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In Review: The Top Moments from CMA Fest 2023

June 14, 2023 6:11 pm GMT
Last Edited September 27, 2023 9:30 am GMT

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Holler Country Music
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Holler Country Music

Another CMA Fest has come and gone but, as we look back on the 2023 edition of country music's marvelous four-day spectacle, this year feels a little different.

As this was the 50th anniversary of CMA's iconic festival, it was expected that organizers and artists alike would pull out all the stops for 2023, and they did not disappoint.

Tallying over 300 acts performing across 10 stages, as well as at nearly every bar up and down Broadway, CMA Fest 2023 saw a reported 90,000 daily attendees from all 50 states and a record-breaking 51 countries, signalling a 12% increase from last year's attendance. Similarly, stadium attendance alone also saw a 10% increase year-over-year.

Though inclement weather tried to dampen festival-goers' moods on Sunday afternoon (June 11), the rain couldn't snuff out all of the exciting debuts, surprise appearances, pop-up performances and country camaraderie found at this year's CMA Fest.

While it's impossible to fully capture them all, and as we eagerly await to do it all again in 2024, here are some of Holler's favorite moments from CMA Fest 2023.

Lainey Wilson Dominates Across the Board

You can never go wrong when you kick things off with the firecracker that is Lainey Wilson. Our Louisiana girl served as the opening ceremony at CMA Fest 2023, revving things up at the Chevy Riverfront Stage bright and early on Thursday morning (June 8).

Capping off her busy CMA Fest schedule, which also included a special fan-club party, Wilson also brought her Bell Bottom Country to the main stage at Nissan Stadium on Friday night. During her set, she surprised attendees with a special version of 'Texas Til I Die', fit with appearances from Tanya Tucker and Elle King.

Miranda Lambert & Her Slew of Stadium Surprises

Speaking of special guests, they were in no short supply at Nissan Stadium, especially when it came time for icon Miranda Lambert to take the stage on Friday night.

After opening up with her soothing 'Bluebird,' country music's resident badass brought out her newest duet partner, Leon Bridges, to perform 'If You Were Mine.' Further proving her superstar pedigree with a couple of her many, many hits ('Mama's Broken Heart' and 'Little Red Wagon'), she then surprised the Nissan crowd with an appearance from yet another of her duet partners. This time, it was Elle King who joined her for their history-making hit, 'Drunk (And I Don't Wanna Go Home)'.

She saved the best for last though, sending the crowd into a full on frenzy as pop-punk songstress Avril Lavigne came out to lend her vocals to Lambert's 'Kerosene.' Lavigne stuck around for one more as the pair blasted off into the iconic 'Sk8er Boi' to cap off the high-octane set.

HARDY Rocks Nissan Stadium

In undoubtedly one of the highlights of the packed weekend, country/rock trailblazer HARDY made his CMA Fest main stage debut on Friday night (June 9) and delivered a heavy, metal-infused set that left the audience wanting more.

Bringing a blend of more country-leaning tunes and hard-hitting rock ragers, similar in nature to his the mockingbird & THE CROW record, HARDY also gave the packed stadium a handful of special guests, including the ever-lovely Lainey Wilson who joined him for 'wait in the truck.'

Following the chilling moment, HARDY welcomed Lauren Alaina and Devin Dawson to the stage to sing their hit single, 'One Beer,' with the at-capacity Nissan Stadium crowd.

Cody Johnson & Reba Take on 'New England'

Elsewhere at Nissan Stadium, Cody Johnson made his CMA Fest main stage debut on Friday night (June 9). While it seems like this rite of passage should have happened long ago, our modern day cowboy brought his traditional Texas country to Nashville, playing a handful of his biggest hits, including 'Til' You Can't,' 'Dear Rodeo' and 'Human.'

Similar to nearly every other act on the main stage, Johnson also had his own surprise guest in the form of country legend Reba McEntire. The two joined forces for a simply stirring rendition of McEntire's 1986 hit, 'Whoever's In New England.'

It's safe to say the Friday night crowd has been forever changed.

Jelly Roll Caps Off a Full Friday Night

As if Friday night couldn't get any more insane for Nissan Stadium attendees, it all came to a fever pitch when country music's newest superstar-in-training, Jelly Roll, came out for an unannounced performance.

