This past week (June 6-9), fans from all over the world made the sojourning trip to Nashville for the annual CMA Music Festival. As part of the jam packed week, there were nightly concerts at LP Field. Everyone from Dierks Bentley and Miranda Lambert to Taylor Swift and Luke Bryan took to the summer stage to perform their latest and greatest hits, as well as surprise collaborations along the way. There was a nice jumble of various musical influences and something for every kind of Country music fan.
This year's event was my first experience (of many more to come). I was impressed with everyone and their unabashed nature with which they attacked their sets and interacted with the glowing fans.
Night #1 – June 6
The first night was a prime example of the wide range of musical tastes of Country music listeners. The National Anthem was performed by the incredible Oak Ridge Boys, whose harmonies are unmatched by any other group out there today (except maybe Little Big Town, but that's another post).
Next came a bit of 1990s nostalgia with Tracy Lawrence. With his performance (including "Paint Me a Birmingham" and "Find Out Who Your Friends Are"), I was instantly transported back to me teenage years. He possesses the right amount of charm and vocal talent to prove a perfect way to kick off the week. Despite being the first full performer (and about half the stadium being filled), the crowd was singing and cheering right along with him.
The first major headliner of the night was Luke Bryan. I don't really need to point this out, but I will. The crowd screamed the loudest for him that night. Moments later, he launched into his party-strewn hits, including "Drunk On You" and "(Country Girl) Shake It For Me," as well as current entry "Crash My Party." He moved across the stage with such ease, bumping and grinding his hips as he went. The mostly-female crowd went absolutely nuts during his entire set. I was sure they would have exploded with excitement.
Taylor Swift was up next, opening with her breakout smash "Love Story," a song that set in motion where she is today. On multiple occasions, her name incited boos from my side of the stadium, even when she was about to take the stage. You might not like Taylor, but in no way does someone deserve to be booed. It's never a good color. While there were plenty of audible boos coming from various areas of the crowd, there was an equal ammount of cheers. She also performed "Mean" (a real sing-along crowd pleasure), "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" (which catapulted the crowd to their feet) and "Red." The real treat came when she launched into the first few lines of her debut single "Tim McGraw." Midway through, she welcomed Tim himself to the stage, and they segued into their two-week No. 1 "Highway Don't Care." Of course, the collaboration wouldn't be the same without Keith Urban then joining them to lay down some wicked guitar licks. Easily one of the highlights of the night, by far.
Eric Church's set made me a believer. I was only a casual fan before, digging only a few tracks from his critically acclaimed Chief set. However, after seeing the way he handles the crowd, I am now a huge fan. One of his best songs was "Jack Daniels." Throughout his set, which also included "I'm Getting Stoned," "Homeboy" and "Drink In My Hand," he kept a cool demeanor and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. He is truly today's outlaw rockstar. The only disappointing thing was that he did not perform "Springsteen," maybe next time.
Miranda Lambert hit the stage next and performed a wide range of her material. In addition to the expected songs "Mama's Broken Heart" and "Gunpowder and Lead," she also pulled out "All Kinds of Kinds" from her latest album Four the Record (please, be a single!), as well as "White Liar," which were both nice treats. She was dressed in a lovely red and black number, showing off her figure. She didn't rock out as much as I thought she would, but she was still gave a great set and sounded terrific. She also performed "Over You," "Fastest Girl In Town" and "Baggage Claim" (one of my personal favorites).
Closing out the first night was Zac Brown Band. True, I've never been a big fan of the group, but they sure do know how to perform and keep the crowd guessing. They kicked off their set with "Chicken Fried," which I thought they would have saved for the very end. It grabbed the audience's attention and kept it them guessing. Then, they launched into "Goodbye In Her Eyes" and "Jump Right In," moments before another highlight of the four-date event. Bringing out Kenny Rogers, the group then traded lines of "The Gambler," one of Kenny's biggest and most-well known hits (and one of my favorite songs of all time). Later on, Zac Brown enlisted Kid Rock and Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr for Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band." And then, that was a wrap on night one!
