Keith Urban Makes Surprise Visit to CMA Fest’s Opening Night

Stadium Concert Includes Brooks & Dunn, Hank Williams Jr., More

It really says something about Keith Urban’s star power that he got the biggest screams at Thursday night’s (June 8) concert at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville — and he didn’t even sing.

Several songs into Brooks & Dunn’s set, Ronnie Dunn invited an unadvertised Urban to join them on guitar for “Believe,” but when Urban didn’t immediately walk out, it was easy to think that Dunn was just teasing, especially when he ad-libbed that he wasn’t sure if Urban was even around. But indeed, he was, and Urban’s modest grin and casual wave set off thousands of flash bulbs and shrieks when he finally did stroll on stage.

Even Dunn seemed astounded at the response, flubbing a few lines in the song but still nailing it vocally. It probably would have made more sense for Brooks & Dunn to headline the show, especially since their 16-year-career is still going gangbusters and they sound as strong as ever. Even without all the bells and whistles associated with their tour — everybody just walks out on stage and sings at the CMA Music Festival — the duo provided the most bang for the buck in a night filled with big names.

Still, it’s hard to complain when Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd are in the house.

Williams brought the crowd to its feet with his theme from Monday Night Football, then rolled into “That’s How They Do It in Dixie” (his new single) and “Born to Boogie.” Then he took an unusual solo turn, grabbing his acoustic guitar to bang out “Blues Man,” “A Country Boy Can Survive,” the silly and clever “The World Don’t Revolve Around Kenny Chesney” and, of course, “Family Tradition.” And, by the way, he’d still like you to know that if you don’t like Kid Rock or Patsy Cline or Fats Domino or Hank Williams, then you can kiss his family’s ass.

Meanwhile, Skynyrd capped off a “Free Bird”-free evening with other classics like “Gimme Three Steps” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” with fireworks exploding above the stadium just before midnight.

By then, the music had been steadily flowing for four hours. Because everybody has a short set, you pretty much get the hits before moving on to the next act. Little Big Town and Pat Green stayed long enough for a hit or two, but Blake Shelton found enough time to cover the Bellamy Brothers’ “Redneck Girl” as well as his own string of hits — from “Nobody but Me,” “Goodbye Time” and “Some Beach” to “Austin” and “Ol’ Red.” You can tell he’s been playing the big venues with Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts because he looks totally at ease in a football stadium, which isn’t always easy, even for veteran headliners.

In the second hour, Sara Evans pranced around the stage with that beaming smile of hers, singing “Born to Fly,” “Suds in the Bucket,” her new single “Coalmine” (though it was hard to hear the lyrics) and “I Could Not Ask for More.” You can tell she loves the spotlight by the way she easily interacts with the audience, though she did momentarily turn everyone’s attention to a couple from Buffalo, N.Y., when the young man proposed marriage. Unfortunately, he was giggling all the way through it, prompting Evans to scold him, “Don’t laugh!” Anyway, the young woman said yes, and Evans returned to center stage to sign off with “Real Fine Place.”

Two of country’s most reliable hit-makers filled the gap between Evans and Brooks & Dunn. Dierks Bentley dropped by unannounced — instantly delighting several screaming young adults behind me — for a five-song set, including a new song, “Every Mile a Memory.” Gary Allan followed that with a string of familiar favorites, such as “Best I Ever Had” and “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful.” That last title is certainly true, but enjoying four hours of high-caliber country music under clear Nashville skies is always a very attractive option.