CMA Fest: Country’s Night To Rock – Recap, Live Blog & Discussion Post!

Welcome to CMA Fest 2015! This all went down in mid-June, but now’s our chance to see it after all the editing (and, in many cases, Autotuning) in post. Neither Miranda Lambert nor Blake Shelton nor Reba was part of the celebration this year, so no need to airbrush wedding rings off or anything. Whew!

So who was there? Not a lot of women. Carrie Underwood made her return to high-profile stages after giving birth to her 1st son Isaiah Michael Fisher in February, Maddie & Tae performed, and then we have to look to ladies within groups, including those of our hosts Little Big Town and, of course, Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum. Representing for the dudes are: Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Lee Brice, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Brett Eldredge, Florida-Georgia Line, Randy Houser, Sam Hunt Brad Paisley, Thomas Rhett, Darius Rucker, Keith Urban, Chris Young and Zac Brown Band.

Florida-Georgia Line kicks this off with their current single “Anything Goes” because what better way to allow the dawdlers to feel like they haven’t missed anything by taking a few extra minutes to eat, wash dishes, clip toenails, wash hair, and whatever else may have kept them from the television until around 8:05p Eastern? No lack of energy, of course. Live vocals? Hard to tell because any would have been fixed in post.

Next, Sam Hunt is what I think you get when Drake meets Kris Allen. He’s landed in country because of his songwriting background, and his numbers are too big for country industry not to eagerly claim him. He’s easily the best selling debut act the country genre’s had since since Scotty McCreery. This is his current single “House Party.” He’s still figuring out how to work a stage.

After some banter with their labelmate hosts, Lady Antebellum, with members Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley (in a Hawaiian shirt, for some reason?), and Hillary Scott performs its current single, “Long Stretch Of Love,” and they are as competent as ever here – they are pros on stage, and the song has energy and a catchy melody. But somehow, they’ve faded into the woodwork in the past couple years despite having what I would argue is the biggest crossover hit of the past 10 years in “Need You Now.” It seems to me that the fans who supported that aren’t as interested in the Lady Antebellum gearing its music for arenas and tempo-driven country radio.

Next up is what is in some ways the signature performance of the night and of country radio right now: Thomas Rhett with his Jesse Frasure & Chris Stapleton-penned hit “Crash & Burn.” It’s the throwback soul smash that he has no business singing, to be honest, and his dance moves are every bit as “Oh honey, no” as his voice on the song. Anyway, Thomas Rhett has declared Bruno Mars to be an idol, and this song represents what is going on at country radio right now in the sense that most hitmakers are not even trying to sound country and in the sense that it’s all about the groove, the funk and the rhythm these days.

Now a rather sunburned Cole Swindell is jumping around the stage performing his latest t20 hit, “Let Me See Ya Girl.” He’s happy to be there and visibly proud of himself for getting people to wave their hands in the air. The song is about all the stuff you never hear about on country radio anymore: beer, beats, girls, trucks, and tailgates.

The ladies of Little Big Town get a sweet smile from Sam Hunt (yeah, he’d better) even before they present him with a gold plaque for sales of over 500k of his debut album, Montevallo, in addition to over 350 million streams from the album.

Back outside, Phillip Sweet introduces Rascal Flatts and they perform their recent single, “Riot,” it’s a romantic ballad, middle of the road Rascal Flatts and Gary LeVox sings it with his typical melisma.

The Property Brothers, Drew and Jonathan Scott, whose home network HGTV sponsored a stage at CMA Fest, get to plug their show and take us on a tour of the Little Big Town bus with their likely next single “Pain Killer” as the soundtrack. Next, Thomas Rhett’s “Crash & Burn” is the soundtrack for his bus tour, where we learn he keeps a single leather glove in a drawer – he refers to it as a slapping glove. Well, at least he didn’t say it was part of his training to become Michael Jackson. #brightside Next up, Brett Eldredge’s “Lose My Mind” is the soundtrack for his bus tour. He characterizes himself as an overgrown kid, and “confesses” to storing wigs. I’m beginning to suspect these guys were prepared for these visits & stocked up on conversation pieces. Nah, I’m sure this was all completely spontaneous and unplanned.

