The Country Music Association’s three-hour “CMA Fest” ABC TV special airs Wednesday, Aug. 3 at 8 pm CT. It will highlight notable performances from four days of main-stage performances at Nissan Stadium, hosted by Dierks Bentley and Elle King.
Intriguingly, while watching the concert, take note of performances from acts like country radio chart-toppers Kelsea Ballerini, Thomas Rhett and Lainey Wilson. More than anything, they highlight how fans of the genre who attended CMA Fest for well over a decade have now achieved main stage success. Their stories about their experiences represent the ultimate tales of journeys across America, from the least expensive seats to the genre’s pinnacle.
32-year-old country star Thomas Rhett has the most obvious seeming route from the crowd to the stage — he’s the son of country singer-songwriter Rhett Akins. However, even with connections, for the past 28 years, he still had to earn his way there.
Born in South Georgia, Rhett moved to Nashville in 1994. He’d always ask his famous father for tickets but had to save yearly, frequently sitting in the bleachers of the Nashville Fairgrounds or the upper deck seats of Nissan Stadium with his high school friends . “I still kick myself every time I get to play on that stadium stage. It’s a surreal experience,” he tells The Tennessean.
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Rhett actually showed the festival TV program’s executive producer, Robert Deaton, where his seats were. “It’s surprisingly not rare to find artists who make that long trek from the back row to the main stage. I love hearing those stories.”
Lainey Wilson’s duet performance of No. 1 single “Never Say Never” with Cole Swindell is one of the year’s highlights. It is expected to be included in the program. Wilson’s birthplace is Baskin, LA, a town of fewer than 300 residents in the state’s Northeast corner. The farmer’s daughter — whether as a fan or aspiring performer — has attended CMA Fest for nearly two decades.
“Going to CMA Fest was my family’s yearly traditional vacation,” says the “Things A Man Oughta Know” vocalist. “I’ve sat in nearly every single corner of Nissan Stadium, dreaming of being on that stage. I was so glad to be up there, and to share the moment with Cole [Swindell].”
For Swindell, he has a veteran familiarity with playing on CMA Fest’s biggest stage. However, given the level of acclaim his duet with Wilson has achieved, he called the experience “overwhelming.”
“It’s game time. And it’s a TV performance, so that’s a big deal. You don’t want to forget a lyric; you also want to do the song justice in front of so many people. It’s always special to perform live, but in front of what, 60,000 people? In that circumstance? Yeah. It’s huge.”
Self-proclaimed country music “superfan” Kelsea Ballerini passionately recalls saving to buy tickets to travel to Music City from her Knoxville hometown for CMA Fest. The yearly event directly influenced her desire to achieve stardom in the genre.
“I’d watch people perform and take notes. [Plus, remembering] that feeling of literally sitting in the seats equipped me for success on that stage.”
CMA CEO Sarah Trahern excitedly addresses the idea that fans will get to watch acts like Ballerini, Rhett, Swindell and Wilson have incredible experiences on CMA Fest’s ultimate stage.
“Whether it was a few years ago or a few decades ago, it’s exciting to watch those journeys to the big stage,” she says. “Fostering that fan/artist connection is what Fest is known for. That’s a very enriching part of this gig.”
2022 marks the 19th consecutive year CMA has produced a summer concert TV special. “We are excited to once again collaborate with our longtime partners at CMA for this summer’s must-see music event, ‘CMA Fest,'” says Rob Mills, executive vice president of unscripted and alternative entertainment, Walt Disney Television. “Music fans everywhere can expect an unforgettable night featuring the biggest names in Country Music.”