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Photos: 90 East Photography

As usual, the Nissan shows didn’t disappoint.  Overall, everything was great.  Even the weather cooperated this year, but there were a handful of artists that were especially memorable for me and I’ve decided to spend my time and energy giving them all the accolades I can, because they truly deserve them.

Let’s start with the legendary Kenny Rogers, who opened the whole thing on day one with the extremely lovely and talented Linda Davis.  It was apparent how popular he is by how full the stadium was that early in the evening.  I don’t ever recall so many seats being occupied that early before.  People showed up for Kenny Rogers and Linda Davis.  Old favorites like “Islands in the Stream” created a giant singalong and “You Can’t Make New Friends” was accompanied by an interesting video featuring old clips of Rogers in movies and TV appearances with different actors, sports figures and musicians.  It was a great way to kick off the 2017 Nissan shows.


Six consecutive number one singles.  As if that isn’t impressive enough, Brett Eldredge hit the Nissan stage with all the charisma one guy can wrangle up.  Dressed all in black, he opened with “Beat of the Music” and followed that with “Drunk On Your Love”.  His new album comes out on August 4th and he gave the crowd a preview by singing a cut from it, “The Long Way Around”.


Next, he took a moment to speak directly to the fans that came from near and far. “I wrote this song for moments like this. I love this job when I’m playing across the river to 60 people and when I’m playing to 65,000 people here.” He then proceeded to play his smash “Wanna Be That Song”.  This guy knows how to connect.

Now we all knew he could rock a ballad, but now Eldredge not only picked things up, he picked them way up!  Jumping into his latest single, “I Finally Found Something I’m Good At”, his internal speedometer likely broke right off as he put the pedal to the metal and jolted anyone who may have drifted off right back to wakefulness.  With every fiber of his being, he sang, danced and PERFORMED this song.  Following this one with another past hit that packs a punch, “Lose My Mind”, this artist knew how to close out a set on a high note.

The one piece of advice I always give to first time CMA Fest visitors is not to overthink things.  Surprises lurk around every corner.  One of the biggest surprises this year happened at Nissan Stadium in the form of Mr. Garth Brooks.  Yes, the mega country music star showed up, not to sing a duet or do a song or two. He played an entire 30-minute set of his own.  This was big stuff.  He not only played some of his best songs, he genuinely appeared to be happy to be up there.


Dressed in a ball cap, Brooks played his latest radio single, “Ask Me How I Know” and a medley that included “Thunder Rolls”, “The Dance” and “Friends in Low Places”.  He took a selfie with a cell phone from the crowd and you got the sense that he felt true gratitude for all he’s been afforded by country music and its fans.

I’m not sure he gets as much credit as he deserves, but after seeing him a few times now, I have to hand it to Cole Swindell, this guy is good.  Coming out in a ball cap and a black leather jacket, looking rather unassuming, he started it off with “You Ain’t Worth the Whiskey”.  By the end of the song, everyone was singing along and Swindell said, “I don’t know how many thousand are here, but I wish I had my cell phone so I could facetime my ex and tell her how I really feel.”


“Chillin’ It” was next, followed by “Middle of a Memory” when fellow country star Lauren Alaina came out to join him. Obviously that was met by enthusiastic cheers, as Alaina is hugely popular right now.

The moment that never fails to stun me is when Swindell performs his hit “You Should Be Here”.  This song was Swindell’s fourth number one and was written for his father who died unexpectedly while he was out on tour.  For anyone who has lost a family member or friend it’s an emotional visit with that person and it can be welcoming, yet heartwrenching at the same time.  In an arena setting, with flashlights ablaze against the dark sky, it suddenly becomes beautiful.  Swindell gives this song everything he has each time he sings it and it’s because he lives the lyrics.  He thanked fans for sending him their “You Should Be Here” stories.  It’s clear this song resonates with people.  It will be his legacy.

They often say that it’s better to let time handle the tough stuff.  Miranda Lambert may have listened to advice like that.  Lambert has been busy.  She recently released her double album “The Weight of These Wings” and has also been touring in support of it.  The record is doing well, and from what I saw at Nissan Stadium, so is she.  Without going into it, she’s had enough of her personal life strewn about in the press in recent years, but managed to keep a low profile throughout most of it and more or less threw herself back into her work.  Wise decision.  She seems to have come out on top.


Appearing on stage in a denim skirt and black fringe jacket with her confidence appearing to be completely intact there was no question that this country queen was back in the saddle and there was no reason to worry about her anymore.

Performing “Vice” (“A song about drinkin”) and “Pink Sunglasses” from her latest album, Lambert sounded flawless.  This record is, by the way, one of the best in country music in ages and being a double, that’s saying something.  She had to hit a lot of home runs to create something so magnificent.  She did it, and then some.

Bouncing back to her last album, she sang “Automatic”, which I thought sounded even better live for some reason, or maybe I was just on a big Miranda high at this point.