Kimberly Schlapman introduces Zac Brown Band to perform their current t5 hit, “Lovin’ You Easy” – a groovy throwback soul number with a key change! Hopefully we’ll see them perform “Homegrown,” which is one of the year’s bigger hits later.

Keith Urban is up to perform his current hit, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Oh look, an appropriately-placed shot of a girl sporting a hippie-style headband. It’s still weird to me to hear this song built over a bass, going for funky over its natural state, rootsy. Love seeing the young girl playing guitar along with the song, though. The song was new at the time that CMA Fest happened, which means no opportunity to see people in the crowd completely out of synch on the lyrics.

Eric Church is up singing his slow jam, “Like A Wrecking Ball.” The latest trend in live performances in general has been to slather on the reverb on live mics to make people’s voices seem fuller. It’s distracting because it often disembodies the voice from the person. But since the studio version of “Like A Wrecking Ball” is already this way, it’s not as much of a distraction here. This is a song that’s been selling t5 country since it was t30, but has moved slowly up the airplay charts. It’s now t15 at country radio in its 24th week charting at Billboard.

We leave LP Field temporarily for a pre-pre-taped performance of Kenny Chesney singing his current t20 hit, “Save It For A Rainy Day,” a catchy upbeat midtempo about coping post-breakup. The totally not-at-all central casted audience loves it.

Lee Brice actually gets some TV time for a full song, his #1 hit “Drinking Class,” a defiant anthem for workers kicking back with some…you guessed it, alcohol, after a hard week of work. He talks/screams/yells his way through the song, which I suppose is appropriate, if too on-the-nose.

After we return from commercial, Little Big Town is up to welcome Carrie Underwood back as the combination of the best body and best voice in country music. Sure, why not? The crowd response to Carrie’s return seems extra enthusiastic. Carrie takes the stage to perform her most recent #1 hit, “Little Toy Guns,” which she cowrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey. The crowd singalongs are on point, although we do get a shot of a few ladies who seem a little too happy jumping around to a song about wishing words meant “no pain, no damage done, just a bang, bang rolling from the tongue.”

Jason Aldean’s stadium-level tour gets a plug as he takes the stage to perform his most recent #1, “Tonight Looks Good On You.” The song is about exactly what you think it is.

Charles Esten joins Karen Fairchild to plug Nashville and introduce Darius Rucker. He cowrote “Homegrown Honey” with Nathan Chapman and Charles Kelley, and let’s just say they spared their ample brain cells when they put this together. Sample lyric: “my homegrown honey, honey, honey, you’re so money, money, money.” *sigh* Seriously, Darius Rucker is better than this. At least, he can be.

Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet chat with Brett Eldredge, and they talk about what it means to Brett to be able to play LP Field after sitting up in the stands as a fan. They also present Brett with a plaque promoting commemorating his 3 consecutive #1s.

The Property Brothers are back to introduce Little Big Town to sing the smash that everybody but country radio was eager to embrace, “Girl Crush,” cowritten by Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, and Liz Rose. They nail this live as they do pretty much everything they sing, and they nail this here. This is, in all likelihood, your CMA Song & Single of the Year and your Grammy winner for Best Country Song and Best Group/Duo/Collaborative performance.

Backstage, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman rib mainstream country’s most underrated star, Dierks Bentley, about his recent designation by People as “Country’s Hottest Guy.” Hey, he’s an artist of substance, which is enough to make him hot to me.

Phillip Sweet & Jimi Westbrook introduce Brett Eldredge to perform his most recent #1 hit, “Mean To Me,” a sweet romantic midtempo during which he encourages people to break out their cell phone lighters. Last year’s CMA New Artist winner then launches right into his current single, “Lose My Mind,” the lead single off his upcoming album. This one scans more as his attempt to give country radio tempo to make sure his hit streak continues and to show he, too, can be funky. Eh.

Thomas Rhett gets his 2nd performance slot of the night to perform his #1 from earlier this year, “Make Me Wanna.” Holy wow, you can actually hear the note-sliding from the autotuning here! Yikes.

