meta-scriptCMA Fest Turns 50: Lainey Wilson, Brett Young, Reba McEntire & More Share Memories From The Country Staple | GRAMMY.com
Lainey Wilson performing at CMA Fest 2022
Lainey Wilson performs at Nissan Stadium at CMA Fest 2022.

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

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CMA Fest Turns 50: Lainey Wilson, Brett Young, Reba McEntire & More Share Memories From The Country Staple

As 80,000 country music fans take over Nashville from June 8-11, genre legends, hitmakers and newcomers celebrate CMA Fest's 50th anniversary by revisiting their favorite moments from on and off stage.

GRAMMYs/Jun 7, 2023 - 10:16 pm

​​It's where fans were once caught in the crossfire of a silly string war between Tracy Lawrence and Kenny Chesney. It's where Garth Brooks signed autographs continuously for 23 straight hours. It's where Craig Morgan first met Miranda Lambert when she was just a young fan, and where Patty Loveless stood in line to get an autograph from future collaborator Vince Gill. It's where Lainey Wilson realized country music is what she was born to do.

That place is CMA Music Fest, and this year "The Ultimate Country Music Fan Experience" celebrates 50 years of bringing fans and artists together in the heart of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. Originally known as Fan Fair, the event was created by WSM radio and the Country Music Association to provide fans their own unique experience — though it was also a clever marketing ploy to keep fans from crashing the annual country music disc jockey convention, an industry-only annual event. Now, each year, more than 80,000 country music lovers from around the world ascend to Nashville to see their favorite stars.

The first Fan Fair in 1972 drew 5,000 country music lovers to Nashville's Municipal Auditorium, and by 1982, its growth warranted a move to the Nashville Fairgrounds, In 2001, it moved downtown, occupying numerous locations including Nissan Stadium, Riverfront Park and the Music City Center — officially becoming CMA Music Festival, and later CMA Fest.

"The secret to the success of CMA Fest is the preservation of the original Fan Fair," CMA CEO Sarah Trahern tells GRAMMY.com. "The tradition and unique connection between the fans and the artists is celebrated throughout our event, and it becomes a momentous part of an artist's career to be able to say, 'I played at the Riverfront Stage, or I played Nissan Stadium and was part of the television show.' The magic of what CMA Fest is today comes from the history and heart that was created five decades ago."

Trahern has seen firsthand how important CMA Fest is to the fans, and one of her personal highlights each year comes from surprise seat upgrades. "I specifically remember one year we had changed the configuration on the floor based on some sodding issues with the stadium, and one fan was particularly upset that we moved her seats even though we had moved her to a closer section," Trahern recalls. "We later found out that she had brought her husband's ashes and had placed some of them under her seat at the stadium because they used to come to Fan Fair together. It reiterated to me the power of our event to truly become a part of people's lives."

It becomes part of the fabric of country artists' careers, too. CMA Fest is where many artists are discovered, where they perform for the first time, where they celebrate milestone achievements, and where they make invaluable memories with fans. As Morgan puts it, "You know that when you're performing at CMA Fest, you're performing for those who love you the most."

Before CMA Fest kicked off its 50th iteration on June 8, some of country music's legends and newcomers shared their most cherished, hilarious and sometimes embarrassing memories from CMA Fest.

A Thousand Horses

Graham DeLoach: Playing CMA Fest for the first time was gratifying, to say the least. We had really been honing our sound and figuring ourselves out as artists, both on the stage and making an album in the studio during months leading up to the show. I remember it almost getting rained out, but when the weather cleared and we finally got on the stage, we had a defining moment as a band. We had it dialed in more than ever and we're playing to a real crowd who came to listen to real music. It was a big change from the bar rooms that we had toured across America in the years prior. So, we mark our first CMA fest as a defining moment for A Thousand Horses.

Michael Hobby: My favorite memory takes me back to 2015. We were performing on the Chevy stage, right outside the Bridgestone arena in Nashville. It was super hot outside and the sun was beating down on everyone, but the atmosphere was still buzzing with the excitement from all the fans. It was a huge moment for us as a band. Our debut album Southernality was being introduced to the world, and our single "Smoke" had just gone No. 1. I'll never forget hearing the crowd singing the words to all our songs back to us, and the album had only been out a few days. That day had everything I love about music — its ability to move people, bring them together, and to create these unforgettable shared moments.

Bill Satcher: One year at a signing booth, a fan asked us to autograph and write our band name on her arm. Afterwards, she told us that she was going to go get it tattooed on her later that day. Sure enough, she came back to the same signing booth the next year and had our handwritten band name inked on her arm.

David Bellamy of the Bellamy Brothers

Fan Fair was always a special time for us early in our career. We'd be on the road playing shows and our mom, Frances, would load up our cousin Sylvia and my two oldest sons, Jesse and Noah, and make her way to Nashville to decorate our Fan Fair booth. We'd meet them there and spend the next few days meeting and greeting fans for hours at a time every day of the event.

We met so many artists that have remained friends to this day. We even met the Forester Sisters at Fan Fair and ended up recording a duet together, "Too Much Is Not Enough," that went No. 1.

When Fan Fair was over, we'd make our way on down to Alabama's June Jam in Ft Payne. We enjoy CMA Fest also but we're usually in Europe a lot during that time every year so we don't get there as much as we used to.

