“It feels so good to be at the 50th anniversary of CMA Fest!” “Buy Dirt” hitmaker Jordan Davis told the crowd Thursday (June 8) at Nissan Stadium.
It was a sentiment that was repeated through the evening, as CMA Fest commemorated a milestone — five decades as one of country music’s premier connection points between artists and their fans. The event once again showcased a breadth of country music talent sturdy enough to continue that lineage.
As thousands of fans made their way from soaking in music created by a range of newcomers and rising stars at various daytime stages in downtown, they gathered at Nissan Stadium to keep the party proceeding long into the evening, spearheaded by a lineup which featured two-time CMA entertainer of the year winner Luke Combs, as well as Carly Pearce, Tyler Hubbard, Dan+Shay, Jo Dee Messina, King Calaway and Jordan Davis, and surprise appearances from Vince Gill and Darius Rucker.
Several artists, including Pearce, Davis, Cooke and RVSHVD made their debut Nissan Stadium performances as part of CMA Fest, with Pearce and Davis appearing on the main stage, and Cooke and RVSHVD performing on the Nissan Stadium platform stage.
From King Calaway opening the music-filled, balmy evening with their rendition of the national anthem, to Dan+Shay’s evening-culminating set that came just before midnight, the stadium show featured a mix of newcomers and celebrated artists, along with a few surprise collaborations.
Also on the night, Dierks Bentley, Elle King and Lainey Wilson engaged the crowd to film segments for the upcoming CMA Fest television special, set to air July 19 on ABC.
Below are a few of the evening’s top moments.
CMA Fest continues this week in downtown Nashville, running from June 8-11.
Jo Dee Messina Debuts New Music
After getting the Thursday night Nissan Stadium crowd revved up with hits including “My Give a Damn’s Busted,” and “A Lesson in Leaving” (which was previously a hit for Dottie West in 1979), Jo Dee Messina offered new music—and a heartfelt look into what drives her these days.
“The one thing that changed my heart was Jesus Christ. If you knew me 15 years ago and today, I’m a different person,” Messina told the crowd, as she welcomed Contemporary Christian music artist Ben Fuller to the stage for a song they wrote together.
“That will be a single soon,” he promised the crowd, before closing with her 1996 hit “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” an enduring classic that has been further revived over the past year or so, thanks to an interpolation of the song in Cole Swindell’s “Had Me at Heads Carolina.”
Jordan Davis Makes Inaugural CMA Fest/Nissan Stadium Performance
“I moved to Nashville 12 years ago this month to chase country music.. next thing you know is you are standing in the end zone at Nissan Stadium,” Jordan Davis told the packed audience on Thursday night. “I hope you know how grateful we get to call country music a job and we get to do that because of all of you.”
This marked his first performance at Nissan Stadium main stage at CMA Fest, and he came prepared with a strong collection of fan favorites including “Singles You Up,” “Next Thing You Know,” “What My World Spins Around” and “Slow Dance in a Parking Lot.”
Before concluding his set with his CMA song of the year-winning hit “Buy Dirt” (there was no surprise Luke Bryan appearance this evening), Davis did share a sweet moment with the audience and praised his wife Kristen, while noting they are “due any day now” with their third child.
Luke Combs Brings “Fast Car” to CMA Fest
Two-time CMA entertainer of the year winner Luke Combs returned to the Nissan Stadium stage on Thursday evening, having sold out the same venue with his own headlining show just weeks before.
He filled his set with hits including “Love You Anyway,” “When It Rains It Pours,” and “Beautiful Crazy,” which he announced has been certified Diamond.
Combs, who is currently on an international tour and has nine CMA honors to his credit, also keyed his current status as one of music’s biggest hit makers, in any genre, by performing his current top 10 hit on Billboard’s top 200 chart, a cover of Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit “Fast Car.”
“I remember hearing it in my dad’s truck when I was four years old,” he told the crowd, calling it, “one of my favorite songs of all time.”
Vince Gill’s Surprise Performance
When Billboard spoke with CMA Fest television special executive producer Robert Deaton about this year’s television special, in connection with the festival’s 50th anniversary milestone, Deaton noted that fans could numerous collaborations, and pairings of artists from different eras.
The Thursday evening lineup certainly included a few surprise guests–most notably when Luke Combs brought out 18-time CMA Award winner Vince Gill to join him for a rendition of Gill’s 1993 hit “One More Last Chance.” Gill played guitar and lent his high harmonies to meld with Combs’s granular vocals. As Combs welcomed Vince Gill to the stage, he called the Country Music Hall of Fame member a “legend” and an “absolute hero.”
Ashley Cooke’s Glowing Nissan Stadium Debut
Ashley Cooke celebrated several career milestones in the past year, including signing a record deal with Big Loud Records and Back Blocks Music, and touring with Luke Bryan and Jordan Davis. She added to those milestones on Thursday night by making her debut performance at Nissan Stadium as part of CMA Fest.
“Last year, I was in one of those seats, dreaming of being here,” she said, gesturing to the seats in the upper sections of the stadium.
She offered a song apropos for the evening, a song she wrote with Will Weatherly and Brett Tyler, titled, “It’s Been a Year.” Though the song’s lyrical content centers on a previous 365 days of both hope and struggles, Thursday night served as an even greater zenith moment and Cooke made the most of the moment.
She asked the audience to “make my dreams come true” by using their cell phones to light up the stadium. They obliged and Cooke and her band members delighted in the moment, singing as the stadium was softly aglow, with lights swaying all around like thousands of fireflies.
Carly Pearce Brings Heart, Sass and an Empowering Collaboration
Carly Pearce first played CMA Fest 13 years ago, but on Thursday evening, she made her debut on CMA Fest’s main stage at Nissan Stadium. It proved a golden moment for Pearce, who took heartbreak and spun it into a career-defining collection of music with her 29: Written in Stone project.
Her CMA Fest set on Thursday evening was filled with songs from that project, including “Diamondback,” “Easygoing” and “Next Girl,” as well as her top 5 Country Airplay hit “What He Didn’t Do,” and her Grammy-winning, No. 1 Country Airplay hit “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (sans her vocal and writing partner on the song, Ashley McBryde).
But it was Pearce’s collaboration with Jo Dee Messina that proved an empowering moment, as they traded off melodies and harmonies on Messina’s clear-eyed, optimistic “I’m Alright.”
Darius Rucker’s Stadium-Sized Singalong
Instead of performing in front of the Nissan Stadium audience from the elevated main stage, Darius Rucker–backed by a small band of musicians–instead performed on the ground floor, surrounded by thousands of fans. The setting proved ideal for his set, the sparse musicianship highlighting the commanding grit of his vocals on “Fires Don’t Start Themselves,” but also ideally setting up for his endlessly catchy rendering of “Wagon Wheel.” As the song’s instantly recognizable fiddle melody floated over the crowd, Rucker and company were joined by thousands adding their voices to the chorus, reaching a zenith with a stadium-sized singalong.
Tyler Hubbard Brings Energetic, Uplifting Solo Set
“Thank you for letting me have two first singles in my career,” Hubbard told the crowd Thursday night. Approximately a decade after his breakthrough single “Cruise” as half of Florida Georgia Line, Hubbard earned a solo number one with “5 foot 9.”
The crowd responded in kind, screaming out the song’s poppy chorus. FGL fans were possibly disappointed, as none of Hubbard’s previous hits as part of the duo were included in his Nissan Stadium set, though it did provide a solid glimpse into his own energetic, uplifting brand of solo music. He welcomed six dancers at various points in his set, which included “Tough,” “Inside and Out,” and “Dancing in the Country.”