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The Best of Nissan CMA Fest 2018 – My Picks

Two out of four ain’t bad.  That’s how it turned out for me this year when it came to the Nissan shows at CMA Fest anyway.  I missed the first night because I covered The Concert for Love and Acceptance at The Wildhorse Saloon and I didn’t make the last night thanks to some wicked thunderstorms and an ultra-paranoid golden retriever, but we were fortunate this year to have other Contributors at the shows and I think I gathered enough information from the Friday and Saturday shows to put together something worthwhile.  Not to mention 90 East Photography’s magnificent photos from all four nights.  I think those pictures tell some amazing stories by themselves.  Where words fail, pictures speak volumes.  Those photos are being uploaded to our Think Country Facebook page as soon as they are edited.

Last year I chose to select my personal favorite performances from the Nissan shows and because that worked out so well, I’ve decided to do it again.   I realize I only had two nights to work from, but there were still quite a few artists that performed on both Friday and Saturday night, so it wasn’t like I didn’t have to think about it for a while to come to some firm decisions.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Charley Pride.  He opened up the Friday night show and can I just say that this man was born in 1934?  That may have made him one of the oldest people in the stadium that evening, and there he was, up there in the heat and the humidity, with the MOTHS (I already addressed the moth problem this year in a previous article) singing his heart out.  Living legend?  I guess you could say that.  Living PERFORMING legend might be more appropriate.  He sure impressed me.  If there were younger fans unaware of who he was, they all seemed to perk up when he pulled out his biggest hit ever, “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”.  Apparently, you don’t have to recognize a name or a face to know a very popular country song, because I saw people much younger than myself singing along to it.  I was really happy to see him up there as I had never had the chance before.  Sure, it was a short set, but it was better than nothing.  He amazed me.  I hope to be half that active at that age.

In addition to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”, Pride sang old favorites, “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?”, “Crystal Chandaliers”, “Mountain of Love” and a cut off his latest CD, Music in my Heart, called “Standing in My Way”, released in 2017.  It was a no-brainer to put him first on my “Best of Nissan” list this year.

My next pick I struggled with.  A lot.  I almost skipped it because I felt it almost wasn’t fair to include it. That’s how hard I struggled with it, but then I did what I always do when I can’t decide.  I made two lists.  The pros and the cons.  The pros won.  I’m choosing Jake Owen as one of the best for a number of reasons and I’m stopping every single one of you that knows me well right here and now.  I did NOT choose him because I’m a big fan.  In fact, I put that in my “cons” list.  If I’m anything when it comes to Think Country, it’s fair when I have to be.  This was a good time to prove it to myself.

I will admit, I was thrilled that Jake Owen was a late addition to the Friday night lineup at Nissan Stadium, after a rather bad experience a few years back when his set got cut short (to put it mildly) due to some bad weather that was approaching (it never did).  Honestly, I was happier for Owen and his band than I was for myself.  I felt like he kind of had it owed to him for some time now and he was finally getting the chance he’d been denied.

I’m not sure what it is, but something strange happens whenever Jake Owen and that Nissan stage meet.  Weird things.  Not on Owen’s part, but let’s just be nice and blame it on “technical stuff” or something.  The lights came up and there was Owen, in one of his bright red button-down shirts with those cool embroidered flowers near the collar, clearly not ready to start his set because there was no announcement like there was for every other artist.  It was awkward, but he was smiling and seemed to be taking it in stride.  It’s live music, things happen.  Lights went down.  It looked like they were going to try it again.  Chances are good this was all due to the numerous stops and starts that were made thanks to CMA Fest being taped for the TV special set to air in August on ABC, but nonetheless, it leaves the artist and the audience just hanging in limbo.  Of course, it just had to happen to Owen, because, well, I told you, weird things…

Now we heard it over the big speakers, “You guys ready for some more music?”  Loud cheers.  They were now officially welcoming Jake Owen to the stage.  It appeared everything was ready to rock.  Owen blasted into his current hit, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” and the crowd couldn’t have been more engaged!  Dancing, singing and ready for more!

They didn’t get more.  The lights went up and that was it.  My overly salty popcorn suddenly tasted even saltier.  The moth swarms suddenly reached horror movie proportions again and the humidity that had leveled off somewhat crept right back up to unbearable.  What the Hell just happened?!  I didn’t even have to look around.  All I could hear were voices asking what was going on.  “What?? Only ONE??”  “Are you kidding me??”  “Not AGAIN?!”  Obviously, I wasn’t the only one disturbed by this “one and done”.