Our Mom used to live for that time of year. She loved putting our booth together and meeting all the artists new and old — in fact, I think she probably knew more artists than we did. We still run into people that knew our Mom from then.

Frances Bellamy and Loretta Lynn at Fan Fair

*(L-R) Frances Bellamy and Loretta Lynn at Fan Fair. Photo: Courtesy of David Bellamy*

Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys go way back to the very beginning of what was then called Fan Fair. My fondest memory of those days was performing in 1982 on the heels of "Elvira" and "Bobbie Sue." It was amazing to see the crowds at the shows and the signing booth. I am thankful that from time to time we still take part even after all these years. 

BoomTown Saints

Ben Chism: This is our first year playing CMA Fest. It means the world to me, to Chris, to our families.  When we got that email saying we were invited to play CMA Fest, I told my wife and she just jumped up and down. She's been waiting 10 years for this and so have I. Chris has too. We have family coming in from all over the country to watch this 25-minute set because it means as much to them as it does to us.  

It's just an amazing feeling to go out there and meet the people at CMA Fest. That's the biggest thing me and Chris have always said is, "Don't ever be afraid to come up to us and talk to us. We'll go on a walk and talk to you all day long."

Chris Ramos: As a musician growing up, I always thought it would be the coolest thing ever to get to play CMA Fest. It's definitely a career defining moment. You have various people say, "My career defining moment was when I headlined Nissan Stadium." We get that, but along the way this is one of those things that when it happens, it's a bucket list item. I wanted to just take a minute and absorb the fact that we got invited by the CMA to play CMA Fest. Talk about career aspirations being fulfilled!

Breland

My first CMA Fest experience was very non-traditional, as last year was my very first year not just performing but attending as well. I had the privilege of getting to perform on the Chevy Riverfront Stage and with one of my favorite bands, Lady A, on the main stage. It was a crazy experience. 

Something funny happened ahead of the Chevy Riverfront performance, too — I was about to walk on stage and broke my glasses. I didn't have a backup pair so I had to throw on my stylist's sunglasses for the performance. Such a great time regardless!

Tyler Braden

My favorite memory so far of CMA Fest is playing Ascend Amphitheater with my label mates. Warner Music Nashville put together an amazing lineup, and it's a show I'll never forget.

CMA Fest is so unique because it brings together so many artists and so many fans in one place for the weekend. It's an amazing opportunity to be able to interact with fans and create memories you'll never forget. I love running into fans all over the country and hearing about how they discovered us at CMA Fest!

Charles Esten

My first CMA Fest performance was in 2014 on the CMA Close Up Stage at the Music City Center, and it was amazing. As much as the show Nashville had been embraced by TV viewers and the city of Nashville itself, that performance was my first taste of how popular it had become with the group that mattered, perhaps, the most: country music fans. The place was packed, the fans were amazing, and I felt blessed to be there with them, playing my songs and Deacon's, too. I still smile just to think of it.

I can easily tell you my favorite moment. It was in 2016. I, like everyone else, had recently heard the bad news that Nashville, the show that had brought me to Nashville and had changed my life completely, was not being picked up by ABC for a fifth season. That was a hard pill to swallow — not just for those of us who worked on the show, but for the actual Nashvillians and the country music fans that had grown to love the show so much. 

For me, it was no small consolation to be stepping out onto the Riverfront Stage that day to perform for CMA Fest. It was a hot but beautiful summer afternoon, and the riverbank was completely covered with amazing Nashville fans who, like me, seemed not quite ready to say goodbye. They poured out their love — even more so when I brought out my co-stars Clare Bowen and Chris Carmack to sing a couple songs. They cheered and sang along with us to their favorite songs from the show that they already missed so much. That was incredibly memorable. 

But, what put it over the top — way over the top — was when CMT's Leslie Fram and Cody Alan joined me and my friends onstage for a surprise announcement that, actually, Nashville would NOT be ending. Not yet! CMT was picking it up for Season 5 [and eventually for Season 6]. The crowd went wild. And the show went on!

Randy Goodman, Chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville

Jennifer and I got married June 11, so our anniversary would, more likely than not, land during Fan Fair/CMA Music Fest. One of our early, if not first anniversaries, I was at Fan Fair. Of course, Jennifer was with me. I'm working. It was at the Fairgrounds. We had just signed Juice Newton, and she found out it was our anniversary. She sang "The Sweetest Thing" and dedicated it to us. That was pretty cool, and very sweet of her.

Morgan Evans

I'll never forget the first night I landed in Nashville. It was the Tuesday of CMA Fest. I walked down to Broadway and it was like all my Aussie-Country boy musical dreams came true all at once! 

Janie Fricke

I remember the first time I had a booth at Fan Fair. It was so exciting. That year Alabama was a huge success and the fans screamed for them. Soon after, my records hit the top of the charts, and I got booked to open all their concerts for a couple years. What a thrill and huge boost for me!  So thankful!

Vince Gill

Way back when Fan Fair was still at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, I was in the RCA Records booth signing autographs with some other artists. This woman came through the line, and I was signing something for her, and I think we got a picture together. Then she said to me, "We're gonna record together some day." And I thought "Well alright." Turns out that woman was Patty Loveless! We ended up singing on lots of each other's records including our first No. 1 hits. She sang harmonies on "When I Call Your Name" and I sang on her single "Timber I'm Falling in Love."

