It’s been three full years since the last CMA Music Festival, and thousands of country music fans wasted no time getting right back to business in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessean is on the ground and will be reporting on all the sights and sounds from now until the four-day fest’s conclusion on Sunday night. Read on for highlights from Friday inside Nissan Stadium, at the Riverfront Stage and more.
Highlights: See what happened Thursday
Kelsea Ballerini calls ‘Dibs’ with sparking pop-country
8:35 p.m.: Days after she shared the Nissan Stadium stage with Kenny Chesney during his Nashville tour stop, Kelsea Ballerini returned to the towering venue for a pop-country revue that was undoubtedly all hers.
Ballerini – covered in glitter and wearing a sparking head-to-toe outfit (plus a matching sparkled pink guitar) – wasted little time in covering her catalog of contagious songs: A revamped rendition of 2017’s “Miss Me More,” pop-tinged piano ballad “I Quit Drinking” new single “Heartfirst” and a solo take on award-winning Chesney duet “Half of My Hometown” all made the cut.
She gave a one-two-three punch with a lightning-paced medley of “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Yeah Boy.” Still, no moment hit quite like an unvarnished solo rendition of “Homecoming Queen?,” prefaced by Ballerini asking fans to pull down life’s emotional filter and be “together in this room right now.”
“Since I’ve seen you, there’s been a lot that’s happened in the world,” Ballerini said on stage. “Going into it’s been hard, but coming out of it’s been equally hard or harder and I’ve been struggling with major anxiety.
She continued, “I go back to this song that I wrote before the shutdown about giving myself permission to feel my feelings because we’re all human and no one’s perfect.”
And, of course, she brought a little white wine with her, sipping from a red Solo cup between songs before ending “with a bang” – drinking anthem “Hole In The Bottle.”
“I just kinda feel like the luckiest girl in the world,” Ballerini said.
Nissan opens with ‘Strawberry Wine’
7:55 p.m.: Like “Two Dozen Roses” band Shenandoah a night ago, Nissan Stadium kicked off Friday with a shot of ‘90s country – this time from hometown singer Deana Carter.
Carter didn’t waste time giving audiences what they hoped to hear: A run of throwback country favorites. She opened the set with “How Did I Get There” before singing “Did I Shave My Legs For This?” and “Count Me In,” each singles off Carter’s celebrated 1996 debut album also named “Did I Shave My Legs For This?”
“How many ‘90s country fans did we got out here?” Carter said on stage. “We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of ‘Did I Shave My Legs For This?,’ my very first record. Some of you weren’t born, I know, but you heard it, right?”
As the sun set on Nissan Stadium, Carter closed her 30-minute set (after teasing a a surprise appearance from Wynonna Judd later in the night) with signature hit “Strawberry Wine” and a “thank you” to fans for coming out early.
“God bless you,” she said after the set. “Thank y’all.”
ERNEST blends pop and country, a ‘Flower Shops’ performance blooms
5 p.m.: Big Loud Records artist ERNEST has already achieved five No. 1 hits as a songwriter on the road to headlining on the Cumberland River on Friday afternoon at the Riverfront Stage. As the sweaty, blissful crowd eagerly awaited receiving the weekend’s first performance of 2022 pop-country’s favorite throwback anthem, “Flower Shops,” the star who frequently attended CMA Fest in his Nashville-based youth called his day-ending positioning a “bucket list moment.”
However, as could be expected when he was announced as an artist inspired by “everyone from Eminem to George Jones,” he delivered a performance that expressed a breadth and depth of mainstream pop-friendly styles and influences. If — as many were as the clock struck 4:30 on a delightfully balmy afternoon — you were waiting to hear the previously-mentioned zooming to top-10 status country radio single, the broad scope of the Nashville native’s impressive influences made waiting an unexpectedly enjoyable time.
He’s a twanging, rock-adjacent crooner with an evident love of R & B. Thus, for as much as his 90s tastes err towards artists like Alan Jackson, listen closely and crossover soul crooners with flair like Babyface feel crucial to his sound, too. Dig deeper into his album cuts as live performances and vibes reminiscent of The Eagles’ mid-70s work seep into “Feet Wanna Run.”