You may ask how can I possibly be including Jake Owen as one of the best of the Nissan shows when I was so irritated by what doesn’t even qualify as a short set, but was only one SONG?  I’m counting it because that one song was done so well.  I don’t know the reasons behind him only getting one song and to be perfectly candid, yes, I would like to know.  I thought maybe it was because he was added to the lineup late, but I was later told that other artists that were added late had just as many, if not more songs than everyone else.  So that theory went out the window.

It all seemed very unfair to me, but whatever may have went on behind the scenes afterward, be it happy, sad or indifferent, Owen handled things on stage with class.  A casual observer would assume one song was planned and it was just unfortunate for fans who were looking forward to more.  Whether or not he knew prior to playing this one song that that would be the only one, I have no idea, but that’s just my point.  He played it like he had 20 songs to knock out and that was just the first one.  My choice to give a “Best of Nissan” pick to Jake Owen goes for his showmanship, class and ability to roll with whatever gets thrown his way whenever he stands on that Nissan stage.  I’ve always been a fan, but this just makes me respect him more as a person and as a professional.

I don’t always remember the first time I heard a certain artist, but I absolutely remember the first time I heard Brett Young.  I was driving home and I was nearly there when “Sleep Without You” came on the radio.  It was one of those “I need this song right now” moments.  I didn’t know anything about this guy and he might have turned out to be a one-hit wonder, but at the time I didn’t even get out of my car before downloading the song.  As luck would have it, I’ve had the opportunity to buy more Brett Young music since that day because he is in no way a one-hit wonder.

I imagine you’ve figured out that Brett Young is another of my Nissan show favorites for 2018.  This may surprise you because Young does one thing exceedingly well and that’s ballads.  I am so picky about male ballads, but when I love them, I love them intensely.  I can envision myself sitting through an entire show of ballads by Brett Young.  Actually, I have a short list of male country artists that could join him in a show like this, he’s just my most recent addition after seeing him at Nissan this year.

Young came out in a Tennessee Titans jersey (Marcus Mariota, Quarterback #8) and sporting a bit more than a 5-o’clock shadow, but that unshaven look wasn’t bothering the ladies one bit.  There may have been lifelong fans of other NFL teams ready to jump ship and “Titan Up” just because Young was wearing that jersey.  If he’d been wearing a paper bag, they would now be loyal shoppers of whatever store it had come from, that was how high the swoon factor was.  Did any of this weigh in on my decision to put him on my “Best of Nissan” list?  Not at all.  These are simply to put you in my seat.  He’s a very good looking young man, yes, but he’s also young enough to be my son.  Let’s be serious!  I’m about his music and his stage presence.

Coming out first with “Close Enough”, from his self-titled album, a number just fast enough to get people out of their seats, that was followed up with “Left Side of Leavin’”, which kept things moving.  Swaying, actually.  The girls were going a little bit crazy at this point.  I’m not sure what it was about this song that sent them into overdrive, but my notes specifically say, “Girls going crazy” and I do not write things like that unless they are happening, so we must all just take it on the faith of my chicken scratch that “Left Side of Leavin’” really did it for them.  As I remember it, EVERY song had them crazy, but obviously, that song in particular turned the heat up a few degrees.

Without question I do recall the next four songs very well.  My notes helped me remember which ones he played, but once I looked at the list, I can tell you these tipped the scales in favor of placing Brett Young on this list.  For the first time of the evening, Young picked up a guitar when he sang “Like I Loved You”.  Did that guitar get in the way of him connecting with the audience?  Not at all.  Did it make him connect even more?  Not at all.  He was equally “in the room” with or without the guitar.  I’ve noticed that some artists look lost without their guitars and others look distracted and disengaged with their audience when they have them.  Not this guy.  Eye contact all the way, either way, even if eye contact meant looking into the eyes of a fan in the highest seats of the 300 level via the big screens.