Wade Hayes

I vividly remember my very first Fan Fair in 1995 because the line was so long and I just could not believe it. I think we were there for eight hours signing autographs. I was amazed and just so thankful. I was still a very young, naive country boy, and I just remember my mind being absolutely blown that there were that many people standing there to meet me.

Country fans are the best! I remember one year I mentioned something about being gone so much on tour, I didn't have time to go home and wash my socks or something like that and then all of a sudden, I start getting underwear and socks at all the shows for a while. It was pretty funny.

Ty Herndon

I had been to CMA Fest — then called Fan Fair — many times before I signed my record deal, but 1995 was different. My first single "What Mattered Most" had just gone to No. 1, and when I looked out over that crowd of 60,000 people to perform it, I couldn't hold myself together. The tears started welling up, and was all I could do to get through the song. To hear folks singing my lyrics back to me, there's nothing like it, even today. Words cannot describe it.

HunterGirl and her mom at CMA Fest 2022

*HunterGirl (R) and her mom at CMA Fest 2022. Photo: Courtesy of HunterGirl*

HunterGirl

The funniest fan interaction last year was during the meet and greet at the signing booth. Someone came up and asked me to sign a picture, and I looked down and it was an old photo I used to promote my music in high school. Then, one after another people kept bringing the same photo to sign, and I asked, "Where did y'all get this?" They all go, "the lady in the back corner was passing them out." I looked over and it was my mom giving them to everyone she saw. It was like she was handing out mixtapes on Broadway. I have never laughed so hard. My mom is the best.

Chris Janson

The first year I did the stadium was pretty awesome. Me and Hank Jr. did "Born To Boogie." It was me and him and Justin Moore. It was just great because I grew up listening to Hank Jr., and we had toured together so it was great comradery. Then I did "Buy Me A Boat" and it had just hit No. 1 so that was a great time.  

I've had a lot of fun fan encounters. I'm pretty easy going, but people get so scared sometimes to say hello. Sometimes I'll notice it, so I'll just initiate the conversation because I can tell they want to say hello or want a picture or something. And I always think to myself, "Be Luke Bryan," because Luke is always very kind to people. So I've always tried to model myself after people like him. He's just a great template for that. Treat people how you want to be treated. 

So if I notice somebody wanting to talk or they look like they might want a picture, but they are about to let me walk by because they don't want to bother me, I just tell them, "Hey listen, you ain't bothering me. We're all just putting our pants on the same way this morning and if you'd like a picture, you might as well get it now. This is perfect timing." I appreciate how respectful people are in 99 percent of the cases, but it also just cracks me up that just because I sing songs and have hits and I'm in the public eye doesn't mean I'm not a normal person. I'm probably more normal than most people I know so if you see me out there, come and say hey.  

Tracy Lawrence

My favorite memory goes way back to when it was called Fan Fair and was held at the fairgrounds. All the artists would be assigned to a booth and we'd be there all day which consisted of signing for two to three hours plus appearances and performances. All the artists would try to outdo each other with our booth setup. We'd also do pranks on each other. One time Kenny Chesney and I had a silly string fight across from each other in our booths.

The first time I performed was at the Fairgrounds in 1992. They set up the main stage on the race track, and my producer, James Stroud, gave me a blue Harley Motorcycle to celebrate Sticks and Stones going Gold. So, it didn't suck.

Tracy Lawrence at CMA Fest 1992

*Tracy Lawrence at Fan Fair 1992. Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Lawrence*

Scotty McCreery

I got to perform with Josh Turner on the stadium show the first time I did CMA Music Fest, which was a moment I'll never forget. Through the years, I've done a lot of different events at CMA Music Fest and it's always been fun. The fans who attend are amazing, and music is truly around every corner. I'm glad to be a part of CMA Music Festival's history. The event is truly legendary.

Reba McEntire

Fans love country music and are so devoted. What I remember best is sitting there at the Polygram/Mercury booth at Fan Fair and sitting there for about two hours and probably signing one autograph. One time mama was there with me, and I had my little Sharpies in front of me and my little stack of pictures and nobody was coming over. Finally, this man and woman looked up at my name over my head and looked at me and walked over to me and mama said, "Get ready! Get ready!" And they walked over to me. I said, "Can I help you?" and they said, "Do you know where the bathroom is?" That was my introduction to Fan Fair. [Laughs.]

Of all the genres that I've been a part of — Broadway, television, the movies and in the clothing line — everybody always says how nice the country folks are, and how appreciative the fans are, and the artists are of their fans. So coming back to CMA Fest just emphasizes how much the artists do appreciate their fans and the fans of country music appreciate the artists and entertainers. I am proud to be a part of country music and a part of a group that do appreciate each other, and they don't take each other for granted.

Jo Dee Messina

My favorite CMA Fest memories are the Fan Club parties that I used to do with my mother. She geared up for them months in advance and I got to see the fans bring her such joy with their love. Thank you for those memories. They meant so much to both of us.

Craig Morgan

One year I played the stadium with a cast on my leg. There's a picture of me somewhere, climbing the trusses with my broken leg hanging off the sides of the stadium.

One of the years I played CMA Fest back when I was younger, I remember a young lady asking me for an autograph. I signed something for her and we chatted for a few minutes. Years later, that young lady became a big star in country music: Miranda Lambert. 