If thinking that ERNEST’s artistry limited him to being a trucker-hat wearing everyman turned sepia-tinged jukebox, you discovered at the Riverfront Stage today that you’re half right. In taking a longer listen to his “Flower Shops” The Album” work like “Comfortable When I’m Crazy,” or songs like “Wasted On You” that he’s penned for Morgan Wallen’s record-setting streaming champion “Dangerous: The Album,” he’s a pop-adoring songsmith still growing into his soon expected stardom
For the sun-kissed throng waiting for him to plug in his electronic acoustic guitar and sing about sad lovers’ tear-filled blue and bloodshot-sad eyes, ERNEST emerged as a country performer worthy of keener attention.
Powerful moments with country’s next female stars
2:30 p.m.: Here’s a Friday afternoon report from Tennessean country music reporter Marcus K. Dowling.
For the past five hours at the 2022 CMA Fest, we’ve shared stories and incredible, transformative moments with a sextet of country music’s next wave of female stars: Ingrid Andress, Priscilla Block, Ashland Craft, Miko Marks, Lily Rose and Hailey Whitters.
With three-time Grammy-nominated artist Andress, we conducted an in-depth interview for a forthcoming feature related to her new album.
Having taken a preview listen to the album, the track “Yearbook” (featuring the takeaway lyric that “the pages only turn one way,” a favorite for both the artist and reporter) took the early lead for the likely radio single-to-watch.
Currently, Andress has the Sam Hunt duet “Wishful Drinking” on country radio, and it’s clear that she has more hyper-personal, open and aware songs to come.
She confronted a “broken” brain while writing her COVID-era breakout hit “More Hearts Than Mine.” Her desire to deny boredom in her songwriting led to a song that reflects people’s ability to be more capable thinkers than they believe themselves to be.
As for Marks, her journey back to Nashville after dealing with racist slights by country’s mainstream is a remarkable story (one we’ll be telling soon). She joined the non-Andress quintet of previously mentioned artists at CMT’s Next Women of Country songwriting round at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMA Theater.
The last time many were present in the theater was when another influential female country artist — Naomi Judd — as posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Marks was wistful when asked about being in a place where Wynonna feted Naomi.
However, the power of being in the Hall of Fame in a moment wherein, like herself, more African-American female vocalists are being featured than ever (namely, Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Allison Russell and Rissi Palmer in the museum’s American Currents exhibition in the past two years) was palpable.
Upon being in space she’s now shared with her sister artists, Marks was nearly overcome.
Fast-forward 90 minutes and while “taking the CMA Theater to church” (as event host and CMT Senior Vice President Leslie Fram noted) in front of a fan who saw her first at Fan Fair in 2005, Marks finally stood from her chair. Onstage, while singing an unreleased track, she loosed her throaty, gospel-tinged contralto to the world. And then, she cried tears of joy that left a room awestruck and similarly tear-jerked.
There may be no more heart-wrenching story, at least today, at CMA Fest.
Regarding Whitters, Craft, Block and Rose, there may be no sore rock-solid quartet of singer-songwriters (female or otherwise) currently set to impact country radio.
Grammy-nominee Whitters performed “Everything She Ain’t from her 2022 star-making album “Raised.” Rose played her TikTok sensation “Villain” and followed it up with her single “Stronger Than I Am,” as two die-hard fans sang every word of both while sitting front-row center.
Block sang a stirring rendition of her 2020 hit “Just About Over You.” Her overwhelming, still-present humility and joy in the face of her rising stardom was noteworthy.
Craft’s “Make It Past Georgia” combines the one-time dive bar vocalist’s vocal similarity to Janis Joplin with a song that compares heartbreak to exceptional weariness from life on the road. It’ll be a slow-burning hit akin to Lainey Wilson’s “Things A Man Oughta Know,” but it’s a hit.
A ‘damn good time’ with Willie Jones and more
2 p.m.: Gabe Lee’s set had an intimate feel at the CMA Spotlight Stage starting at 2 p.m. in Fan Fair X. A crowd of around 50 sat, captivated by soulful “Susannah” in the middle of Lee’s acoustic set.
Lee’s honey-rich voice thanked the crowd and said CMA Fest has been an all-around pleasure this year. He finished his set with “Ol’ Smokey” from his 2019 album “farmland.”