He ditched the guitar for the next song, which he explained was his favorite and has been since the beginning.  It has always been my favorite as well.  “Mercy” was done so beautifully and with such passion I knew right then and there that if we should ever choose to renew our wedding vows, there’s a very good chance it’s going to be a Brett Young song that attaches itself to that special occasion.   Obviously, THAT song might be a poor choice, but some Brett Young song.  He does ballads better than just about anybody.  The voice, the look, the emotion, the simple act of knowing when to move and when not to move as the song dictates.  He has it down.

If I’m spending too much time on Brett Young that’s going to be a problem because I need to keep going.  I’ll tell you that “In Case You Didn’t Know” was his next song and that one would be much more fitting for renewing one’s wedding vows.  Another ballad and I was sitting there floored again.  All of this from the girl who doesn’t love ballads.  That should tell you something.

He finished his set with “Sleep Without You” which left things on an uptempo note.  Speaking of notes, I can sum this up by saying Young didn’t hit any bad ones.  No matter what they put in front of this guy, I’ll bet he can sing it and he’ll look good doing it, even without shaving for a few days, plus he understands what it means to connect with an audience without the need to be “gimmicky”.  That made him a Nissan CMA Fest 2018 winner for me.

I said it last year.  I said this artist would likely make my list every single year as long as he was in the lineup.  Not because I’m a fan, which I am (I’m not apologizing for it because I’m certainly not the only one), but because he’s just that good.  I’m talking about Keith Urban.  For pure musicianship alone, in my opinion, this man can not be beat.  His guitar wizardry never ceases to enchant me and that’s before he even opens his mouth to sing!  I would love to be inside his brain for a day just to see how all of it works.

I would love to say I picked him again because he’s a favorite of mine and I’m going to pick him again next year for the same reason, but that would be way too simple.  I picked him because he earned the spot fair and square.  Anyone that cares to debate me on this may do so.  I will go at it all day long.  He’s got every base covered and I will do all the homework in the world to make sure I do too.  I am not only picking him as one of the best this year, I am calling him THE best this year.   Maybe next year he’ll fall from grace.  Maybe next year he won’t be there.  Maybe next year I won’t be there.  Nothing is promised but this moment that we’re all in right now, but for this moment, I’m crowning Keith Urban “CMA Fest 2018 Nissan Stadium King”.  Let me tell you why.

Real talk for real people.  If looks could kill, we’d all be dead on the floor after looking at Keith Urban.  He always looks great and this year was no different.  He showed up looking just like we expect him to.  Denim jacket over a t-shirt and jeans.  The standard uniform.  Jumping right into “Never Comin’ Down” off his new album Graffiti U, because when you’re Keith Urban, you don’t worry about petty things like getting the crowd pumped with an old favorite first, you play what you want.  Anything is going to work, and of course, it did.  Most people seemed to know the song anyway and if they didn’t, they were getting into it by the end and more than likely downloading it shortly after the show.

It wasn’t THAT old, but he backed it up a little bit to play “Somewhere In My Car” from 2013’s Fuse album and this time there was no question that just about everyone knew the lyrics and there was a whole lot of jumping and dancing going on.  Couple all of this happiness with flashing strobe lights and this party was on!

Much like I mentioned with Brett Young, Keith Urban has the art of engaging with an audience mastered, but in a completely different way.  I would say that Urban is more animated, but I don’t mean animated in a silly way.  I mean animated in an entertaining way.  Whatever he does the minute he leaves the stage is his own business, but he knows how to turn on every switch the second he knows he has people watching him.  That’s what a true entertainer does.  His smile says, “I love you people.  I love you in the front row and I love you in the last row.  I love you in the VIP section and I love you in the cheap seats.”  He knows who pays his bills.

I’d like to believe this is who Keith Urban is at the core of his soul.  I know there are artists out there that can put on a good act for their fans, but I can only hope that his legions of followers over all these years have been getting the real deal.  He radiates sincerity.  He has a record of success that goes on for days.  Until he proves me otherwise, I’ll choose to believe he’s a solid person as well as a solid artist.

He slowed things down when he played the gloriously gorgeous ballad, “Blue Ain’t Your Color”.  With the stadium lit up smoky blue, fans were swaying and singing (some with tears in their eyes) along and just soaking up all the finery that is “Blue Ain’t Your Color”.  I wish I could just live the feeling of that song performed live over and over again.  It’s one of the best, not just this time, but every time.

