For the thousands of concertgoers hustling across the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge in order to make it to Nashville's LP Field for the first night of the CMA Music Festival, many may have wondered if they had arrived at the right place.
Photo Credit: Ed Rode
A Beastie Boys' hip-hop tune, "Make Some Noise," piped through the stadium's thunderous speakers Thursday evening (June 9).
Met with roaring applause, Zac Brown appeared larger than life in the three enormous LCD screens hanging above the elaborate stage. Ready to kick off the night's country-infused entertainment, he waited patiently for the music to soften.
"It's gonna be a good night," he shouted as soon as the song faded away.
And he was right. The Zac Brown Band, who brought along several guests, performed a vigorous 12-song set, including collaborations with Alan Jackson, Randy Travis and singer-songwriters Amos Lee and Sonia Leigh.
Until just past midnight, fans were showered with music from Jason Aldean (with special guest Kelly Clarkson), Easton Corbin, Sara Evans and Brad Paisley featuring surprise guests, Alabama.
Ricky Skaggs and season nine American Idol finalist Casey James provided two-song acoustic arrangements during a few of the pesky (yet necessary) set changes.
With feet firmly planted for the next four hours of music, fans sang along to hit-after-hit starting off with the Zac Brown Band's summertime favorite, "Toes." Even without water and sand, most fans did have a beverage in hand as many clinked their plastic bottles together in celebration during the song.
A high-definition video monitor changed background themes according to the song's subject matter, helping frame the mood for each tune.
Flames appeared behind the band as they ignited the red-hot cover of Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" interspersed with live shots of Brown's devilish grins accompanied by his fast fingers on his guitar.
Technically, Music City doesn't border any major bodies of water, but it was easy to feel beach-side with the coastal video escapes during the group's most recent single, "Knee Deep." Churning out the hits, the band delighted fans with "Free," "Ain't No Hurry," "Keep Me in Mind" and their first No. 1 single, "Chicken Fried."
Inviting numerous artists onstage, Brown didn't need to offer an introduction in welcoming Jackson. In fact, the crowd howled with delight just at the sight of the tall, handsome star sauntering to the stage. Together they performed their hit collaboration, "As She's Walking Away."
For Travis, Brown noted that early in his own career, he relied heavily on the singer's tunes to generate tip money at clubs and bars.
Delivering a collaboration from Travis' newly released duets album, they performed the classic love song, "Forever and Ever, Amen."
In addition to these iconic guests, Brown also introduced two new faces on his own Southern Ground record label -- Lee for "Colder Weather" and Leigh for her self-penned, aggressive tune, "My Name Is Money."
"The best fans in the world are right here," Brown yelled. "Country music fans!"
Rising star Easton Corbin performed his chart-topping hits, "A Little More Country Than That" and "Roll With It," along with other music from his debut, self-titled album including "The Way Love Looks," "That'll Make You Want to Drink" and "Lovin' You Is Fun."
"I'm so very excited to be here tonight," said the next performer, Sara Evans. "It's been a few years since I've performed at CMA Fest."
Indeed, her last time taking the main stage was back in 2007. Met with a warm reception, she barreled through upbeat, fan favorites "Born to Fly" and "As If" before slowing it down with her current No. 1 smash, "A Little Bit Stronger." She described the song as "an anthem about going through something hard in your life."
Revealing her upcoming single, a Rod Stewart cover, she performed "My Heart Can't Tell You No" before ending her set with the bubbly and optimistic "A Real Fine Place to Start."
Unfortunately for fans and the night's next heavy-hitting performer, Jason Aldean, the video monitors only worked intermittently throughout his vigorous, eight-song set.
But that didn't seem to deter him or the crowd. In fact, he was still able to provide one of the night's biggest highlights -- a duet with powerhouse singer Kelly Clarkson for their recent country pop crossover smash, "Don't You Wanna Stay."
Despite the fact that most of his performance could only be seen well by those sitting closest to the stage, he still managed to raise the night's momentum from a good time to full-throttle party.
In fact, from afar, his signature cowboy hat never quit moving.
Aldean thrilled the masses with celebratory anthems "Crazytown," "My Kinda Party," "Johnny Cash," "Big Green Tractor" and "Dirt Road Anthem."
"I don't give a damn what anybody thinks," he boasted. "That's my kinda country right there."
Unapologetically, he burst into an intense heavy metal twist of his 2005 debut single, "Hicktown," and followed it with "She's Country."
To conclude the evening, reigning CMA entertainer of the year Brad Paisley proved his title with engaging tunes such as "Water," "American Saturday Night" and "Mud on the Tires."
Luckily, the large screens were once again up and running to display the montage of musical icons like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and John Denver during "This Is Country Music."
Thanking the "beautiful faces" of the fans who continue to come back to Music City year after year for CMA Music Festival he said, "You guys are sweaty. And you smell like beer," the perfect lead-in to his drinking ditty, "Alcohol."
Earlier in the night, fans were encouraged to learn dance moves to Paisley's upcoming summertime single, "Workin' on a Tan." The crowd, who followed along with the bikini-clad beach babe instructor, had collectively practiced on numerous occasions during the evening. They were told to surprise Paisley with the boogie when it came time for the song.
"What the hell was that?" the singer asked following the song. "You guys are something else," he laughed.
Slowing down the celebration for the evening's lovebirds, he played "She's Everything."
"Here's your love song if you want to make out with somebody," he smiled. Proving good listeners, much of the crowd followed suit and grabbed their sweetie.
To conclude the evening, Paisley pleased the crowd with his highly-anticipated "Old Alabama" and delivered even more by welcoming the surprise guests of the evening -- Alabama.
As lead vocalist Randy Owen delivered his line, "Play some back-home, come-on music," the stadium roared with excitement as cameras flashed around the stadium. They ended the night with their No. 1 hit from 1980, "Tennessee River."
Fans continued to cheer as Alabama exited the stage and Paisley made one final exclamation.
"That is country music right there!"
See photos from Thursday night's concert.