Joy and Allison Berringer were front-row for Lee’s set. They said they hadn’t heard him sing before but said they are big fans after seeing him sing live.
The couple is on their honeymoon from Nova Scotia, Canada. They are spending two weeks in Nashville, and Fan Fair X at CMA Fest has been their favorite event so far.
“It’s great to see the newcomers perform,” Joy Berringer said. “We have our favorite stars, but then you come to this stage and say ‘okay they are getting big next.’”
Allison Berringer scrolled through photos on his phone while he waited for the next artist to come onstage. He was particularly proud of the shots he took of Carrie Underwood on Thursday at her Amazon Prime concert.
Joy looked on. “He’s the better photographer of the two of us,” she said.
Abi and Candace Stoltzfus walked briskly into the Amp Stage around 12:15, weaving around the crowds of people heading out towards First Avenue. They had driven to Nashville from Pennsylvania on Wednesday.
The sisters hurried all the way to the barricade to be as close as possible before Willie Jones took the stage. Abi sported brown and white cow-print pants and Candance had suede cowboy boots to match her woven hat.
Crowds cheered and fans stood up from their picnic blankets as Jones ran onstage and opened his set with “Slow Cookin.’”
“We’re just gonna rock out and have a damn good time out here” Jones said before singing “Down For It.”
Jones followed “Back Porch” with an unreleased song he said would be out later this summer. He dedicated it to “all the pretty girls” in the crowd. Fans swayed and waved their arms to the music.
CMA Fest for free: No tickets required for these concerts
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Shocker: Boots are flying off the shelves
1 p.m.: A fleet of emergency vehicles lined 1st Avenue South, in between the Riverfront Stage and Amp Stage. The fleet included everything from a Vanderbilt Life Flight ambulance to an “ambubus” — a retrofitted school bus —that belongs to the Nashville Fire Department.
12:30 p.m. Plenty of freebies were available at the Busch stand at the Amp Stage. Staffers were handing out custom coozies, cooling bandanas, CMA Fest posters and popsicles.
Fans were relaxing at the Busch bar, where a line-up of guest bartenders included Ashley Cooke and Breland Friday.
12: p.m. Customers were nearly shoulder-to-shoulder inside Boot Country on Lower Broadway. The store is known for its “buy one, get two” deals on boots.
Marketing coordinator Jessica Spencer said business has picked up overall in Nashville recently.
“CMA has definitely picked us up,” she said. “It’s like having 3-4 Saturdays in a row.”
Deb Wing was mulling over a choice between white and gray ankle boots. She was in from La Crosse, Wisconsin, with friends.
“I’m gonna wear them around right now shopping to break them in for tomorrow,” Wing said.
Her friend Lainee Nummerdor sprang for a pair of tall brown boots studded with rhinestones and sparkly stitching.
Their group was off for more shopping, with plans to grab drinks and catch some music inside Ole Red a few doors down later.
A cloudy morning
11 a.m.: A large crowd bobbed their heads and held phones high as Larry Fleet played the Riverfront Stage. Families, groups of friends and people of all ages gathered to listen to Fleet.
“This is the first song I ever recorded. Sing along if you know it,” Fleet said as he kicked off “Where I Find God.”
The crowd didn’t disappoint, with many joining in as the chorus rang out.
Day 2 was off to slower start under cloudy skies, but the crowd was steadily growing downtown by 10:45 a.m. Music was blaring from a few honky tonks and exhibits. A lone party bus with a few dancing patrons meandered down 4th Avenue as festival-goers waited to cross.
The temperatures hovered in the the mid-70s for the morning, but forecast calls for a high in the mid-80s and chance of scattered showers and thunderstorms later in the day.
Day one highlights
Read on for a look back at moments from Thursday, opening day of CMA Fest in Nashville.
Keith Urban: ‘You guys might’ve missed this whole thing as much as we did’
11:45 p.m.: Keith Urban described in two words what those who trekked cross-country — or further — likely felt when gates finally opened and music began pouring out of CMA Fest.
“We’re back,” Urban said during his night-closing set at Nissan Stadium.
He added, “I had the feeling you guys might’ve missed this whole thing as much as we did.”