Megan Moroney

I am so excited to perform at CMA Fest again. Last year I was on the Spotlight Stage in Fan Fair X and it was one of the first times I heard fans singing my songs back to me. This year I get to play the Chevy Riverfront Stage & Nissan Stadium Platform Stage which is really exciting! 

Ian Munsick

I can't think of another event where fans travel from all over the world to listen to live country music. It's pretty special to have people from different cultural and geographical locations come together to share their love for their favorite songs and artists. I can't wait to fully experience CMA Fest for the first time and put a little western into the lineup.

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David Nail

My favorite was my first, which I believe was the first time it was downtown. I was 21 and on Mercury Records. I had a sleeveless Michael Jackson t-shirt on, which was borrowed from a friend back home. I was so nervous, but I remember it was really the first time I'd played in front of a crowd that size. I was high on adrenaline for days!

Joe Nichols

I have a long history with CMA Fest, going all the way back to the late '90s, like '96-'97. I had long hair and a cowboy hat. I was maybe 18 years old starting off my career. I had a booth. That's how you did it back then. You'd put these booths in these real hot buildings, and you'd sit there and sweat all day and say, "Please, look at me, look at me! Let me sign something for you that you don't care about!" [Laughs.]

Those are my original memories of Fan Fair, and as we've moved on through the years with CMA Fest, I've noticed there's a really different vibe around CMA Fest nowadays. It's a big show, a big stadium show that's always been one of my favorite things to play. 

We debuted "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" in front of 40,000 people at the stadium at CMA Fest, sung it in the rain I believe. I have a lot of fond memories about CMA Fest performing on all the stages, Riverfront, Stadium Stage, CMT Stage in front of Bridgestone, and I've had a blast at all of them. That's what's wonderful about CMA Fest — you have so many fans there that are doing so many things, you're going to find a great crowd anywhere. 

Kimberly Perry

My favorite memory of CMA Fest is at Nissan Stadium. Luke Bryan and I actually got to co-host the broadcast, and it was such an amazing moment. We got to talk to so many artists that I hadn't really even got to meet before rehearsing that, and obviously being a co-host with Luke was so much fun.  

Over the years, I've had a ton of funny interactions with fans. The most embarrassing one for me, though, happened when there was a guy who said, "Hey, can you come and sign this thing for me?" I thought that he was pointing at his motorcycle, so I got my sharpie and signed the bumper of his motorcycle. Then [my brothers] Reid and Neil pointed out to me that he was actually pointing to the T-shirt laying over his motorcycle. He actually did not see me do it in real time and I didn't know how to tell him, so I just sort of sheepishly crawled back on the tour bus because I didn't know what to do.

Drew Parker

I got mistaken for Cody Johnson a couple years ago by a large crowd of fans. I just went along with it. [Laughs.]

Lily Rose

As a fan, [I saw] Morgan Wallen perform in the rain on the Riverfront Stage and it was incredible. He only had "Up Down" as a hit at the time, and it always leaves me inspired to keep working and growing. You never know where a song or two will take you. As an artist, getting to play the stadium last year — my first CMA Fest invited to play as an artist— was so humbling and a massive check off of the bucket list. 

I have so many fans always asking me to sign their arms and then they get it tattooed. It's a lot of pressure, but hilarious at the same time. Commitment is level 10, always!

Alana Springsteen

One of my first memories of CMA Fest is seeing Keith Urban play the stadium when I was about 12. I was young but, by then, I already knew music was going to be my life, so I went with the intention of learning as much as I could from his live show. 

I vividly remember how small he made that massive stadium feel. There aren't many artists who are such good entertainers that I forget to watch as an artist and naturally fall into watching as a fan, but he's one of them. He's so engaging. I remember hoping I'd have a chance to make that many people feel that way about my music one day. 

The fans are what makes CMA Fest so special. They're so incredibly passionate about the music and the artists. There's nothing like it. They go above and beyond for you, so it makes you want to go above and beyond for them. One of the first CMA Fests I played, there was a guy who showed up to watch every one of my performances with a poop emoji hat on. You couldn't miss him. I remember not being able to hold it together every time he'd walk in. Just the most ridiculously hilarious thing and we connected over it. I still haven't forgotten it.

Jeannie Seely at Fan Fair 1972

*Jeannie Seely signing autographs at the first Fan Fair in 1972. Photo: Barry Amato*

Jeannie Seely

Thinking back on the first Fan Fair, I remember how excited I was to be entertaining so many wonderful fans all in one place! It was also exciting to be able to spend time with so many other artists, including some you didn't get to see very often, and some that I had not even met. I was in awe watching everyone else perform, and proud to be presenting our new package show with Jack Greene.  

Dottie West and I had a great time posing as each other just to watch the puzzled expressions on folks faces as they tried to figure it out. We even did radio promos for some of the DJs as each other. There was such a closeness of the artists back then, and we had so much fun together. Fan Fair gave us that opportunity too. There were a lot of stories told, guitar pulling, clothes and jewelry sharing, and memories made. Sometimes I wonder if the fans had as good a time as we did!

Matt Stell

My favorite memory of CMA Fest is getting to play the different stages. They're all cool in their own way. I started playing solo acoustic at Fest, which is fun because those fans typically come to hear artists and songs that are new to them. Now, we get to play the Chevy Riverfront Stage with a full band, and hopefully the crowd will be singing my songs with us, which is such a party! 

