CMA Fest’s four stadium concerts — arguably country music’s most important stage outside awards shows — are meticulously planned, scripted and rehearsed. But no one could have anticipated perhaps the most defining moment of this year’s edition, held Thursday through Sunday at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.
It occurred when Sunday’s closer Luke Bryan was stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis, who was seated at the lip of the two-tiered stage. Still in mid-song of “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” Bryan dropped to his knees before his idol. Travis, silenced by a stroke five years ago, beamed as Bryan leaned over to greet the 59-year-old legend.
After finishing his second song, new single, “Sunrise Sunburn Sunset,” Bryan grabbed his acoustic guitar.
“We got Mr. Randy Travis down here, everybody,” he announced. Then, without another word, he began to sing the Travis standard “On the Other Hand,” released when Bryan, now 41, was just 10 years old. Tens of thousands of country fans — still packing the stands though it was close to midnight — joined in easily on the familiar chorus. An emotional Travis also could be seen mouthing some of the words.
“I’ve been wanting to sing to you for a long time, buddy,” Bryan said after the rousing performance. “That was unrehearsed. I didn’t know you were gonna be here. I love you.”
Was it tribute enough? Not for Bryan. “We just might make it a Randy Travis hour,” he proclaimed. “How about that?”
No problem for this crowd, judging by the roar, and when Bryan launched into Travis’ “Diggin’ Up Bones,” the massive singalong began again.
No doubt somewhere in Bryan’s home is a well-worn copy of Travis’ seminal album Storms of Life — as it should be for any country artist (or fan, for that matter). These stadium concerts are intended to highlight the newest and the brightest stars of country music, but Bryan’s impromptu salute — and the crowd’s worshipful reaction — was also a reminder that at the crux of country is its unbroken circle of past and present.
And if the stadium concerts proved anything, it’s that country also has a robust future. Of the 20 acts awarded full sets, more than a third were first-timers: Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Dustin Lynch, Old Dominion, Jon Pardi and Brett Young. (Lynch and Young both appeared at last year’s concerts, but …
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