And much like those who traveled a far distance to fill the stadium seats, Urban spent his time on stage covering as much ground as possible from a career rooted in six-string exploration. He opened with extended guitar ripper “Days Go By” before soulful fan-favorite “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” dream-chasing anthem “Wild Hearts” and an unrestrained solo take on “You’ll Think of Me.”
On returning to CMA Fest, Urban told The Tennessean backstage before his performance: “The energy of this crowd is unlike anywhere. It’s such a unique moment. This week in Nashville, period, is unlike any other time in the city. This year especially, [after] having a two-year, pent-up absence. I can already feel it – everybody’s ready to make up for lost time.”
“You guys are making up for lost time tonight,” Urban said. “This is insane.”
Jason Aldean returns to ‘his kinda party’
2022’s Academy of Country Music, iHeartRadio, and CMT Song of the Year award winner (with Carrie Underwood for the duet “If I Didn’t Love You”) Jason Aldean’s solo CMA Fest performance showed he is engrossed by the third and wildly successful era of his two-decade-long country career.
Earlier, he remarked that “Trouble With A Heartbreak’s” current three-week run atop Billboard’s Country Airplay chart was doubly important. Foremost, it’s the first time he’s had the No. 1 song in the genre during CMA Fest. It also continues a run of success that compares to the success achieved by his 2009 hit “Big Green Tractor.”
“If you expected me to bring out guests, you’re gonna be sad tonight,” he offered as he swaggered into the Tennessee Titans’ press room earlier Thursday evening. To that end, his live set was highlighted by solid takes on his 2010 hits “My Kinda Party” and “Dirt Road Anthem.”
Physically, it appears he’s decided to double down in the gym to elevate his delivery as a live performer. Since telling the Tennessean in April 2022 that he didn’t expect to be here “in a trillion years,” he’s clearly making an effort to be ready to fulfill the expectations of continued unprecedented acclaim.
Aldean’s looking at spending much of the rest of 2022 on the road. Thus, his 45-minute set at Nissan Stadium was a rocking dress rehearsal of what will likely transpire over two hours on stage in venues across America.
Notable also was the quality of his vocal performance. New single “That’s What Tequila Does” (from the “Macon” half of now fully-released double-album “Macon, Georgia”), plus a solo, live piano-driven take of the previously-mentioned “If I Didn’t Love You,” sans Carrie Underwood (a 2021 Aldean live tour staple) were strong, comfortable, and in line with expecting album-quality work from the superstar.
Zac Brown Band awes Nissan Stadium by ‘Taking It To The Limit’ (one more time)
9:30 p.m.: In an interview before hitting the stage at Nissan Stadium, Zac Brown told The Tennessean that he has played 5500 shows in the past 22 years. The reason?
“I still feel like I’m winning over live crowds, man,” he said. “We don’t get to open for acts too much anymore, so festivals like these let us connect with people who may only stream us, or aren’t too familiar with our live show.”
Country music’s beloved traveling troubadours maintained that status with tracks like 2006’s “Toes,” causing — as expected — the 50,000-plus in attendance to break out in impromptu stadium seat dance parties.
However, most impressive was his cover of “Take It To The Limit,” The Eagles’ 1975 smash. His vocal performance both pleased and stunned a crowd not entirely sure of what to make of a current superstar making a play for a larger stake as a genre-shaping icon. When the set airs as part of ABC’s August 3 “CMA Fest” special, it’s worth watching.
Brown’s desire to mimic the likes of Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley as a mentor for younger country acts showcased itself on the big stage at Nissan as Nashville favorites King Calaway played their latest single, “See You When I Get Home,” alongside Brown. In addition, he’s helmed the writing and production of their forthcoming album project.
The juxtaposition of the fresh-faced quartet of Chris Deaton, Simon Dumas, Chad Michael Jervis and Caleb Miller alongside Brown’s much rougher presentation highlighted his ear and eye for talent supersedes stereotypical expectations.
Also, in a continuing trend after Billy Strings’ appearance at Marty Stuart’s Wednesday evening Late Night Jam at the Ryman Auditorium, breakout guitarist Marcus King joined Brown to perform their 2021-released track “Stubborn Pride.” King’s blistering solo floored an audience seemingly largely unaware of his road-developed instrumental prowess.
