CMA Fest 2023 came to a close Sunday night (June 11) at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, celebrating its milestone 50th anniversary with a stacked lineup of some of country music’s brightest stars across multiple decades, demonstrating the enduring impact of the genre on generations of fans.
The lineup featured one of the best-selling groups in country music history, Alabama; since earning their first No. 1 with “Tennessee River” in 1980, the group continued lobbing hits at Billboard’s Hot Country Songs (then-called Hot Country Singles) chart, earning 17 No. 1s over the next five years, and earning 21 No. 1 hits on the chart by 1987.
After issuing his debut single, “Welcome to the Club” in 1992, McGraw earned nearly a dozen No. 1 hits on the chart by 2000, becoming one of country music’s most consistent hitmakers in the ’90s. He’s added to that genre-defining legacy each decade since, earning 11 CMA Awards wins, including an entertainer of the year trophy. Meanwhile, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley each issued their debut singles in the early- to mid-2000s, with each steadily adding to their arsenal of hits. Bryan has two CMA entertainer of the year wins to his credit and has served as a host on American Idol, while Bentley is a 14-time Grammy Awards nominee and a three-time CMA Awards winner.
Bentley also co-hosted the upcoming CMA Fest television special alongside Lainey Wilson and Elle King; the special will air July 19 on ABC.
The full Sunday night lineup also included sets from Josh Turner, Ashley McBryde and newcomers Megan Moroney and Nate Smith.
Here we look at some of the top moments dotting the Sunday evening show:
Alabama Honored With CMA’s Pinnacle Award
Following their Nissan Stadium set, country group Alabama was honored with the Country Music Association’s Pinnacle Award. The honor recognizes an artist or group who has “undeniably redefined the pinnacle of success in the genre by achieving prominence through concert performances, consumption numbers, record sales and/or other significant industry achievements at levels unique for Country Music.”
Only three other artists have been previously awarded the accolade: Garth Brooks (2005), Taylor Swift (2013) and Kenny Chesney (2016). Alabama was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and is the first and only band to win the CMA’s entertainer of the year honor three consecutive times (from 1982-1984).
As the crowd roared its approval of their new accolade, Alabama lead singer Randy Owen, standing next to his bandmate Teddy Gentry, thanked the crowd and paid tribute to another essential part of Alabama’s story–their late bandmate and cousin Jeff Cook.
“On behalf of our late cousin, Mr. Jeff Cook, who we recently lost, on behalf of me and Teddy, the whole Alabama gang, thank y’all for letting us play for ya for over 50 years. We love you,” Owen told the crowd.
Alabama’s set included “Tennessee River,” “Mountain Music,” and a snippet of one of country music’s most revered and enduring anthems, the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Ashley McBryde Proves Her Star Power
Earlier this week, Ashley McBryde was honored with the Groundbreaker Award during Billboard’s Country Power Players celebration party in Nashville.
With her performance on the main stage at Nissan Stadium on Sunday night, playing to around 60,000 fans, McBryde showcased her standing as not only one of country music’s premier songcrafters, but her talent as a performer spilling with humor and heart, and more than a little rock star edge.
She started her set with the determined “Made For This,” before stalking the stage with a microphone in one hand and a hot pink bra dangling from her other hand. As she launched into the clever and irreverent tale of “Brenda Put Your Bra On,” featured on her most recent album, the collaborative project Lindeville, McBryde lobbed more than a few saucy looks at the crowd, before flinging the brassiere into the audience. From there, she offered up not only the well-constructed “One Night Standards” but a duo of new songs from her upcoming album, including “Light On in the Kitchen” and “The Devil I Know.”
Tim McGraw Spotlights Young Musical Talent
During his performance on Sunday evening, Tim McGraw wielded a high-powered string of hits tailored to keeping the momentum of the evening at a rapid clip, rolling through songs including “Something Like That,” “Southern Girl,” “Real Good Man,” and his latest release, “Standing Room Only.”
McGraw also noted that he made his CMA Fest debut in 1993 and recalled when the massive festival used to be held at the Nashville fairgrounds. Standing onstage at Nissan Stadium, he thanked the audience for their longstanding support of country music.
“Country music fans are the best in the world,” McGraw said.
McGraw wrapped his set by putting the spotlight on some of the musically talented students. The CMA Foundation coordinated a student performance with McGraw, featuring fifth and sixth grade students from Metro Nashville Public Schools. McGraw welcomed a youth choir to join him on the Lori McKenna-written, CMA and Grammy Award-winning song “Humble and Kind.”
“These are our future right here,” he said as the song concluded. McGraw accented that statement by waved to the crowd and retreating from the stage, leaving the spotlight focused squarely on the youth choir as the last strains of “Humbled and Kind” floated over the audience.
Dierks Bentley’s Set Blends Humor, Hits
“CMA Fest, this is your captain speaking,” Dierks Bentley told the Nissan Stadium crowd during his set, launching into his signature hit “Drunk on a Plane” and instantly setting the crowd to cheering, twirling, waving their hands and lifting cups laden with copious amounts of alcohol into the air.
His comments were more than just a quip, as Bentley spent a good portion of the past four evenings at Nissan Stadium alongside Lainey Wilson and Elle King, co-hosting the upcoming CMA Fest television special. Bentley did double-duty during CMA Fest’s closing night, as both co-host and entertainer.
Bentley has forged a reputation as both an ardent student and advocate for country and bluegrass music (think his bluegrass-flavored albums and collaborations with artists ranging from the Del McCoury Band to Ashley McBryde). His set at Nissan Stadium incorporated elements of both, including the title track to his 2010 album Up on the Ridge, which he performed while flanked on either side by his ace band. He offered up his own “5150,” “Gold,” “I Hold On” and “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go),” and threw in a mention of his downtown Nashville bar Whiskey Row — and some good-natured shade at his buddy Blake Shelton (“I sure as hell ain’t going to Ole Red,” Bentley quipped).
This is an artist whose performance goes beyond walking the stage, singing and shaking hands with fans — he plays on the audience’s energy, cracks jokes, brings moments of dramatic flair to his performances and yet, is accessible and laid-back, as evidenced in his multiple playful attempts at jumping into the crowd, only to follow through with an actual brief crowdsurf. His engaging, freewheeling onstage persona proved why Bentley is one of country music’s most versatile artists.
Luke Bryan Keeps CMA Fest Going into the Morning Hours
“This is my kinda morning!” Bryan said early in CMA Fest-wrapping set, as he rolled through “That’s My Kinda Night,” and he wasn’t wrong–Bryan’s set began just moments after midnight, taking the Sunday evening party at Nissan Stadium well into the early morning hour.
The two-time CMA entertainer of the year’s music might be labeled as country, but he came with enough tempo-fueled songs, like “Rain Is a Good Thing” and even the more languid “Drunk on You” surged with energy, primed to rock the audience up to the highest railings. But it was his signature “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” that had bottoms wiggling all across the stadium. The set flowed from one hit to another, soundtracking the final evening of Nashville’s biggest, most enduring country music party.