CMA Music Festival Amps Up Nighttime Schedule, Adjusts to Stanley Cup Mania

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The Country Music Association has guaranteed for more than a decade that there's plenty to do at night for four days in June on the east side of the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville. This year, the west side will be booming, too.

Some 50,000 or so fans will pack into Nissan Stadium for the nighttime shows during the CMA Music Festival June 8-11 for concerts headlined by Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line and Brad Paisley. But for the first time, the CMA is programming another nighttime outdoor stage, a Cracker Barrel-sponsored lineup at Ascend -Amphitheater with Big & Rich, Sara Evans and Dan + Shay topping the bills June 8-10. And on June 11, there's a chance the National Hockey League will host a Stanley Cup Finals game between the Nashville Predators and the Pittsburgh Penguins just blocks away at the Bridgestone Arena.

The NHL component was an unexpected boon -- one the city is more than happy to welcome -- but it adds an extra wrinkle as the CMA adjusts the structure of the festival. A year ago, the amphitheater, which opened in July 2015, was looked upon as a potential successor to the stage at Riverfront Park as the premiere daytime venue for the event. But that expectation has changed.

"We were fearful at one point we were going to lose the Riverfront, due to some of the plans of Metro Nashville," says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. "Thankfully for now, that's not the case."

That led the CMA to rethink its plans. The amphitheater, with its built-in concessions, restrooms, 2,300 formal seats and air-conditioned backstage areas, is a nicer facility than the Riverfront, which relies strictly on hillside seating, temporary vendors, Port-a-Potties and a makeshift backstage area. But Riverfront's total capacity -- reported by more than one outlet as 7,300 -- seats 500 more bodies than Ascend's total, including lawn seating. Since the artists play for free anyway, their obvious goal is to reach as many ears as possible. Thus, Riverfront remains the daytime kingpin.

"It certainly is the least comfortable stage," allows Trahern. "But it probably is the most rockin' stage."

Riverfront is also closer to the downtown honky-tonks, restaurants and extra vendors that pop up along lower Broadway, which makes it an easier hike during the day. 

The park outside Ascend will still provide some daytime performances. A temporary Budweiser Forever Country Stage will offer mostly heritage acts, including Little Texas, Restless Heart, Terry McBride and Billy Dean.

Meanwhile, with the festival's official attendance exceeding 80,000 a day for several years, roughly 30,000 people are present but unable to get into the stadium for those nightly shows. That created a new potential use for the Ascend stage. "There's a big group of people that we know from our research that are free attendees, and we thought this would be a really great opportunity for them to have something at night to do," says CMA chief marketing officer Damon Whiteside.

Many of the fans who did not make it to the stadium shows in years past hung out in Nashville's booming club scene. But the advent of Ascend allows the CMA to enhance one of its goals by providing artists a chance to further expose their music. That's particularly true for some of the acts in the undercard at Ascend, such as High Valley, Danielle Bradbery and Ryan Kinder.

Ascend can be attended for free, though a $50 VIP option provides 1,500 fans early access to amphitheater seating, plus entry to several other attractions. While the stadium did not sell out as quickly as it has in recent years (about 500 tickets still remained available at Nissan as of June 2), Trahern was confident the new venue was not cannibalizing stadium ticket sales.

The CMA donates at least half of the festival proceeds to music education, and the amphitheater opens up another revenue stream for that cause with Cracker Barrel signing on for a three-year commitment as presenting sponsor of the venue. To enhance its participation, Cracker Barrel is also stationing 644 rocking chairs around the festival campus, and counters will register the number of times each chair gets rocked. Once the collective total hits 15,000 rocks, the restaurant chain will donate $15,000 to the CMA Foundation. (Fans can watch the campaign's progress at

Meanwhile, the Predators' for-profit hockey ascent creates additional drama for this year's CMA Fest. Coincidentally, Trahern was manager of entertainment specials for The Nashville Network (now Spike) when the arena opened in 1996, and she signed the first contract when the TNN/Music City News Awards moved from the Grand Ole Opry House to the arena in 1997. That agreement required the cable network to have a plan for a backup venue if the Predators should advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

"Back then, the first year of a hockey team, it was like, 'Yeah, this is going to happen,' " recalls Trahern. "It's kind of ironic years later it is happening."

Sports teams require a lot of contingency plans -- an NHL spokesperson indicated the league had reserved hotels in Nashville "months in advance" in case they were needed for the post-season -- and CMT's contingencies included moving this year's June 7 awards show to the Music City Center.

While hockey fans and city officials would be happy to see an NHL/CMA convergence every year, it's not likely that the Stanley Cup Finals will return to Nashville on an annual basis. As a result, this week will be a unique one for the city's downtown area. 

"The excitement," says Whiteside, "is going to be turned up to 110."

Whether or not the NHL returns to Nashville in June in the near future, the CMA Fest will certainly be on the schedule. And with shows guaranteed at outdoor venues on both sides of the Cumberland, the festival's nights look to be Ascendant.