This week, Nashville will welcome thousands of country fans into the heart of the city for the CMA Music Festival. At once exhilarating and exhausting, the four-day event requires a strategy. Who to see? Where to go? Here are 10 top recommendations to make the most of your visit.
CMT Music Awards
Toby Keith will make his 10th consecutive appearance on the fan-voted CMT Music Awards on Wednesday night (June 8). That gives him the distinction of being the only artist to perform on the show every year since it began in 2002. He's the Big Dog Daddy for a reason, you know. Meanwhile, leading nominee Jason Aldean will raise the roof, along with Big & Rich, Luke Bryan, Sheryl Crow, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Sugarland, Keith Urban and the Zac Brown Band. Kid Rock returns as host, while Shania Twain, Justin Bieber, American Idol's Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina and many other artists and celebrities will appear as presenters. The event sold out in just a few hours. If you can't attend in person, you can watch it live on CMT and CMT.com.
Nightly Concerts at LP Field
This is where you'll find the biggest names in country music, from A to Z (or shall we say, from Aldean to Zac.) In fact, Jason Aldean and the Zac Brown Band get the party started on Thursday night (June 9) at LP Field. Aldean will bring along Kelly Clarkson, while the ZBB will jam with Alan Jackson, Amos Lee, newcomer Sonia Leigh and Randy Travis. Brad Paisley, Sara Evans and Easton Corbin will also play that night.
The rest of the weekend is equally impressive. Dierks Bentley, Lady Antebellum, Reba McEntire, Ashton Shepherd, Sugarland and Keith Urban will appear on Friday (June 10). Trace Adkins, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts, Josh Turner and Chris Young will sing on Saturday (June 11). Finally, The Band Perry, the JaneDear Girls, Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift will shut out the lights on Sunday night (June 12).
Daily Concerts at Chevrolet Riverfront Stage
Spread a blanket at Riverfront Park for dozens of performances spanning from longtime favorites like Gary Allan and Terri Clark to a garden variety of newcomers.
Led by Allan, the Thursday roster offers Emerson Drive, Colt Ford, Sammy Kershaw, Neal McCoy, Craig Morgan, James Otto, Jake Owen, the Randy Rogers Band and Steel Magnolia. On Friday, look for Bill Anderson, Frankie Ballard, Bucky Covington, Brett Eldredge, Jo Dee Messina, Randy Montana, Sawyer Brown, Phil Vassar, James Wesley and Darryl Worley.
On Saturday, former American Idol contestant Crystal Bowersox will make her first appearance at the festival. She'll share the day with Jason Michael Carroll, Billy Ray Cyrus, Steve Holy, Lonestar, David Lee Murphy, David Nail, Corey Smith, Mel Tillis and Chuck Wicks. To conclude the long weekend, enjoy sets by the Bellamy Brothers, Roy Clark, Terri Clark, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Josh Kelley, LoCash Cowboys, Troy Olsen and Sunny Sweeney.
Why Not Meet Shania Twain?
Shania Twain will sign copies of her new autobiography, From This Moment On, at the Bridgestone Arena on Friday (June 10) from 2-4 p.m. It's her first appearance at the festival since 1996. During an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show in early May, Twain surprised the studio audience with two-day passes to the festival and accommodations at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. In addition, she will host a private brunch for all of the Oprah audience members.
Here's a hot topic among fans this year: Twain's new single, "Today Is Your Day." She'll debut it on the final episode of Why Not? With Shania Twain on Sunday (June 12) on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. It's the first new song she has written and released in six years.
Grand Ole Opry
Across town, it's hard to resist the bright lights of the Grand Ole Opry. American Idol winner Scotty McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina have joined the Friday night (June 10) lineup. Randy Travis is also on the bill. He'll be signing copies of his new album, 25th Anniversary Celebration, in the gift shop. Mel Tillis will perform and sign autographs, too. If you arrive early, catch a free show with Edens Edge and Jerrod Niemann on the Opry Plaza.
On Saturday afternoon, Thompson Square will give many fans their first chance to hear a live version of the No. 1 hit, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not." Mandy Barnett, a powerful singer profoundly influenced by the Nashville Sound, will also perform and will sign copies of her new album, Sweet Dreams, at the Opry Originals gift shop after the show.
CMA Fan Social Presented by CMT
On Saturday (June 11), check out the CMA Fan Social Presented by CMT at the Wildhorse Saloon. Along with live acoustic performances, CMT Top 20 Countdown host Evan Farmer will interview familiar faces like Joe Nichols as well as country newcomers Kristin Chenoweth, the Civil Wars, the Harters, Thompson Square and the winner of CMT's Next Superstar. The Fan Social takes place 3-6 p.m. For guaranteed access, fans can find vouchers through a scavenger hunt that can be followed on CMT's Facebook page and Twitter account, CMA's Facebook page and Twitter account and artists' Tweets. In addition, fans can stand in the concert line in front of the venue.
More Downtown Concerts
At the Lay's Stage, keep an eye out for newcomers such as iCarly star Jennette McCurdy and Jaron and the Long Road to Love, as well as familiar faces like Ty Herndon and Jamie O'Neal. This is also a fine opportunity to discover new talent, too, with a roster offering many singers who are just getting started in the biz, such as the Dirt Drifters, Walker Hayes, Casey James, Joanna Smith and Miss Willie Brown. The Lay's Stage is in front of the Bridgestone Arena.
Meanwhile at the Sports Zone, you can catch hard-working artists like Burns & Poe, Daniel Lee Martin, Sean Patrick McGraw, Payton Rae, Matt Stillwell and Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, among many others. The Sports Zone is just a block away, next to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Additional aspiring stars can be found at the new Power Zone Stage at Second Avenue North and Church Street.
Durango Acoustic Corner in the Nashville Convention Center
Taking a simple approach to country music, dozens of artists will deliver acoustic renditions of their songs inside the (air-conditioned!) Nashville Convention Center. Longtime country fans will find a lot to like here, chilling out with Lynn Anderson, Billy Dean, T. Graham Brown, Wade Hayes, Richie McDonald, Lee Roy Parnell, Gene Watson, Bryan White and Mark Wills, among many others. This stage is open only to four-day ticket holders.
Tour the Country Music Hall of Fame
Every country fan needs to see the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The history is fascinating, of course. However, new listeners can see memorabilia from Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban as part of the updated Sing Me Back Home exhibit. Meanwhile, an upstairs gallery provides insight to Tammy Wynette's magnificent career -- and her fabulous closet. In addition, autograph seekers can meet Tom T. Hall, Tracy Lawrence, Jerrod Niemann, Josh Thompson and more in the museum store throughout the week.
Get Autographs From Dozens of Country Stars
Along with sunscreen and water, experienced country fans know to pack a black felt-tip marker. After all, who knows when you'll cross paths with a country star? Your best bet is always the Fan Fair Exhibit Hall inside the Nashville Convention Center. (Again, it's only open to four-day ticket holders.) Dolly Parton will be making her first signing appearance at the festival since the mid-'70s, although you have to win a ticket to get her autograph.
Trace Adkins, Easton Corbin, Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker and Blake Shelton are just a few of the other folks you can meet this year. Those lines are guaranteed to stretch around the room, although most artists will have a shorter wait. Don't be shy about approaching a singer you haven't heard of. It's a rare chance to make a personal connection with someone on the cusp of stardom. Many stars say they can recognize those same smiling faces from year to year. And they love seeing photos from the last time you met. Remember, the fans are the reason they're working so hard.