Urban pulled out a couple of his duets, albeit without the actual human partners on stage with him.  We had to accept on-screen versions of Carrie Underwood for “The Fighter” and Julia Michaels for “Coming Home”, both of which were absolutely fine by me.  Each song is really a Keith Urban song anyway.  HE was there, that I was certain of.  In fact, during “The Fighter”, he did something he always does during his shows, he braved the crowd and ventured out into it, guitar and all.  Of course, he doesn’t venture alone, he travels with a pretty large posse, and if any fans even try to get out of line, they won’t just be getting out of line, they’ll be out of the venue altogether.  Once again, Urban made it back to the stage and lived to see another concert date.

“Wasted Time” is becoming a sort of anthem for Keith Urban, at least it seems that way to me.  He likes to end his shows with it and he ended the Saturday night Nissan show with it.  It’s a good choice.  The message in the lyrics is one we should all sit down and think about.  Maybe every day of our lives we should read them.  If we’re smart, we’ll listen to the song rather than just read the lyrics, because that’s way more fun, but at the very least, we should all get acquainted with the words.  The song was co-written by Keith Urban, Greg Wells and James Abrahart and the more I hear it, the more I love it.

As much as it makes me feel like celebrating, which is exactly the way it’s intended at the end of a Keith Urban show or set, it can make me a little bit sad, because I realize things can never go back to how they were again.  I have to quickly put that negativity on a shelf though, because I have images of confetti falling from the rafters of arenas with Urban wailing on a guitar in my brain to replace all of those depressing thoughts.  Clearly, this song ends shows to send concert goers off on a happy note so who am I to start mucking up the system by being a downer?  I hope this song continues to close his shows.  Forever?  I don’t know about forever, but at least until he comes up with something else to keep us singing and positive on the way out.  I hope you noticed I just used the word “positive”.  For every guitar lick that makes my jaw drop, for every perfect vocal, for being an all-around captivating entertainer, I thank you Keith Urban.  Most of all though, I thank you for always putting a positive spin on my day.  Even when I think you’re not, somehow, you turn me right around and whisper in my ear, “Cheer up.”  That’s why you win.  Again.

There you have it my friends.  My picks.  That’s it, but I need to make a confession.  I almost lied to you.  Almost.  I almost sat here and typed one more paragraph just to appease the masses.  I even talked with my husband about it and he thought I probably should do it.  I couldn’t.  If I’m not honest with you, what good am I?  If I tell you I like something, I mean it.  If I tell you I love something, I mean it.  If I tell you these are my best picks, I mean it.  I can’t go throwing something in just to make the world happy.

You may have noticed I picked all male artists.  That’s all wrong, isn’t it?  I know.  I really love female country artists.  I do.  Take a look at my playlists.  They are LITTERED with them.  I only saw two female artists this year at Nissan and they were fabulous, they really were.  All the artists I saw were fantastic, but if I picked all of them then I wouldn’t really be picking the ones I felt were “best”, I would be saying everyone was best.  That would be defeating the purpose.  It was tough to choose.  I had to narrow it down.  I thought hard.  I put in a lot of time in deciding, that’s why this is the last piece I wrote on CMA Fest this year (I wrote three others before this one).  I factored in a lot more than just the artist alone.  I thought about the side musicians, the song choices, their audience interaction and many other things that there just isn’t time and space enough to cover in something like this.

So, no.  I do not have anything against female artists.  I adore them.  I want to see more of them on that Nissan stage.  I want to see more of them on the charts.  I want to hear more of them on them on country radio.  I wanted to get that off my chest before anyone questioned me about it.  I could have added a female artist to the list “just because”, but that would have been wrong.  They were great.  I loved them, I just happened to love the others more this year.  It’s as simple as that.   Please forgive me and please don’t slash a hole in all four of my tires.  I’m broke.  CMA Fest is expensive, even for locals.