Well, enough of that. People Country‘s Hottest Guy Dierks Bentley is here to show that if you’re going to do a party song, you can make it clever if you give it a sarcastic and bitter and pathetic personality. Dierks, can we talk about the Mohawk? I’m not sure that’s a life choice I can get behind for you. But this is a funny song.

Next, Brad Paisley performs “Crushin’ It,” his version of a party anthem for the mediocre who are feeling down about themselves. He gets an extended guitar outro. Have you seen the video for this? You should see the video for this. Brad drew it himself, and it features the likes of Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Blake Shelton.

Randy Houser has one of the best voices in country music, and he had one of LP Field’s moments this year when he went acoustic on his traditional-leaning ballad hit “Like A Cowboy.” So naturally, they show him going beet red trying to keep up with the rapid-fire delivery of his current uptempo single “We Went,” instead.

Hijinks ensue when Little Big Town commandeer a golf cart to pick up Luke Bryan to take him to the LP Field stage. The cutest part is when Kimberly Schlapman asks Luke to call her nieces and mom. The funniest is when Luke says, “This is the classiest escort I ever got.” Not sure if that was intentional humor? Speaking of unintentional humor, Luke performs his current cornball single, “Kick The Dust Up,” which just went to #1 on country radio, because of course. Then he launches into his previous #1, “I See You.”

Florida-Georgia Line is up to perform “Sippin’ On Fire.” Hm, hearing some work on their voices too, so I guess they do occasionally mix in some live singing with their very loud vocal backing tracks?

Next to the stage, Sam Hunt is back to “Take Your Time.” OK, this may not be the best time to bring this up because Sam Hunt is genuinely a superstar in the making right now, but all of the two-performance or two-song acts so far, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge, Luke Bryan, Florida-Georgia Line, and Sam, have been male. Based on teasers, we also have second performances from Jason Aldean and also Keith Urban (with Eric Church) coming up. OK, and Little Big Town too, but that’s the only act that even has females. Not the choice I would’ve made for an already broverloaded broadcast, especially since we haven’t even seen Maddie & Tae yet.

Next up is Kip Moore performing his current single, “I’m To Blame.” An intense guy who really wants everybody to feel the gravel in his songs.

Keith Urban returns to the stage to perform “Raise ‘Em Up,” a recent #1 cowritten by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston and Jeffrey Steele that he shared with Eric Church. An improvement over their messy ACM Awards opener for obvious reasons.

Maddie & Tae appear on the broadcast, finally, performing their tongue-in-cheek conversation-changer of a #1 hit “Girl In A Country Song,” and the announcer plays over the end of their performance. Wonderful. Recently, Maddie & Tae became the 1st female act in 7 1/2 years to follow their t20 country hit with another when “Fly” hit t20. Would have been nice if they had had the chance to perform that, too. Anyway, here, they are charming and playful, and unlike country’s current biggest duo, they sing live and make their harmonies count.

Little Big Town is introduced as performing their “current smash, ‘Pain Killer’,” in what is a sign that they had expected to have released it to radio by now (in fact, the single hasn’t been officially announced yet). They are accompanied by stilt dancers. Gimmicky and unnecessary.

It feels like the show is rushing to cram in some final acts as we see Chris Young up to perform his current single, “I’m Comin’ Over,” a romantic, angsty midtempo that is a nice showcase for his smooth baritone (Chris is on the shortlist of top current voices in country today) and that has been selling ahead of its airplay since it was released. Something else I don’t get: why was Chris Young consigned to the final half hour of the broadcast while the likes of Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge got prime spots in the 9-10p hour?

Finally, Jason Aldean closes the show out with “She’s Country,” and this is all I have to say about that:

And that’s a wrap for the evening! What did you think of the show?

About Deb B 432 Articles
Also known as Windmills, I cover country music news and live televised country events, in addition to recapping ABC's 'Nashville.' Additionally, I occasionally do long-form chart analysis that has been cited by Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, The Guardian, The New Republic, NPR, and more.