Though he only played his two biggest country hits – 'Son of a Sinner' and 'Need A Favor' – Jelly Roll, as well as much of the audience, was moved to tears as the inspirational ex-convict commanded the 50,000-plus crowd.

While it's impossible to describe the palpable energy in the air during the somewhat religious 10-minute experience, we're rest assured that Jelly Roll will be clearing his schedule for a turn at the big stage at next year's CMA Fest.

Luke Combs Notches Two Career Highlights

One of country music's leading figures, Luke Combs, celebrated a few of his own career highlights this weekend, one of which (you guessed it) was at Nissan Stadium on Thursday night.

One of the acts slated to take the stage on opening night of CMA Fest 2023, Combs provided one of the very first special guests of the weekend as he and Country Music Hall of Famer, Vince Gill, performed the 1993 chart-topper, 'One More Last Chance.'

Combs' celebration didn't start at the stadium, though, as he was surprised earlier that morning with the news that his monster hit, 'Beautiful Crazy,' had been certified Diamond by the RIAA. Marking only the sixth country song to achieve this honor, he was given a commemorative plaque at his Boootleggers Fan Club Party.

Nissan Stadium's Platform Stage Shines

Capping off the action at Nissan Stadium, we would be remiss if we didn't mention the stellar talent that took over this year's Platform Stage. Placed in the middle of the stadium, CMA Fest 2023 saw a mixed bag of newcomers from all over the country genre take their turn in the spotlight.

Delivering two songs a piece, the Platform stage saw masterful performances from Hailey Whitters, Ian Munsick, Alana Springsteen, Nate Smith, Megan Moroney, Dalton Dover, RVSHVD and Ashley Cooke. If this list is any indication of where the future of country music is headed, then we here at Holler think we'll be in pretty good hands.

Kelsea Ballerini Packs Out Spotify House

When Kelsea Ballerini announces a pop-up show, there's only one option and that's to (urgently) flock there as fast as you can. Which is exactly what hundreds of fans around Nashville did as she announced a last-minute appearance at Spotify House on Thursday night (June 8).

Noting that it was her last CMA Fest event of the week, the Knoxville native performed a handful of her newest tunes, including her current radio single, 'If You Go Down (I'm Going Down Too),' and a pair of songs from her recently released EP, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat.

feature INTERVIEW • In Conversation: Kelsea Ballerini

Following the release of her Rolling Up the Welcome Mat 2023 EP, Kelsea Ballerini joins Holler to discuss her discography, songwriting and plans for the year.

In an utterly magical display of showmanship, Ballerini proved that the connection between her and her many fans is one not to be trifled with as they eagerly packed out Ole Red in Nashville and screamed every word with deafening resolution.

Tigirlily Gold Glow at Whiskey Row

While thousands of CMA Fest attendees were left to seek shelter during Sunday's weather delay, Holler's favorite pair of sisters were busy mesmerizing the second floor of Dierks Bentley's Whiskey Row.

The golden-haired singer-songwriters, Kendra and Krista Slaubaugh, served up a perfect nine course set that included a mix of inspirational ballads, countrified covers, forget-that-loser zingers and, of course, their breakout single, 'Shoot Tequila.'

We didn't know it at the time, but Tigirlily Gold's Whiskey Row set would signal some of the last of the daytime programming at CMA Fest 2023. Though there were a few more artists we were keen to see, the North Dakota native's gave such a phenomenal performance that it practically melted our blues away.

CMA Fest Debuts As Far As the Eye Can See

CMA Fest 2023 brought so many crazy surprises, as well as some of the biggest stars in the format. However, it also included countless debut performances, too.

Since it's impossible to round up all of the artists who took to the CMA Fest stages for the first time, we'll mention a few of our favorites, including a balls-to-the-wall set from Bailey Zimmerman, an explosive dose of Stephen Wilson Jr. at the Maui Jim Reverb Stage, the infectious charm of Megan Moroney, simple southern artistry from Lauren Watkins and a dream fulfilled for Carly Pearce on the Nissan Stadium main stage.

Though that doesn't even begin to cover the full breadth of CMA Fest firsts, we can't wait to what these spectacular artists tee up for us next year.

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While we relive all of these moments (and plenty more), make sure to tune in to ABC on July 19 to catch the CMA Fest TV special, hosted by Dierks Bentley, Elle King and Lainey Wilson.

For more coverage of CMA Fest 2023, see below:

Written by Lydia Farthing, Images by Laura Ord
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