellfire and the crowd singing along to laid-back current hit “Rum” and giving the thumbs up to funky new rocker “Pins and Needles,” it may have been one of the “smallest” shows we saw, but it made one of the biggest impressions.
Brandy, she’s a fine girl
Brandy Clark has written plenty of hit tunes for others — including the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two”— but it was her own voice that drew a small but vocal crowd to the Country Music Hall of Fame plaza at 10 on a Saturday morning to hear Clark’s original and relatable songs about the bruised and beautiful souls who populate country music. From the mom who copes with life’s demands and indignities with help from Mary Jane in “Get High” to the new girlfriend freaked out by the old flame in “Hold My Hand,” Clark imbued her early morning set with depth and heart.
Just as Miranda Lambert blossomed at LP Field, The Band Perry exploded with similar fire. The family trio — lead singer Kimberly Perry and backing vocalist/instrumentalist brothers Neil and Reid — took to the stadium stage as if to the manner born blazing through twangy, rock-edged hits like “Better Dig Two” and “Chainsaw” with irresistible joy with Kimberly in particular giving a performance of outsized proportions.
Garden party throwback
Anyone who was a fan of guilty pleasure pop-rock in the ‘90s will likely recall Nelson — the two man band fronted by twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson and their long blond tresses. The pair have relocated to Nashville in recent years and played a set on the lawn in Walk of Fame Park that reminded us of why we secretly loved them back in the day. From the still pristine harmonies of hits “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” and “After the Rain” to newer more countrified tunes the pair sounded great and even threw in a rendition of their dad Rick’s classic “Garden Party” that garnered a hearty singalong.
They write the songs, and sing them
Anyone attending enough shows at CMA Fest would eventually hear some of the same songs multiple times as superstars would play their big hits on the stage at LP Field while up and coming artists who have been making their bones as songwriters played the same tunes in smaller settings. Singer-songwriter Will Hoge blazed through his own set of originals on the Bud Light Stage in front of the Bridgestone Arena but also dropped in the song that became a hit for the Eli Young Band “Even if it Breaks Your Heart.” Brandy Clark served up the smash she co-wrote for Miranda Lambert “Mama’s Broken Heart.” The Cadillac Three churned out their blazing country rock on the Chevy Riverfront stage as well their take on “Days of Gold,” which became a hit thanks to Jake Owen’s cover version.
Miranda Lambert has been a star for a few years now, deservedly collecting country music award trophies by the armful. But there was something so triumphant about Lambert’s performance at LP Field that it felt like a coronation. Promoting her dynamite new album “Platinum,” Lambert was clearly in her glory, whether revving her way through the sassy “Little Red Wagon” or belting out her paean to the good old days “Automatic.” When Carrie Underwood joined in on their new single, the swaggering foot-stomper “Somethin’ Bad,” it felt real good, and a hopeful sign for the future as Lambert expertly blends current trends with classic traditions.