The first night at Nissan Stadium during CMA Fest is always special. Loads of industry people turn out. The venue is always packed to capacity. And the line-up is star-saturated (partly because most artists would rather donate a Thursday gig than a weekend day). Singers and fans alike are still fresh.
And, this year, the temperature was as balmy as can be.
As we drove over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge, we could see the Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge next to us, packed with folks strolling over the river to the stadium of star sounds. Everyone milling around the outside of the venue seemed to be smiling and excited.
Once inside, we ascended into the hospitality suite and found some seats with a good view of the stage. The Oak Ridge Boys sang an electrifying arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” to launch the show.
Then The Charlie Daniels Band came out rocking. Toward the end of his set, Charlie brought out a smiling man with a cane. “Our 2016 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Mr. Randy Travis!” Charlie shouted. The crowd went berserk and gave Randy a standing ovation. Earlier in the day, he’d posed for some photos with fans at the George Jones Museum downtown.
“I’ve sat in this audience, way up there,” said Kelsea Ballerini, pointing to the upper decks. During “Dibs,” she left the stage to greet those standing in front.
During “Peter Pan,” thousands held their lit cell phones aloft. The resulting Milky Way of lights revealed how full the stadium was. Before singing “Love Me Like You Mean It,” Kelsea shared, “I just found out backstage that this is my first platinum single. So thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“Thank you for what you do,” echoed Dierks Bentley to the fans. “For us country singers, this [festival] is kinda like Thanksgiving ….This is my coolest gig of the whole year. I got my start on Lower Broadway.”
He went even further down into the crowd than Kelsea had, then sang from a riser amid the attendees. “I’m somewhere in the middle of a football field, surrounded by 70,000 country music fans!” he exalted. Dierks brought out pop star Elle King for “Different for Girls” and led crowd in singalongs with “Home” and “Drunk on a Plane.”
Up next was Miranda Lambert. Her set caught fire with an incendiary performance of “Mama’s Broken Heart.” But she touched hearts with her ballads, too. “It’s all about what we give you all, and you give us back all year long,” she said. This is her 10th anniversary as a CMA Fest performer. “Country music is my life, and that means you’re my life. And I appreciate it so much.”
Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean brought the memorable night to a close. Fabulous fireworks celebrated the finale at 12:15 a.m.
We dined on fried chicken, tossed salad, green beans, mashed potatoes and assorted cookies. A throng of schmoozers worked the room, including Tom Baldrica, Mark Bright, David Macias, Lori Badgett, Horton Frank, Sherod Robertson, Steve Emley, Bill Denny, Joe Galante, David Ross, Dan Ekbaak, Victoria Shaw, Amy Smartt and Biff Watson.
The most notable attendee was Jo Walker Meador. Now 92, the Country Music Hall of Fame member was the head of the CMA from 1962 to 1991. She guided the launch of Fan Fair in 1972. “Look what she started,” said JoAnn Berry, gazing at the 70,000 congregants. Yes, indeed. Gaze in awe.