Tigirlily Gold

One of our first times ever visiting Nashville was for CMA Fest. A friend of ours ended up having two extra tickets to the last day of the stadium shows, and it poured down rain. We were still so happy to be at Nissan Stadium with 60,000 other country music fans at the most magical festival ever. We couldn't believe how many people were there! We held trash bags over our heads and sang along to all the country songs we grew up on the entire night.

We recently played in London for the first time, and we had several people tell us that they can't wait to see us play over CMA Fest. It really put into perspective how global the event is! 

Noah Thompson

Man, going from a nobody to somebody overnight was life-changing, and then going straight to CMA Fest right after winning American Idol. I was shocked how many people recognized me, stopped me in the street, and were singing along to my song! An incredible feeling that I will never forget.

Mark Wills

My most memorable experience at CMA Fest was truly magical. Just moments before I was about to step on stage and perform in 2022, I received the call that my daughter was going into labor. It was an overwhelming rush of emotions, knowing that my family was expanding and that I was about to become a grandparent. That moment filled me with an incredible sense of joy, love, and anticipation. It reminded me of the power of music to bring people together and create cherished memories that will last a lifetime.

Lainey Wilson

I went every year to CMA Fest from the time I was 14. My parents would take me there so literally I could go get inspired. They would make it like a family vacation really just for me. It felt like country music Christmas to me and my family.

When I finally got to play CMA Fest, it honestly felt like one of those out-of-body experiences because I'd dreamed about it for so long. Every summer we would go and I'd sit there. I wouldn't be jumping up and down with excitement, and my mama would look over at me and be like, "Are you having fun?" The truth is, I was just soaking it up. I was not whooping and hollering. I was just trying to learn and trying to watch the people on the Riverfront stage and on the Hard Rock stage, and then go over to the stadium that night and pick up little tips and tricks.' I was really educating myself, and I loved every single minute of it, so when I actually got the chance to do it myself I felt like, "Dang! We have arrived!" We have a long way to go, but we're heading in the right direction.

Country music brings people together. Of course, country music festivals are special anywhere you place those roots, but there is something so magical about playing for folks in a city where the music was made, and the team of people are there in that town that pushed that music, that played on that song. Everybody feels that when they roll into town for CMA Fest. You feel it to your core in a different kind of way.

Charlie Worsham

I have too many favorite memories to count, but I'll have to go with the year we revived the Ernest Tubb Record Shop Midnite Jamboree, bringing Vince Gill, Brothers Osborne, Brandy Clark, Eric Church and others down to the world's first country music record shop on lower Broadway. The crowd was crammed inside, where the air conditioning couldn't get us any cooler than 115 degrees. We had cops on horses out front as we shut down CMA Fest three nights in a row. I saw the sun come up that Saturday morning before going to bed! Finally, on Sunday morning, it was time for my Donuts and Jam fan party — and I barely made it in time, with my new puppy at the time, Peggy Sue.

One of my favorite stories to tell is the story of my first year at CMA Fest as a solo artist. I was a bit overconfident in my popularity, you see. A couple was approaching me on the sidewalk, pointing to their camera like they wanted a photo together. As I approached them to take a photo and sign autographs, they pointed to the Elvis impersonator behind me and asked, "Do you mind taking our photo with Elvis?" [Laughs.] A lesson in humility, I tell ya!

CMA Fest is unique because there's no other community quite like the country music community and no other place quite like Nashville. Our entire business is built on the close relationship between artists and fans, and CMA Fest is basically Nashville's annual open house. You can feel a spirit of gratitude and excitement and love in the air. As a singer, I'm reminded of how lucky I am to get to be in country music, and as a fan I'm reminded how lucky I am to have country music as the soundtrack to my life.

Brett Young

I didn't come to Nashville as a kid because I grew up in Southern California, so I found out about CMA Fest after I moved here. It was always very much a bucket list thing for me as an artist. The first year I got to perform, I got a call last minute that my second single "In Case You Didn't Know" was going No. 1 that week. I wasn't booked to perform at Nissan Stadium, but they were like, "We can't have the No. 1 song in the country not being performed." They said, "We know it's only two days away, but would Brett play the pop-up stage in the middle of Nissan Stadium for that one song?" I was in North Carolina at the time and the answer was obviously yes! We bussed back, I popped up on this little stage out in the middle of the field at Nissan Stadium, and got to play the No. 1 song in the country. It was really cool.

Chris Young

My favorite memory is probably getting to go as a kid. It was a really big deal when my mom took me when I was really young. We used to go when it was back at the fairgrounds.

The first time I performed was a really long time ago. It was a really tiny acoustic show. It was a lot different playing Riverfront up to the Stadium. It was definitely something I looked forward to, and I remember thinking how cool it was to be on a CMA Fest Stage anywhere.

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Tom Petty
Tom Petty performing with the Heartbreakers in 2008

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

feature

How 'Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration' Makes Tom Petty A Posthumous Crossover Sensation

On 'Petty Country,' Nashville luminaries from Willie Nelson to Dolly Parton and Luke Combs make Tom Petty’s simple, profound, and earthy songs their own — to tremendous results.

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2024 - 06:49 pm

If Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers landed in 2024, how would we define them? For fans of the beloved heartland rockers and their very missed leader, it's a compelling question.

"It's not active rock. It's not mainstream rock. It's not country. It would really fall in that Americana vein," says Scott Borchetta, the founder of Big Machine Label Group. "When you think about what his lyrics were and are about, it's really about the American condition."