Night #2 – June 7
Gloriana performed the National Anthem. Plus, performances by Randy Travis, Kip Moore, Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes, Lady Antebellum and Blake Shelton.
I had to skip this night due to Carrie's Grand Ole Opry appearance celebrating her five years as being a member. (More to come on that)
Sheryl Crow made a surprise apperance with Little Big Town.
Night #3 – June 8
Brett Eldredge, with his signature smoky vocals, performed a great rendition of the National Anthem. The crowd roared for him, and I expect if his next single goest well enough, he might even have an opening slot next year. We'll see. He also chatted on stage with host Storme Warren about a contest for a fan to hang out with him backstage during the show. Lucky.
The Oak Ridge Boys (after performing the National Anthem on Thursday night) were back for a set of their hits, which included the quirky "Elvira" (one of my favorite songs ever) and "Same Ole Me." While the crowd didn't get too crazy during their set, it was a nice thing to witness an iconic band bringing their songbook to a rather diverse audience that night.
Next came…Florida Georgia Line. As I noted in my CMT Awards review, they are real fan favorites. Their set, featuring "Cruise," "Get Your Shine On" and current single "Round Here," had the crowd up waving their hands, banging their heads and having a grand ol' time. There wasn't one person not standing (except maybe me, but I rarely stand up for anyone). Whether you love 'em or hate 'em, Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard know how to have fun on stage and keep the crowd's attention. There was not one pause or break from rocking the stage. I admire that. Where does their energy come from, I ask?
Next came a rather interesting segment of the show…Lenny Kravitz. Not only did he reprise his CMT Awards performance with Jason Aldean of "American Woman," but he performed a full set, to the disinterested chatter and looks of the crowd. Sure, I dig me some Lenny as much as the next guy, but he was so out of place that many in the crowd left to go get more booze or take a bathroom break during his set. During "Let Love In," when he attempted to get the crowd chanting the chorus, he fell as flat as a pancake. You could tell by the look on his face (and him charging into the crowd) that he was rather deflated with the lack of interest. Honestly, the stadium laid thick with awkward mumbles and murmurings. His slot should have been given to a Country star…like Jason, or even Kacey Musgraves.
Dierks Bentley took things back to Country with his set, which included his new single "Bourbon in Kentucky" (and songwriter Hillary Lindsey joined him for harmonizing). "5-1-5-0," "Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)" and "What Was I Thinking" were loved by the crowd. Seriously, I'm surprised he isn't a bigger superstar than he is judging by the reaction of the crowd. He's slowly been gaining steam, especially after his Home album from last year. He closed out his set with the album's title track, which was dedicated to all the service men and women and was a welcome change of pace from the usually electric, hair-tossing finales.
Things continued to get mostly back on track when Kelly Clarkson took the stage next. Her set included primarily pop songs, such as "Stronger," "Catch My Breath" and "Because of You." She also debuted her new Country single "Tie It Up," which borrows textures of Alanis Morissette into a delicious new anthem about marriage. While the song certainly isn't what you'd call Country, even by today's standards, it might do well over on pop radio. It has a great hook and gives a chance for Kelly to really rock out on stage. If the crowd knew the words, no doubt it would have been a highlight. During her set, there was another surprise guest…Trisha Yearwood! Who saw that coming? They teamed up on Garth Brooks' "Ain't Goin' Down Till the Sun Comes Up," which was by far the best performance of the night. Kelly has been welcomed with open arms by the public, and I can now see why. I just wish she had more Country songs to perform. Oh, and Jason also re-entered the stage for "Don't You Wanna Stay." (Always a good choice.)
Closing out the night was Keith Urban. His set began with "You Gonna Fly," followed by "Long Hot Summer" and his new single "Little Bit of Everything." The Australia born-and-raised singer wailed on his guitar and panted out the lyrics. He charged full-force through his set, keeping time with the shouts of the crowd. Even after years in the business, the audience still loves them some some Keith. Unfortunately, there were no surprise guests during his showing, although I half-expected Kree Harrison to pop out at some point. No such luck. And that was a wrap!