Now, whether you agree with anything I said or not, read on to see what others had to say about their Nissan Stadium CMA Fest 2018 experiences:

“I really enjoyed the Nissan Stadium shows this year.  I enjoyed Charles Esten and Friends.  It was great to see ‘Nashville’ get a chance to wrap up and thank the fans that have supported them through the years.  It was good to see Luke Combs.  I enjoyed Old Dominion getting an actual set instead of seven minutes of combined highlights of their hits.  Thomas Rhett, Chris Stapleton and Jason Aldean really rocked the house.  I enjoyed the Randy Travis tribute.  It brought everybody around us to tears.  What was absolutely amazing, a concert inside a concert.  The 55-minute mini-Luke Bryan concert to wrap up four wonderful days.  The staff at Nissan this year was super-friendly, security was absolutely amazing.”  Mary Brandt, Nashville, TN

“Thoughts about the positives and negatives about Nissan shows for CMA Fest 2018.  I decided to start with the negative points.  For me, there were not very many negative points.  The moths were a big negative for me.  I question the reason they put the material down before the fest.  If we were bothered by them, imagine the stars in the lights.  The lineup was pretty much male-dominated.  This was a minor point.  Some of the acts I was expecting to see were cut short.  Take Jake Owen for instance.  One song?  This man seems to get the short end of the CMA Fest straw.  I was really looking forward to his set.  The last thing that I thought was not done well was all the taping for TV.  At least once a night something would have to be done over.  The last night you could see them taping the “intros” in the back with the light on the stage for what seemed like an eternity before Luke Bryan’s set.  “Oh, the magic of TV.”  Hopefully it all pays off for the August special.

As for the positives, I do appreciate the security measures from one end of the fest to the next.  At times some seemed a bit extreme, but with the memories of recent events in our country, it’s nice that CMA Fest was looking out not only for the performers but for the average person just wanting the experience of being in Nashville.  Some of my highlights were Brothers Osborne, they were so much fun.  I thought it was a fabulous set.  A celebration of the year they are having in 2018.  Jason Aldean renewed my so-called faith in him.  I was a bit unenthusiastic about him being on the bill due to his less-than-stellar performance in 2016, but I think he turned around and due to events earlier in the year, grew up a little, if I can use those terms.  He really did a fabulous job!  A little bit of an audio issue, but nothing that could not be overlooked.  Way to go Jason, thanks for making me a fan again.  Dierks Bentley, well, he is one of those that I never want to miss.  Such a great performer.  Dwight Yoakam was quite the surprise.  I was happy to have Brothers Osborne come back and sing “Burning Man”.  I bet that one makes the special.  The highlight of my CMA Fest was Old Dominion.  I have been a fan since I saw them on the Hard Rock stage my very first CMA Fest.  Last year the medley of songs left me wanting to hear a longer set on the big stage.  I got my wish and LOVED every second of it.  Matthew, Brad, Trevor, Geoff and Whit, you guys had the folks around me saying, ‘These guys are super!’  Brings a tear to a superfan’s eye.”  Denise Zylow, West Allis, WI

“This was our 16th year and I can truly say each year is different from any other year before it!  I loved the special guests – I mean Dwight Yoakam?!  It was so incredible seeing him!  The Backstreet Boys!  That’s always the best part to me, seeing someone awesome that you weren’t expecting to.  My least favorite thing is the ever-increasing commercialism of CMA Fest.  It was so great when they had the two stages, so there was no break at all.  Now, there’s a lot of downtime for the TV filming and it stretches out too long.  I also feel like it’s catered to the younger crowd more and more and that’s frustrating.  All in all, great time!  Susan Spalding, New Berlin, IL

“Positives.  The Nissan shows are something that are hard to explain.  Where else can you see more than 20 well-known artists over four nights, all under one ticket?  It was incredible how many artists I became a fan of after seeing them at Nissan.  I had some favorites that I was excited to see and then some artists I didn’t know too well.  Each time an artist that I only knew one or two songs of came on, I ended up turning to my mom and saying, ‘Wow!  I really like that song” or “They are really good!’  I was also amazed by the friendliness of the concert goers.  We talked to most of our nearby seatmates and we all bonded over our love of music.  We may have started out as strangers on night one, but by night three, we were chatting like friends.  It was so cool that we were all there for the same reason, to have a good time and listen to some great music (I will tell you there is nothing like singing along to a song with 50,000 people).

Negatives.  I understand that CMA Fest has certain requirements to fulfill with the TV network for the television special, but like most people, I wish that there wasn’t so much downtime to record, or at the very least, a bit more information, like ‘Hey, we are going to do three more takes and then a few intros.’  There were times where there was nobody on stage and no info as to why.  I would have appreciated just a few minutes to explain what was happening. ”  Cassandra,  San Francisco, CA










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