To Borchetta, these extended to everything in Petty's universe — his principled public statements, his man-of-the-people crusades against the music industry. "He was an American rebel with a cause," Borchetta says. And when you fuse that attitude with big melodies, bigger choruses, and a grounded, earthy perspective — well, there's a lot for country fans to love.

That's what Coran Capshaw of Red Light Management bet on when he posited the idea of Petty Country: A Country Music Celebration of Tom Petty, a tribute album released June 21. Featuring leading lights like Dolly Parton ("Southern Accents"), Willie and Lukas Nelson ("Angel Dream (No. 2)," Luke Combs ("Runnin' Down a Dream"), Dierks Bentley ("American Girl,") Wynonna and Lainey Wilson ("Refugee"), and other country luminaries covering Tom Petty classics, Petty Country is a seamless union of musical worlds.

Which makes perfect sense: on a core level, Petty, and his band of brothers, were absolutely steeped in country — after all, they grew up in the South — Gainesville, Florida.

"Tom loved all country music. He went pretty deep into the Carter Family, and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and the folk, Americana heart of it," says Petty's daughter, Adria, who helps run his estate. "Hank Williams, and even Ernest Tubb and Patsy Cline… as a songwriter, I think a lot of that real original music influenced him enormously." (The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds' Gram Parsons-hijacked country phase, were also foundational.)

A key architect of Petty Country was the man's longtime producer, George Drakoulias. "He's worked with Dad for a hundred years since [1994's] Wildflowers, and he has super exquisite taste," Adria says.

In reaching out to prospective contributors, he and fellow music supervisor Randall Poster started at the top: none other than Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. "Having Willie and Dolly made people stand up and pay attention," Dreakoulias told Rolling Stone, and the Nashville floodgates were opened: Thomas Rhett ("Wildflowers"), Brothers Osborne ("I Won't Back Down"), Lady A ("Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"), and so many others.

Each artist gave Petty's work a distinctive, personal spin. Luke Combs jets down the highway of "Runnin' Down the Dream" like he was born to ride. Along with Yo-Yo Ma and founding Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Rhiannon Giddens scoops out the electronics and plumbs the droning, haunting essence of "Don't Come Around Here No More."


And where a lesser tribute album would have lacquered over the songs with homogenous Nashville production,
Petty Country is the opposite.

"I'm not a fan of having a singular producer on records like this. I want each one of them to be their own little crown jewel," Borchetta says. "That's going to give us a better opportunity for them to make the record in their own image."

This could mean a take that hews to the original, or casts an entirely new light on it. "Dierks called up and said, 'Hey, do you think we would be all right doing a little bit more of a bluegrass feel to it?' I was like, 'Absolutely. If you hear it, go get it.'"

"It had the diversity that the Petty women like on the records," Adria says, elaborating that they wanted women and people of color on the roster. "We like to see those tributes to Tom reflect his values; he was always very pro-woman, which is why he has such outspoken women [laughs] in his wake."

Two of Petty Country's unquestionable highlights are by women. Margo Price chose "Ways to Be Wicked," a cut so deep that even the hardcore Petty faithful might not know it; the Let Me Up (I've Had Enough) outtake was buried on disc six of the 1995 boxed set Playback.

"Man, it's just one of those songs that gets in your veins," Price says. "He really knew how to twist the knife — that chorus, 'There's so many ways to be wicked, but you don't know one little thing about love.'" Founding Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell features on the dark, driving banger.

And all interviewed for this article are agog over Dolly Parton's commanding take on "Southern Accents" — the title track of the band's lumpy, complicated, vulnerable 1985 album of the same name. "It's just revelatory… it brings me to my knees," Adria says. "It's just a phenomenal version I know my dad would've absolutely loved."

"It's one of Dolly's best vocals ever, and it's hair-raising," Borchetta says. "You could tell she really felt that track, and what the song was about."

At press time, the Petty camp is forging ahead with plans for a boxed set expansion of 1982's undersung Long After Dark. 

Adria is filled with profuse gratitude for the artists preserving and carrying her dad's legacy. 

"I'm really touched that these musicians showed up for my dad," she says. "A lot of people don't want to show up for anything that's not making money for them, or in service to their career, and we really appreciate it… I owe great debt to all of these artists and their managers for making the time to think about our old man like that."

Indeed, in Nashville and beyond, we've all been thinking about her old man, especially since his untimely passing in 2017. We'll never forget him — and will strum and sing these simple, heartfelt, and profound songs for years to come.

Let Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's Wildflowers

CMA Fest 2024 Playlist Hero
(L-R) Kelsea Ballerini, Dalton Dover, Chase Matthew, Jelly Roll, Ella Langley, Dasha, Avery Anna, Breland

Photos (L-R): Jason Kempin/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BRELAND & Friends, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for iHeartRadio, Amy E. Price/Getty Images, Jason Kempin/Getty Images, Brynn Osborn/CBS via Getty Images, Jason Davis/Getty Images for SiriusXM, Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BRELAND & Friends

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Get Ready For CMA Fest 2024: Listen To A Playlist By Dasha, Ella Langley, Chase Matthew, Avery Anna, & Dalton Dover

As country stars and fans flock to Nashville for CMA Fest, five of the lineup's most exciting acts curated a playlist of the songs they're looking forward to hearing live — from Shaboozey's "A Bar Song (Tipsy)" to Lainey Wilson's "Watermelon Moonshine."

