How to Experience the CMA Fest Like a Country Music Star

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How to Experience the CMA Fest Like a Country Music Star
Nashville kicks up its cowboy-booted heels during one of the biggest country music events of the year. Over the course of the four-day Country Music Awards (CMA) festival, the city will be overrun with more than 400 artists, from up-and-coming acts playing in the smallest honky-tonks to the legends headlining Nissan Stadium. And it’s not just the artists flooding into the city—fans from all over the world will be landing in Nashville. For artist Courtney Cole, "There is nothing more rewarding than being able to meet and hug all of the sweet people the have been supporting and encouraging [us] over the last couple of years.”

If you’re looking to rub elbows with your favorite country stars, it’s easier than you may think. We talked to some artists and got their favorite CMA Fest spots, from star-studded bars to musician-approved stages, where you might just run into one of your country music idols.
By Maggie Fuller, AFAR Staff
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    The Bluebird Cafe
    4104 Hillsboro Pike

    This small, unassuming venue may feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the festival, but The Bluebird Cafe is a Nashville staple. The intimate spot prides itself on highlighting what it calls the “heroes behind the hits,” or the songwriters behind some of country music’s biggest stars. Your favorite moment of the whole weekend just might be taking a break from the festival to catch a few of the talented writers playing the stadium hits they wrote.

    Photo by CHeitz/Flickr
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    Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge
    422 Broadway

    Musicians flock to Nashville to get discovered. One place to snag that chance is Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge. The story goes that that Willie Nelson was hired for his first song-writing gig after singing at Tootsies, and since then, this slice of iconic Nashville has become the go-to spot for artists at every stage of their career.

    Hang out, grab a beer on the rooftop bar, and watch local musicians swap a few songs. After more than 50 years, Tootsie’s, like a good bourbon, only gets better with age.
    Photo by Thomas Hawk/Flickr
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    The Stage
    412 Broadway 

    Even if you’ve only been to Nashville for a night, you’ve probably been to The Stage. From the street it may look like so many of the other neon bars on Broadway’s music strip, but you never know who will show up to play at this bar in particular. While it hasn’t been around for as long as many of Nashville’s favorites, The Stage is already a star favorite for everyone from Toby Keith to Rascal Flatts.

    The bar has a full schedule of shows lined up for the CMAs, including Cole Swindell, who kicked off his career at the CMAs two years ago with a performance that ultimately led to a record deal. “There’s nothing like being around so many passionate country fans every year!”

    Photo by Thomas Hawk/Flickr
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    The Riverfront Stage
    Of all the official CMA Fest stages, the Riverfront is an artist favorite. Set against a backdrop of the meandering river, festival-goers spend hours relaxing on a grassy lawn and listening to new music. Yes, it can get hot, but some of singer/songwriter Jerrod Niemann’s favorite memories of CMA fest are playing for the fans who “show their passion for country music by sitting in the hot sun and loving every note of the music.”

    It’s also the best stage to see up-and-coming acts which, for musician Tyler Filmore, is the best part: “It’s amazing watching artists take that stage, knowing that next year they might be playing just across the river at the stadium—it’s very inspiring.”

    Photo by Denise Mattox/Flickr
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    The Country Music Hall of Fame
    222 5th Ave. S

    For Sarahbeth Taite, whose debut EP dropped in January, one of the best parts of the CMA Fest is seeing “so many people experiencing Nashville for the first time. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s totally free!” That’s right, most of the shows (the stadium concerts excluded) are free. 

    While you’re in Nashville and celebrating country music, take time to visit some of Music City’s main attractions. Pay homage at the Country Music Hall of Fame, a music nerd’s dream that, from the air, looks like a giant bass clef, or take a quiet walk across the Pedestrian Bridge for notable views of Nashville.
    Photo by I Bird 2/Flickr
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    The Palm
    140 5th Ave. S

    The Palm is a Nashville tradition—not just because it boasts the delicious fare and elegant decor of a classic steakhouse, but also because the walls are decorated with all sorts of caricatures, painted over the decades by artists who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay for their dinners.

    For Shannon Haley and Ryan Michaels of Haley & Michaels, it become a CMA tradition for the duo to dine there after their first appearance at the festival. “It was 95+ degrees outside and we both almost passed out in the middle of the set—which, of course, was totally worth it,” says Haley. “After, we headed to The Palm and ever since, it’s been our favorite place to hang out during CMA Fest. It’s downtown near all the fun and has become a regular landing spot to meet up with our closest out-of-town friends.”

    Courtesy of The Palm
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    The Hard Rock Stage
    100 Broadway 

    Another artist favorite, the Hard Rock Stage (officially, the Gildan Broadway Stage at the Hard Rock) is closer to the action than the Riverfront stage, but not quite as hectic as the festival’s epicenter.

    The stage, which is inside the Hard Rock Cafe, is a great spot to see fan favorites and artists making their CMA debuts, such as Natalie Stovall, who made her festival debut at the Hard Rock last year. “I grew up going to CMA Fest as a kid and a fan, so my very first (official) CMA Festival performance at the Hard Rock stage was an incredibly big moment for me.”

    Photo by Michael Rivera/Wikimedia Commons
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    Losers Bar & Grill
    1911 Division St.

    Much like The Stage, Losers Bar is a famous favorite of Nashville country musicians that has become popular with tourists. But while it might be more crowded than ever, Losers is still a spot for local musicians to collaborate, as well as one of the few bars in the city that plays country deep cuts. True Nashville enthusiasts will be able to pick out some of the lesser-known classics from the vast catalogue of country music on rotation, like Lee Roy Parnell or Buck Owens. Losers is also another choice spot for surprise shows during CMA Fest.

    Courtesy of Losers Bar & Grill
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    Nissan Stadium
    Finally, Nissan Stadium is one of the most electric spots during CMA Fest. Even for the artists, it’s the festival’s main thrill.

    Scotty McCreery will never forget his first time walking onto the stadium’s stage during the CMA Fest. “I had just won ’American Idol’ a few weeks earlier and it had been a crazy, fun week. But the best moment was when I walked on stage in the stadium to perform ’Your Man’ with Josh Turner. I think the stadium holds 70,000-80,000 people, but it felt like there were a million folks there. The fans were screaming and their hands were waving in the air while I was on stage with one of my musical heroes. You could hear the crowd singing along. It was awesome!”

    Photo by Tabitha Kaylee Hawk/Flickr
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    What’s Next . . .
    Getting excited about CMA Fest? Check out our Spotify playlist below to listen to some of our favorite artists performing this year. 

    >>Up Next: Playing by Heart

    Photo by McNair Evans