Then the big moment.  I’ve always loved “Little Red Wagon”.  A super sassy tune that fits Lambert’s wheelhouse, but what was she going to do with that whole “Oklahoma” line?  Last I heard she wasn’t really living in Oklahoma anymore, but maybe she’d just leave it there because that’s how the song was written. I should have known better than to think this Pink Pistol of a country singer would leave something like that alone.  When Lambert got to the Oklahoma lyric, she did NOT leave it alone.  Instead of singing it as written, “I live in Oklahoma”, she sang, “I got the HELL out of Oklahoma!”  Well, alrighty then!  I told you Miranda Lambert was back.

She finished the set strong with “Mama’s Broken Heart”.  I would be remiss not to mention Lambert’s very talented backup singer Gwen Sebastian.  Lambert and Sebastian make a great team, both vocally and visually.

Perhaps the worst thing to happen to CMA Fest 2017 turned into the best thing to happen to CMA Fest 2017.  When Chris Stapleton announced he would need to cancel his CMA Fest appearance due to a hand injury there were a lot of disappointed fans, but in the end, I think things turned out alright.  Enter Stapleton’s replacement act, a little duo called Brothers Osborne.  I imagine you’ve heard of them.  I’ve been a fan for a while, having first seen them during a show Jake Owen put on in the BMI parking lot a few years ago.  Let me tell you, these two brothers will not only start a party, they will keep a party going until THEY say it’s over.  John Osborne’s guitar skills alone are enough to keep one entertained, and when you add in brother T.J.’s pounding vocals there simply aren’t words adequate to describe the talent the DNA holds in this pair.


I always enjoy it when they play “Rum”, which was, essentially the first song I ever heard from the Brothers Osborne.  It’s kind of a funky ode to everyone’s favorite tropical elixir, and to hear it shoot out of the big old speakers at Nissan was like being handed a giant daiquiri from an old friend.  It was cool.

They played “Stay a Little Longer”, which was radio gold for them in 2016 and to be honest, I think when I heard it live, it had a lot more power than the recorded version.  It seemed a little tougher around the edges and I loved it.

If you can’t tell, I’m a fan of this duo, but like so many others, I was waiting on the latest hit from these guys.  “It Ain’t My Fault”, cowritten by John and T.J. Osborne and Lee Thomas Miller is nothing short of brilliant.  It’s just seriously creative songwriting all around. I had the immense pleasure of seeing this song performed by Lee Thomas Miller in Key West this past May and I knew I needed to see Brothers Osborne perform it live as well.  I now had my chance, on the biggest stage possible.  They didn’t let me down.  Giving it everything they had with a band that was completely on point, this may have been the single best thing I’d seen at CMA Fest 2017, as far as group effort is concerned.  I could go on for a long time just on this song alone because nobody dropped the ball.  Nobody.  I urge you to seek this performance out on YouTube, as it was that impressive.  Amazing musicianship from everyone on that stage.

Finally, my last vote goes to a guy that I’m convinced simply is incapable of giving a bad performance, and that is Mr. Keith Urban.  I talked a bit about John Osborne’s guitar skills.  If I’m going to give out guitar awards, I would probably be condemned to music reviewer Hell if I were ever to leave out Keith Urban when talking about country music guitarists.  He is a wizard when he picks up a guitar.  It’s mesmerizing.  It’s hard to look away or even think about anything else when he’s playing.  Watching Keith Urban play a guitar captures your soul, and if it doesn’t, perhaps you don’t have one.  He’s THAT good.

He came out with guns blazing.  A super mash up of “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”, “Jack & Diane” and “No Woman, No Cry”, having the audience repeat vocalizations he was making that were getting crazier as he went on, to the point that they could no longer be followed.  All in good fun of course, with Urban laughing in the end, knowing full well that’s exactly how it would turn out.

This year’s CMA Fest also happened to fall right during the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals.  The Nashville Predators also happened to be playing a do or die game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on the night Keith Urban was playing his set.  After his first song, he remarked to the crowd that “We need to get back on this horse right now”, referring to the fact that the hometown Predators losing wasn’t a reason to give up.  We needed to move on.  The Predators “fought the good fight” and “God Bless the Preds”, Urban said to the crowd, before rolling into his recent radio single “Blue Ain’t Your Color”.

“The Fighter”, Keith Urban’s duet with Carrie Underwood was next, and as much as thousands of hopeful fans wished Underwood would come out and sing, her image on giant screens would have to suffice.  It didn’t matter.  The song held up great and people were dancing and singing in the aisles.

Urban finished strong with “Wasted Time”, which found him out in the audience accompanied by some rather large body guards, but in a sea of humanity such as this, it’s still a risk to put oneself out there.  Urban took that risk.  Fans loved it.  Even through all the people and the craziness that ensued, Urban never missed a beat when it came to playing the song.  He’s a showman.  He’s a musician first and foremost, but he is also an entertainer.  He never fails.  I could probably write a “Best of Nissan” piece every year for the next ten years and if he’s there, he’ll probably end up in my writings.  He’s dependable.  That’s good to know in a business that changes like the weather.  No matter what, we’ll always have Keith Urban.

With that, on to 2018.





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