GRAMMYs/Jun 5, 2024 - 02:25 pm

For more than 50 years, the Country Music Association has hosted the genre's biggest annual party in Nashville, Tennessee: CMA Fest. Originally dubbed Fan Fair, what began as a 5,000-person celebration of country music has turned into a four-day festival that draws an estimated 90,000 people each day. And with the genre being at an all-time high, the 2024 iteration of CMA Fest might just be the most thrilling yet.

The 51st annual CMA Fest will take over Nashville from June 6-9, with upwards of 300 country artists performing. As rising stars — and returning CMA Fest performers — Avery Anna, Dalton Dover and Chase Matthew will tell you, the magic of the weekend affair has always come down to the fans.

"I love the connection that the festival provides between artists and fans," Anna says. Dover adds, "Whether it's being reunited with those I've met in the past or getting some time to say hello to all the new faces in the crowd, it's just so special to be able to connect with everyone over our love for country music."

Matthew, who grew up in Nashville, has been part of both sides of CMA Fest. "I've seen CMA Fest grow to become this epic event that every music fan should experience," he says. "It's a great opportunity for fans to see and interact with their favorite country stars, as well as discover new artists they may not have had the opportunity to hear yet."

Even Dasha, who will be experiencing her first CMA Fest this year, knows just how important it is to any country music artist or fan: "CMA Fest is such an iconic celebration of country music."

Thanks to the runaway success of her hit "Austin," Dasha will be taking the Platform Stage at Nissan Stadium, which will highlight two budding stars each night amid performances from the genre's biggest names. "When I got that call, I got online to see the number of seats there and my jaw was on the ground," she recalls. "That'll be my biggest show to date, and I can't wait to show the people what we've got."

This year's CMA Fest also marks a first for Ella Langley, who will make her inaugural appearance on the Chevy Riverfront Stage in a "full-circle moment." And in teasing what she'll bring to her set, Langley encapsulated the energy of CMA Fest as a whole: "I hope the fans are ready for a bunch of dancing, a good message and a really good time."

As they prepped for CMA Fest 2024, Ella Langley, Dasha, Chase Matthew, Dalton Dover, and Avery Anna helped curate a playlist of songs they're excited to see — and perform — live. Whether or not you'll be heading to Nashville, jam out to tracks from Kelsea Ballerini, Sam Hunt, Cody Johnson, Zach Top, Megan Moroney, and more.

Photo of country singer/artist Anne Wilson wearing a brown jacket with pink designs, a white shirt, and light blue jeans.
Anne Wilson

Photo: Robby Klein

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Anne Wilson Found Faith In Music After Her Brother’s Death. Now She’s One Of Country’s Young Stars: "His Tragedy Wasn’t Wasted"

The Kentucky-based musician first arrived on the scene as a Christian artist in 2022. On her new album 'Rebel,' the singer/songwriter star melds the sounds of her "true north" with a mainstream country sensibility.

GRAMMYs/Apr 18, 2024 - 02:40 pm

After breaking out in the world of contemporary Christian music, Anne Wilson wants to take the country world by storm. 

Out April 19, Wilson's sophomore album embraces the many aspects of her self. Rebel sees the Kentuckian lean into her country and horse farm roots just as she leans into her faith — a subject already deeply intertwined in country music — more than ever before. 

"I’ve never viewed it as switching over to country or leaving Christian music," Wilson tells GRAMMY.com. "With this new record I wanted to write something that was faith-based but also broad enough to positively impact people who don’t have a strong faith as well."

Rebel is just the latest chapter in a journey of triumph and glory first set into motion by tragedy. Wilson started playing piano when she was six but didn’t begin taking it more seriously until the sudden death of her older brother, Jacob Wilson, in 2017. Despite the weight of the moment, Wilson, then 15, returned to the piano to channel her grief — a move that culminated in her first live singing performance when she belted out Hillsong Worship’s "What A Beautiful Name" at his funeral.

"My life forever changed in that moment," admits Wilson. "I already knew that life was very short on this side and that we only have a small window of time here so I wanted to make mine count. It was a special, but really hard moment that has gone on to spawn my entire career. Hearing just how much my songs have impacted fans makes me feel like his tragedy wasn’t wasted and that it was used for good."

Soon after she posted a cover of "What A Beautiful Name" to YouTube that netted over 800,000 views and caught the attention of the brass at Capitol Christian Music Group, who promptly signed her to a deal. Her first release with them, My Jesus, earned a GRAMMY nomination in 2023 for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album in addition to its title track hitting the top spot on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart. 

Similar to My Jesus, Rebel sees Wilson doubling down on her religious roots while continuing to preserve the memory of her beloved brother. Although she grew up in a devout Christian household in Lexington, Kentucky, Wilson says that she didn’t fully connect with her faith until Jacob’s passing. 

Nowadays she couldn’t see herself living without it.

"When it came to dealing with the loss and tragedy of my brother I knew I couldn’t have survived that without [faith]," she says. "As I started writing songs and moved to Nashville my faith quickly became everything to me."

The 16-song project hits the bullseye between contemporary Christian and country twang, with an assist from special guests including Chris Tomlin ("The Cross"), Jordan Davis ("Country Gold") and Lainey Wilson ("Praying Woman"). Of the Lainey feature, Wilson says the two wrote "Praying Woman" upon their first day of meeting, with the elder Wilson growing into big sister and mentor of sorts for Anne. The song was inspired by the power of prayer Wilson and Lainey each experienced from their mothers growing up.