And yes, the set was bookended by his ever-reliable hits separated by just over a decade, 2008’s “Chicken Fried” and 2021’s “Same Boat.”
Darius Rucker: ‘I love this Weekend’
8:30 p.m.: The sun set on Nissan Stadium, and everything’s ‘Alright’ with Darius Rucker.
The Grammy Award-winning star took the stage in a throwback Rolling Stones tour t-shirt, singing his 2009 chart-topper “Alright” before reminding onlookers of his one-of-a-kind croon with the mandolin-backed “Come Back Song.”
“Ain’t it great to be back in Nashville — in-person — seeing a show?” Rucker said on stage. “Man, I love this weekend.”
The performance capped a day-long victory lap for Rucker, who kicked off performances at the Spotify House inside Ole Red on Lower Broadway Thursday morning and stopped by the Gibson Garage hours before his stadium set for an acoustic performance.
“I’ve been playing the CMA Fest since 2009 and it’s awesome to see you guys come together to have this party in this beautiful building,” Rucker said, adding: “That’s awesome to me.”
And it wouldn’t be a Rucker show without a little Hootie & The Blowfish (or a lot of “Wagon Wheel”). He delivered on both, performing 1990s rock staple “I Only Wanna Be With You” before later closing with his award-winning Old Crow Medicine Show cover.
Returning to Nissan Stadium
7:55 p.m.: CMA Fest returned to Nissan Stadium with a taste of throwback country courtesy of 1980s and ’90s hitmaking group Shenandoah.
The band revved up early showgoers with renditions of nostalgic ’90s foot-stompers “Next To You, Next To Me” and “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)” before cutting into tender ballad “I Want To Be Loved Like That” — the night’s first stadium singalong — and signature song “Two Dozen Roses.”
“Let’s throw a little gas on the fire,” frontman Marty Raybon said to muchb approval as the band kicked into “If Bubba Can Dance.”
Prior to Shenandoah, rising country singer Brittney Spencer took the stage for a stirring take on the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Fans seek out shade (and go for a swim?)
4:30 p.m. The crowds had thinned considerably downtown by 4 p.m. Sun-wearied festival-goers took advantage of the shade as the sun dropped lower into the sky and ducked into honky tonks and enclosed exhibits around downtown.
A modest crowd gathered for Tenille Arts, signing along with arms waving.
“This is a bucket-list stage for me,” she said at the top of the set.
Behind her, boats floated on the river in the afternoon heat and a few jumped in for a swim.
A religious experience on opening day
3 p.m.: One word describes the first five hours on Lower Broadway: religious.
Jimmie Allen’s opening stage banter at the Chevy Riverfront Stage at 10:45 AM included the 2021 CMA New Artist of the Year, noting that he believes in God and “God’s not a loser.”
Two hours later, country hitmaker Hardy was leading the stage’s capacity-packed, booze-filled and heartily-entertained crowd on a tour through “God’s Country.”
At CMA Fest, it’s readily apparent that country music’s Mother Church is up the street. However, country music’s time-worn Christian values are among the vibes governing day one of the 49th CMA Fest.
Regarding all things timelessly country, the genre’s close affiliation with easy-listening rock and roll was spotlighted as Darius Rucker opened Spotify House at Blake Shelton’s Ole Red bar.
Hearing Rucker lament his emotional reaction to watching his beloved Miami Dolphins lose football games in 1994 Hootie and the Blowfish hit “Only Wanna Be With You” (“Sometimes you’re crazy then you wonder why / I’m such a baby ’cause the Dolphins make me cry”) is a heartwarming hallmark of his songwriting.
That same lyric sung by a bar crowd at a mega-massive festival sounds like a Catholic choir uttering a responsorial psalm.
Even deeper, the day’s sermon was delivered by 2022 Academy of Country Music Song of the Year award-winner Lainey Wilson.
In front of a crowd whipped into a Godfearing, devil-may-care, redneck country frenzy by Hardy, the Baskin, Louisiana native sang sweetly about maintaining self-respect while expecting a mate to show kindness via her singles “Heart Like A Truck” and “Things A Man Oughta Know.”
