A record-breaking 87,680 folks attended this year’s annual CMA Music Festival, which was held in Nashville June 11-14. The country-music fans who streamed in from all 50 states and 20 countries had no shortage of music to choose from, with 500 artists playing shows (many of them free) on 11 stages over the course of the four-day festival on outdoor stages, in honky-tonks, clubs, and theaters, and at the Tennessee Titans’ football stadium, LP Field. Here are 10 of the many shows and moments we loved seeing while roaming downtown, along the riverfront, and beyond in our time before, during, and after the festival.
Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam with Eric Church, Chris Stapleton, Little Big Town and others at the Ryman Auditorium
Country legend Stuart hosts this annual all-star late-night fiesta, and it never disappoints, offering 3½ hours of varied sounds and sights — from lively square dancers to exquisitely picked mountain music and contemporary hit makers. This year’s most stunning moment came after 1 a.m., when Eric Church — who had just played the CMT Awards across the street at the Bridgestone Arena, and also performed at LP Field during the festival — joined Stuart for several tunes, including his own “Sinners Like Me” and Stuart’s hit duet with Travis Tritt, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.” Then they welcomed Chris Stapleton, his wife and backing vocalist Morgane, Stuart’s wife, Connie Smith, and Phillip Sweet and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town to the stage for endearingly impromptu takes on the Band classic “The Weight” and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.”
Clare Dunn, Sirius XM Superfan Concert at the Nashville Theatre
In a tiny theater nestled inside the Bridgestone Arena, singer-songwriter Clare Dunn gave an intimate acoustic performance that ranged from sultry (new single “Move On”) to soaring (her anthem “Cowboy Side of You”) and serene (a jaunty cover of the Band’s “The Weight” —
Reba McEntire on the CMT Awards
How great is it to have Reba back in action? Many artists performed during the live telecast from the Bridgestone Arena, including great moments from Eric Church, the Zac Brown Band, and Frankie Ballard. But none were as triumphant as the still sassy redhead singing her comeback hit, “Going Out Like That.”
A Thousand Horses at Tin Roof
Some of the best shows at CMA Fest are surprise concerts or small fan club events. These rowdy Southern rockers, a spiritual mash-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Black Crowes, played to a jam-packed crowd at a honky-tonk on the teeming Lower Broadway club strip, and even bought a round for everyone in the place. Fresh from learning that their latest single, “Smoke,” from their album “Southernality” had hit No. 1, the band — abetted by a trio of indispensably soulful female backing vocalists — soared through a sweaty, smoky, scorching set that included that tune, as well as a celebratory run through Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” in the style of the Black Crowes’ hit cover. One of the hardest working bands of the week, the group also played the CMT Awards, the mammoth Bud Light Plaza Stage outside the Bridgestone Arena, and made a trip to the Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn., over the weekend.
Concert for Love & Acceptance at City Winery
Country music historically has had very few openly gay artists, but the organizers of this show — recently out artist Ty Herndon and GLAAD — presented this concert to show that things are slowly changing. Herndon, who played a set of his own hits including “What Mattered Most,” hosted the event alongside political commentator Meghan McCain, welcoming a wide roster of acts that included the legendary Crystal Gayle (singing “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”), Rhode Island native singer Billy Gilman, also recently out, and actor Chris Carmack, who plays the newly out singer Will Lexington on the ABC primetime soap “Nashville.”
Randy Houser at LP Field
The big-voiced and big-hearted Houser is always a treat, but he pulled off one of the most intimate moments seen at the stadium level. After running through uptempo hits like “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” Houser started his epic ballad “Like a Cowboy” with full-scale production. Midway through, however, he turned to his band and signaled for them to stop playing. He then finished the song with just his emotive voice and his guitar, reminding everyone in attendance that all you need is a good song and a heartfelt performance to create a powerful and enduring musical moment.
Chris Carmack at the Belk Stage
The “Nashville” star might play a country singer on TV, but in real life the hunky blond is a blues rock lover. He showed off his impressive vocal and guitar chops, ripping through his own originals, due out later this year on an EP, as well as a cover of the late B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel.” Like many of the artists at CMA Fest, the Washington, D.C., native played multiple shows, also performing at the Concert for Love & Acceptance.
Chris Janson at the Bud Light Plaza Stage
The Missouri native drew one of the week’s biggest crowds to this stage outside the Bridgestone Arena. Although Janson recently broke through with his infectious, independently released hit “Buy Me a Boat,” the singer-songwriter has been working around town for nearly a decade, including more than 100 shows at the Grand Ole Opry. So diehard fans waiting for him to get his big break and new listeners who have hopped aboard Janson’s “Boat” alike cheered enthusiastically during a high-energy set that was equal parts heart and soul, as he sang raucous tunes like “Better I Don’t” and the hit he penned for Tim McGraw, “Truck Yeah.” Janson also appeared on the CMT Awards and at the Ryman during the week.
Travis Meadows at Dan McGuinness
Because Nashville is “Music City,” there are always plenty of events going on — and, much like the South by Southwest festival in Austin, the week of CMA Fest includes many unaffiliated shows full of great acts. Mississippi singer-songwriter Meadows gave a stunning performance at the Chords for a Cause benefit. The man who has had his songs recorded by Eric Church, Jake Owen, and Dierks Bentley, among others, is a superb storyteller who is served well by his lived-in rasp. Backed by his guitar, a steel guitar player, and a supple cajon, Meadows moved us to tears with his heartfelt ballad “Unfinished Business,” as well as songs of his that have been made famous by others including “What We Ain’t Got,” a hit for Owen, and Bentley’s current single, the triumphant “Riser.”
“Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats” exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame
This new entry into the Hall’s offerings is a treasure trove for fans who pay special attention to the names in album liner notes. It celebrates world-class session musicians like David Briggs, Ben Keith, and Fred Carter Jr., who became integral to the sound of countless country and rock artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bob Dylan (on classic albums like “Nashville Skyline”), Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, and many more benefited from their instrumental expertise. Worth the price of admission to the entire museum — which is itself a highly entertaining way to enjoy some AC and history — is a vintage video of Dylan and Johnny Cash cracking each other up in an impromptu recording session for “One Too Many Mornings.”
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.