The 49th CMA Fest (hosted June 9-12 in downtown Nashville) provided 80,000 country music fans from 39 different countries with glimpse after glimpse at the current state of the genre: from the sustained reverence for the '90s country boom and the creative fruits of slow but steady diversification of festival stages to the wide-reaching popularity and charitable generosity of its current chart-topping and award-winning stars.
Here's Wide Open Country's takes on overarching trends and individual stars' shining moments from the first CMA Fest since 2019.
The Presence of '90s Country Stars
CMA Fest wisely played off '90s country artists' staying power at a time when that era's popularity among fans of all ages matches its terminal cool factor. The fest opened its stages in past years to veterans, but this time around, the presence of yesterday's hitmakers --Nissan Stadium performers Deana Carter and Sara Evans, for example-- felt equal parts retro and relevant.
An even bigger treat for fans of '90s stars took place on Thursday night at country line dancing hotspot the Wildhorse Saloon. Host Ty Herndon took turns singing the hits with Wade Hayes, Andy Griggs, Billy Dean, Jamie O'Neal and Michelle Wright while backed by a '90s Night house band anchored by CMA award-winning fiddler Jenee Fleenor.
Because of their sustained influence, each '90s stars' performance didn't sound like something from a different planet than the sets of artists ranging from traditionalist Kimberly Kelly to Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley.
-- Bobby Moore
The '90s Influence on Today's Country Artists
Brian Kelley's before-mentioned acoustic set from Friday sounding more like Alan Jackson-meets-Jimmy Buffett than haters of modern pop-country would ever admit barely scratches the surface of how much the past influenced a wide range of contemporary acts.
At seemingly every turn, talents raised on country, from super fans turned current hitmakers (Wynonna Judd's duet partner on Friday night, Carly Pearce) to the children of '90s stars (John Michael Montgomery's son, Walker), drove home the artistic value of finding your own voice while wearing a reverence for tradition on your sleeve.
Fittingly, the event-closing stadium show on Sunday night hit its peak with two instances of current headliners embracing '90s country fever. First, Old Dominion acknowledged being a replacement on the bill for Jackson by leading a spirited audience singalong to "Chattahoochee." Then Dierks Bentley helped celebrate 30 years of "Achy Breaky Heart" with surprise guest Billy Ray Cyrus.
Limited Yet Rewarding Examples of Diversity
Like every other space in the country music ecosystem, CMA Fest stages lack diversity. Exceptions to this rule continually proved to be exceptional throughout the four-day event.
On Friday, the CMA Spotlight Stage hosted a breathtaking set by O.N.E. the Duo, a mother-daughter pairing of Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated vocalist Tekitha Washington and her daughter with RZA, Prana Supreme Diggs. Asian American singer-songwriter Gabe Lee followed with a sound that's more John Prine than Jon Pardi. Both brought needed representation to one of country music's marquee festivals while offering refreshing sonic variety amid a four-day marathon of country radio hopefuls --not that such possible mainstream stars as LGBTQ+ artist Brooke Eden weren't breaths of fresh air in their own right.
Equally special memories took shape on a stage that promoted Crown Royal's Packages From Home initiative which sends care packages to deployed members of the military. Jimmie Allen's intimate, acoustic set on Thursday --15 days before the release of his third mainstream album, Tulip Drive-- sparked an audience singalong with Mickey Gilley-via-Ben E. King classic "Stand By Me." Two days later, Brittney Spencer took the same stage to lead a choir of fans through Dolly Parton's "9 to 5."
"I feel like it's the root. It's the humanity side, and the humanity side is what keeps the world going," Allen said of using his mainstream platform to benefit servicepeople and their families. "For me, it doesn't matter if I have one No. 1 or 50. I always find ways to give back, not only to our community but to the men and women that serve our country."
"The very first song of mine that I released was a song called 'Compassion' because I wanted it to just be known in the very beginning that there's some things that I care about and I want to voice those things and want to be a part of doing good things in the world," Spencer added. "I think it's so needed, and I just want to give love."
Carly Pearce Opens Up Her Closet For a Good Cause
One of the best aspects of CMA Fest is the opportunity for fans to meet their favorite country stars. After all, it started out as Fan Fair, a four-day event where artists could greet fans in person and sign autographs. (These days, Fan Fair X is held during the day inside Music City Center throughout CMA Fest.) On June 10, Carly Pearce brought some of that classic Fan Fair spirit to CMA Fest, hosting a pop-up shop inside the Noelle Hotel in downtown Nashville. Pearce selected over 100 items from her personal closet to sell and raise money for the Music Health Alliance, which provides free healthcare advocacy and support to more than 18,000 music industry members.
Throughout the event, Pearce met with fans, took photos and even shared the stories behind some of her favorite pieces of clothing with the lucky fans who were able to take home the ultimate CMA Fest souvenir.
-- Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Luke Combs Marks a Personal Milestone
When country superstar Luke Combs took the stage at Nissan Stadium on June 11, he reflected on playing his breakthrough single "Hurricane" in 2016 to 83 people in Athens, Ga. This night, of course, was a bit different. Over 60,000 fans shouted along to every word of Combs' hits. But it was another fact that the "Beer Never Broke My Heart" singer shared with the crowd that clearly rattled him: CMA Fest 2022 served as Combs' last performance before he becomes a dad. Combs' wife Nicole will be giving birth to their first child any day now and Nicole, who stood backstage, watched an entire stadium sing along to "Beautiful Crazy," the same song a nervous Combs sang for her early on in their relationship. It was a beautiful full circle moment that clearly meant nearly as much to Combs' dedicated fans as the singer himself.
2022 CMA Fest in Photos
READ MORE: Dierks Bentley, Elle King to Host 2022 CMA Fest TV Special
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