Night #4 – June 9
Well, this night was rather…interesting…and disappointing. Due to the impending storm (which actually took forever to arrive, way later than expected), the night was cut down by about two hours. Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis performed a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, one of the best I've ever heard. Their harmonies were magnificent.
Lee Greenwood then launched into his set, beginning with “Love Will Find Its Way to You,” “We’ve Got It Made,” and “Ain’t No Trick.” It was obvious the crowd (albeit small at that point) weren't as familar with these songs. It was with "God Bless the USA," that the crowd vaulted to their feet to sway to the swooping melody. He ended on a high note, no doubt.
Gary Allan, fortunate enough to have an early slot, is a great showman. "Watching Airplanes," "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)" with songwriter Hillary Lindsey, "It Ain't the Whiskey" and "Pieces" comprised his performance, prompting enthusiastic concertgoers all over the arena. Growing up, I never really understood the fascination for Gary, but his new record Set You Free is a must-listen.
Brad Paisley only performed two songs, first his "Karate" from his Wheelhouse disc. As a song not known by the general public, it was a great choice to introduce a different side to him. Midway through his performance, of course, came a surprise guest. Charlie Daniels entered the stage to a fury of empassioned screams and fist bumps. They then traded lines of the song (even if Charlie didn't quite know them all) and peppered in some fiddle music and lyrics of "Devil Went Down to Georgia." What an explosion of great music, it was. After prompting the crowd to download his lightshow app, Brad closed his too-short set with "Beat This Summer," as fans held up their smart phones for a glorious sparkling lightshow all across the arena. It was as if the night sky had dropped right down around our feet.
The Band Perry then tore into their hits "DONE." and "Better Dig Two." Kimberly is a rockstar to the core, as she hit the floor whipping her hair around her ears during the first song of the set. Vocally, she hasn't sounded better and the crowd was on their feet from the get-go. This group is the real deal. They know how to perform for a crowd and keep listeners captivated by their sheer boldness and energy. I just wish I knew what their full set would have included, as there are some real gems on their Pioneer album. Darn it. Up until that point, they were the best performers of the night…or even the entire week.
Lennon and Maisy from hit TV drama Nashville then took the stage. If these two don't prove to be superstars, I'll eat my straw hat. Of course, they performed their cover of "Ho Hey." With every syllable, the crowd showered elated praise and cheers down on their shoulders. Adorable.
Next came the awkward performance of CMA week. Jake Owen, a crowd favorite, took the stage…to perform one song. His "Anywhere with You" really shook the crowd and kept the momentum The Band Perry had set and took it up a notch. Towards the end of his performance, he jumped to the floor level with his guitar in hand and showed off his moves for the fans. Before we knew it, he was one and done. Boos then blazed through the stadium, heightening as Storme took the stage to announce Carrie's set. He only hung his head. Honestly, fans didn't quite understand the power of the impending storm. It was for our safety. The boos continued for a few moments but then subsided.
Carrie closed out the night (and week), performing a four-song setlist. I hear she was expected to play around nine songs or so. She began her set with "See You Again," her current single, and the crowd sang every word. Then, she displayed her rock roots with a stellar cover of Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City," on which she has never sounded better. There is very little Carrie can impress me with (because she's that good), but I was seriously blown away by this performance. The crowd seemed to love it too, and it was a perfect fit for the night. After what appeared to be an awkward pause (and I hear the crew was trying to get her offstage), she brought out Brad for "Remind Me," and the crowd went nuts (once again). Of course, a Carrie set would not be complete without her crossover smash "Before He Cheats." As you'd expect, the crowd sang every word right back to her. A perfect ending to a week-long event of music and entertainment. It's only a shame that the night was cut short from stormy weather.
Photos Courtesy of CMA