Every June, right at the point where spring begins to slide into summer, thousands descend upon downtown Nashville for CMA Fest, a unique collision of country music and fan culture. Once known as Fan Fair, the festival relocated from the Nashville Fairgrounds to the Broadway entertainment district in 2001 and has served as the unofficial kick-off for tourist season in Music City ever since.
Only this year, it couldn’t happen. On March 31st, more than two full months ahead of the festival’s scheduled date, the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of CMA Fest for the first time in its nearly 50-year history.
Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern was disappointed about having to cancel the four-day event, but she stresses the size and scope of the festival — not to mention the uncertain outlook for the pandemic — made it impossible to reschedule 2020’s Fest for a later date. Other summer tentpole festivals like Bonnaroo also made the decision to cancel.
“It really is a Nashville community event,” Trahern says of CMA Fest. “So we wanted to make sure we were being responsible when we made the decision.”
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘Oh shit’ and ‘No way,’” says singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde, who has performed on more than one CMA Fest stage in recent years. “A certain amount of disbelief comes with something as big and cherished by so many being canceled. Immediately following those thoughts was ‘It’s really for the best.’ If we want to get back on the road, we are going to have to make some hard calls. Safety first.”
In an attempt to pick up the pieces and maintain some type of CMA Fest presence in 2020, the Country Music Association is turning to its longtime partner ABC and airing three hours of highlights from past festivals. CMA Best of Fest premieres Monday night at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
Hosted by Luke Bryan, the supersized clip show is a roundup of performances from the festival’s Nissan Stadium main stage over the last 17 years, including Maren Morris, Garth Brooks, Eric Church and Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale, Keith Urban with Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, and Carrie Underwood with Joan Jett. All of the performances except one — a recently filmed collaboration between Bryan and Darius Rucker on John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” — previously aired as part of a yearly ABC television special covering CMA Fest.
Robert Deaton, who produces CMA Fest and the annual ABC special, was in Los Angeles when rumors began swirling that CMA Fest may not happen this year. Initially, he dismissed it as just talk.
“I didn’t know what was coming our way,” Deaton says. “So when it really started going, ‘Hey, there’s a possibility it might be canceled,’ I’m just going ‘Surely not.’ And then when it did get canceled, it really didn’t hit me until later on. And it was awful.”
Over the course of three days, Deaton combed through years of past CMA Fest specials and selected some of his favorite moments. It gave him a new appreciation for what a massive undertaking CMA Fest actually is. “It really showed us how incredible this event is,” he says, “and how much of a miracle it is that we pull it off every year.”
TJ Osborne, singer for the duo Brothers Osborne, appears in the Best of Fest special performing “Hard Working Man” with Brooks & Dunn. He recalls that first time stepping onstage at Nissan Stadium as a head rush.
“Walking to stage was like hearing the clink of a roller coaster track taking you higher and higher, then breaking loose as you take the stage and come barreling down into corkscrew turns at a speed your brain can’t comprehend,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Once the ride is finished you want to run as fast as humanly possible to get back in line.”
For developing and lesser-known artists who don’t get the opportunity to play the big stage at Nissan Stadium, CMA Fest provides crucial audience-building opportunities on its myriad smaller — and free admission — stages.
“I absolutely love CMA fest. I’d brave any kind of heat to play to fans that are as amazing as the country music fans are,” McBryde says.
Singer-songwriter Kalie Shorr says the interactions with fans at CMA Fest have a way of reminding her what matters most about being in the music industry. “Whenever I get tired of the politics of country — i.e., the ongoing issue of women being represented fairly — CMA Fest restores my faith in it by seeing the people that I make music for,” she says.
The loss of facetime between artists and fans represents the personal toll of a year without CMA Fest, but the city of Nashville faces an economic hit. Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation CEO Butch Spyridon says the festival is a “barometer” for how the summer tourism season will go in Nashville. “It is its own country music pilgrimage,” he says. “I call it a four-day festival that takes six days to consume.”
It’s also a massive injection of revenue in Nashville, accounting for $60 million in visitor spending annually. “Not economic impact, no multipliers, just cash left in Davidson County,” Spyridon says of the figure.
Nashville is struggling to regain some of that ground. The city remains stuck at Phase 2 of its Roadmap for Reopening plan after a June surge in COVID-19 cases, yet many of the district’s entertainment complexes are operational, sometimes in violation of local mask and social-distancing ordinances. Last month, the Kid Rock-branded honky-tonk received a citation for serving patrons at its bar that could result in the temporary suspension of its beer permit.
With CMA Fest typically causing human gridlock in the days leading up to and during the event, the CMA made the tough call not to add to the mess. But it came at a cost to the festival’s legacy: this was to be the CMA’s 49th year holding the event since it began as Fan Fair. A planned golden anniversary celebration is now delayed by a year.
“You hate to be the person in my chair who has that little asterisk,” Trahern says. “We were starting to plan our 50th anniversary celebration for next year. So now we’ll have our 50th anniversary in 2022. On the upside, it gives us a little more time to make it amazing.
For now, the Best of Fest TV special aims to fill a void, and keep ticket-holding fans interested and engaged until CMA Fest returns in 2021 — fans who purchased four-day passes for 2020 can use them next year, and 75 percent of 2020 ticket holders have already re-upped.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be as grateful to just stand there in the stadium,” Trahern says. “At some point every night I make it a point to go up to the third level and just walk around and experience it like I did as a fan. All of us will have an even bigger appreciation how lucky we are that this is what we get to do for a living.”
CMA Fest 2021 is set for June 10th through 13th.