"We’d been talking about memories from growing up and remembering our mother’s coming into our rooms, getting on their knees and praying for us," recalls Wilson. "There was a conviction in how they prayed and expected them to be answered that was so powerful and special that we wanted to capture the feeling of it in song."

Rebel's strong motherly influence continues on "Red Flag," a rockin' number that Anne Wilson wrote as guidance to her younger fan base about what to look for in lasting love. While she largely had to ad lib the concept, having no bad breakup or relationship experiences to pull from, many of the "green flags" she notes were the result of years of advice. Things like going to church, being down to Earth, hunting, fishing, and respecting the American flag were traits and hobbies Wilson's mother had been passing down to her for years.

"Growing up she was always teaching me about relationship red and green flags, what to expect and to never settle," explains Wilson. "I have a song on my last record called ‘Hey Girl’ that ['Red Flag' is] almost a continuation of. It started out as a fun joke and turned out to be an actual serious song about red flags that’s one of my favorites on the whole record."

Another tune that began lighthearted before adopting a more serious tone is "Songs About Whiskey." Playing into country music and her home state's obsession with songs about brown liquor, the upbeat banger is intended to instead illustrate how Wilson gets her high from G-O-D rather than A-B-V or C-B-D through lines like, "I guess I’m just kind of fixed on/ The only thing that’s ever fixed me/ That’s why I sing songs about Jesus/ Instead of singing songs about whiskey."

"It’s supposed to be fun, make you laugh and fill you with joy," describes Wilson. "But it’s also meant to show how my faith is my true north, not those other things that are going to try to fill you up, but never do."

Through all of Rebel Wilson not only proves how her faith is her true north, but also shows others yearning to get there a path toward. This feeling culminates on the record’s title track, which frames her open love of Jesus as an act of rebellion in today’s world. A lesson in "what it means to have faith, not backing down from it and clinging to what we know is true," Wilson says the song was also inspired by previously having a song turned away at Christian radio for sounding "too country."

"I’m not going to try to please Christian music and I’m not going to try to please country music, I’m just going to be who I’ve always been and let the songs fall where they want to," asserts Wilson. "That was fuel not just for the song, but going against the grain on this entire album to be my most authentic self yet."

At the end of the day, genre labels, accolades and being included in the Grand Ole Opry’s NextStage Class of 2024 are secondary to Wilson’s adoration for the man above and her brother who, albeit tragically, set her on the journey she’s on now.

"I want to make sure I’m honoring him in everything that I do," reflects Wilson, "because he’s the reason I started doing music in the first place." 

Inside Tyler Hubbard's New Album 'Strong': How He Perfectly Captured His "Really Sweet Season" Of Life

Women's History Month 2024 Playlist Hero
(Clockwise, from top left): Jennie, Janelle Monáe, Anitta, Taylor Swift, Victoria Monét, Ariana Grande, Lainey Wilson

Photos (clockwise, from top left): Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Coachella, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, Lufre, MATT WINKELMEYER/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE RECORDING ACADEMY, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, JOHN SHEARER/GETTY IMAGES FOR THE RECORDING ACADEMY, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Listen: GRAMMY.com's Women's History Month 2024 Playlist: Female Empowerment Anthems From Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Jennie & More

This March, the Recording Academy celebrates Women's History Month with pride and joy. Press play on this official playlist that highlights uplifting songs from Taylor Swift, Victoria Monét, Anitta and more.

GRAMMYs/Mar 8, 2024 - 04:44 pm

From commanding stages to blasting through stereos, countless women have globally graced the music industry with their creativity. And though they've long been underrepresented, tides are changing: in just the last few years, female musicians have been smashing records left and right, conquering top song and album charts and selling sold-out massive tours.

This year, Women's History Month follows a particularly historic 66th GRAMMY Awards, which reflected the upward swing of female musicians dominating music across the board. Along with spearheading the majority of the ceremony's performances, women scored bigtime in the General Field awards — with wins including Best New Artist, Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Album Of The Year.

Female empowerment anthems, in particular, took home major GRAMMY gold. Miley Cyrus' "Flowers" took home two awards, while Victoria Monét was crowned Best New Artist thanks to the success of her album Jaguar II and its hit single "On My Mama." As those two songs alone indicate, female empowerment takes many different shapes in music — whether it's moving on from a relationship by celebrating self-love or rediscovering identity through motherhood.

The recent successes of women in music is a testament to the trailblazing artists who have made space for themselves in a male-dominated industry — from the liberating female jazz revolution of the '20s to the riot grrl movement of the '90s. Across genres and decades, the classic female empowerment anthem has strikingly metamorphosed into diverse forms of defiance, confidence and resilience.

No matter how Women's History Month is celebrated, it's about women expressing themselves, wholeheartedly and artistically, and having the arena to do so. And in the month of March and beyond, women in the music industry deserve to be recognized not only for their talent, but ambition and perseverance — whether they're working behind the stage or front-and-center behind the mic.

From Aretha Franklin's "RESPECT" to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)," there's no shortage of female empowerment anthems to celebrate women's accomplishments in the music industry. Listen to GRAMMY.com's 2024 Women's History Month playlist on streaming services below.