As brother-tandem LOCASH’s new single “Beach Boys” sounded like timelessly-adored songs by the band sharing the track’s title, a sweltering yet fun afternoon on the banks of the Cumberland River sweatily sauntered on.
In short, CMA Fest 2022, so far, has been highlighted by country music being in the throes of unearthing its core values and celebrating its most warmly beloved sounds.
Hardy rocks the Riverfront
12:30 p.m.: The banks of the Cumberland were packed as Hardy got underway at noon, drawing loud cheers as he sang “Boots” before he launched into “Give Heaven Some Hell.”
Lainey Wilson joined him and handed him a beer as he kicked off “One Beer.” He encouraged the crowd to raise their respective drinks as they sang along.
“No more love songs, no more sad songs, we’re just gonna play some country sh— and rock your face off for the rest of the set,” he said before belting out “Rednecker” while the crowd roared.
Other highlights from the artist and songwriter included the Blake Shelton hit “God’s Country,” which Hardy said was one of the songs he’s most proud of co-writing.
He closed the tight 30-minute set with “Unapologetically Country as Hell.”
11 a.m. : The morning continued to warm up with Rita Wilson opening the Chevy Vibes stage at 11 a.m. A crowd of a little more than 150 reclined on picnic blankets and swayed to the music against the backdrop of Bridgestone Arena.
Music from honky tonks spilled onto the street nearby as crowds ambled in and out of line for concession stands and merchandise booths.
A line of people stretched to more than 100 a few blocks down Broadway at the entrance of the Spotify House. People waved paper fans and squinted against the summer sun.
Ticket troubles, patriotic overalls and country’s ‘family’
Back on Lower Broadway, Jolynn Grashorn and her sister-in-law Jenny McCloy ducked into a food tent along Broadway to get a slice of pizza around 11:30 a.m.
Grashorn said she flew in from Omaha and met McCloy Tuesday, who had driven in from Marion, Iowa.
The two are spending time with family in town and had plans to catch the next acts on the Chevy Vibes stage at noon.
They said they’re happy to be back at the festival after the two-year hiatus but were frustrated that everything is digitized — from tickets to festival maps and guides.
“I wasn’t impressed with all that,” Grashorn said.
They said they saw an older woman crying at the Fan Fair X area because she didn’t have internet on her phone and no way to access her ticket. They also said they had trouble transferring tickets via Ticketmaster but eventually found a way.
Fans missed the fest the past two years and were thrilled to see it return. Abbey Tozzi was an intern for CMA in 2019 and was helping to plan the 2020 festival before it was cancelled.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said of the cancellation.
Tozzi has been planning this weekend for a year, and waited in the Spotify House line for two hours with her friend Mary Putko, a 3rd grade teacher from Florida.
“It’s the best lineup” Putko said. “I’m like, hello, we need to get in there.”
Tozzi said her favorite part about seeing CMA fest return is the community of fans.
“Community is really important, and the country music community is like a family,” Tozzi said. “It’s unlike any other genre.”
Rodney Walls was clad head-to-toe in American flag overalls as he headed to see Hardy at the Riverfront Stage just before noon.
He said he hails from Capshaw, Alabama and has added his own flares to the overalls, including a few stars stitched onto the pockets.
He’s been coming to CMA Fest since 2012 and said he’s especially looking forward to seeing Mark Wills.
“I’m kinda old school — like Joe Nichols and all that,” he said.
He was visiting with his friend, David Ellis, who’s a Nashville resident. Walls said he drew looks and sparked conversation when he donned some “Yee Haw” overalls a few years back.
A busy, beautiful morning
10 a.m.: Crowds were already filling in along Lower Broadway under sunny skies and 75 degree weather. Music from a few honky tonks punctuated lines of food trucks downtown, featuring everything from beignets to gyros.
Crowds were concentrated around the Fan Fair X at Music City Center and the Riverfront Stage, where Jimmie Allen was playing.
MNPD officers were on hand directing traffic while security workers guided people to stages and checked bags.
CMA has turned Fort Nashborough — which sits next to the Riverfront Stage — into the “Riverside Retreat.” Mist blowers, premium drinks, the whole nine yards. AND a lovely view of the Riverside barge.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: CMA Fest 2022 in Nashville: Live updates from concerts, performers, scene