CMA Fest 2018: Backstage With Keith Urban, Chris Stapleton, Dustin Lynch, Jon Pardi & Lee Ann Womack

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Keith Urban performs onstage during the 2018 CMA Music festival at Nissan Stadium on June 9, 2018 in Nashville.

Heavy hitters such as Keith Urban and Chris Stapleton took the stage at Nissan Stadium for Night 3 of CMA Fest on Saturday (June 9). They were joined by Lee Ann Womack, Dustin Lynch, Jon Pardi, Kelsea Ballerini and a surprise appearance by Sam Hunt for one song.

Before performing, several of the artists chatted with Billboard about what makes CMA Fest special, their new albums and, in Womack’s case, a little life wisdom. 

Keith Urban loves taking the stage at Nissan Stadium, he said an hour before his set. “I always look forward to it,” he said of CMA Fest. “It’s one of the rare times that you know that passionate country artists have come from not just all over America, but all over the world, so they’re all here to have a great time. I can’t think of any other festival anywhere that brings so many people from all over the world to one ginormous stadium for one moment like that. For us as a performer, it’s magical.”

Backstage, he took a moment to watch Kelsea Ballerini, his opening act for his upcoming North American tour, command the stage, but joked, “She’s fighting off the moths,” recalling his own battles with bugs and moths flying in his mouth while singing. “That’s par for the course playing outside in the summer,” he said. His wife, Nicole Kidman, and two daughters were with him, but he predicted his kids would be asleep long before he took the stage at 11:30 p.m. “It’s too late for them,” he said, adding, “It may be too late for Nicole.” 

Chris Stapleton was set to perform Saturday night shortly after Lee Ann Womack. “[She] was the first person to ever take me anywhere on the road and put me on a stage as an opener,” he recalled. He also spoke fondly of the sense of community at Nissan Stadium: “It’s a cool thing to be with friends and heroes and play music and have a bunch of people show up. What’s more magic than that? Nothing.”

Stapleton played without his wife and bandmate, Morgane Stapleton, who is on maternity leave after giving birth to their twin boys in April. Stapleton is resolutely tight-lipped when it comes to revealing much about his children and he explained why.

“I’m going to clear this up right now,”he said. “I  signed up for this, my children did not, and so in that respect, I keep my children out of it. They’re children and they deserve the chance to be children. For me, I’m  very protective of that. My wife comes out and she’s an adult and she chooses to be in the public eye; my children do not. Access to that is kind of off limits.” 

Though Dustin Lynch had already had four No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart before “Small Town Boy” summited last year, that song’s success “catapulted my career to another level,” Lynch said.

"I thought I was busy ’til that happened," he continued. "It has changed all of our lives. It brought  bigger crowds and bigger energy. Everybody’s more excited to come to the shows and they’re waiting, anticipating that moment and I’m anticipating that moment too. I can just feel the anticipation they’re having fun, but it’s like ‘When’s it coming? When’s it coming’ and when we get there, it’s a great feeling."

For his first full set on the Nissan Stadium stage, Lynch was excited about playing current single, “Good Girl,” a song that’s not on his latest album, Current Mood,  and, Lynch says, may not be on his next project. “‘Good Girl’ came out of nowhere,” he said. “I don’t know if it will live by itself. It just happened so spontaneously and we put it out. It felt like the world needed  to hear it this summer.”

As streaming becomes more dominant, Lynch hopes to continue to release songs not necessarily tied to an album. “I feel like a pretty normal music consumer. I like to eat crumbs. It’s hard for me to digest 12 to 15 songs from one artist. I like to have a couple and then go over here and listen to this person. In a perfect world that would be a cool way to do it.” 

Jon Pardi is opening for Luke Bryan on his stadium tour and he said to not take it personally if he doesn’t get quite as up close and personal as the superstar does by bending down to high five the audience.

“You always see Luke out there dancing and getting up with the crowd,” he said. “I try not to get the selfies and stuff like that because he’s going to come out and do that, and it’s a long way down for me -- I’m super tall. It’s like, ‘Let me get down there, my jeans are so tight!’” he said, adopting a groaning tone. “I’m going to sit down here with you and sing the rest of the song.”

Pardi is coming off a pair of No. 1s on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart and CMA Award and ACM Award wins over the past year, but he said the accolades don’t allow him to rest on his laurels as he prepares his next album. “That doesn’t faze the way I write music or what I’m going to sing,” he said. “It’s helped out maybe in some TV slots. As far as music, it’s the same program: make the best record you can at that time in your career. Awards don’t mean anything other than a high five and keep going, we like what you’re doing. It’s like a trophy from that year, but you need to have something new and awesome to get the next year’s trophy. You can’t be holding on to those things, you have to get the next trophy.”

Lee Ann Womack knows this information will surprise people, but the traditional country singer has a goal in mind.  “I know this is going to sound really crazy, but I wouldn’t mind working with a rap artist and doing something like that,” she said. “I wouldn’t rap -- I don’t want to -- but something like that might be fun.”

She doesn’t have a specific rapper in mind, but on the other end of the spectrum, she’d also love to record some western swing or a bluegrass album: “I’d love to do something with [Asleep at the Wheel’s] Ray Benson."

Since 2014, Womack has had a career resurgence as not only a country artist, but as an Americana artist, and she said she’s enjoying her career in a way that she never has before. Though she recently sent the following missive to her 27-year old daughter, Warner Music Nashville artist Aubrie Sellers, she wishes she’d taken the same advice to heart. 

“I sent Aubrie something that I saw on social media yesterday, a little clip from this woman who was talking about enjoying the journey,” she said. “When you’re Aubrie’s age, you want everything to happen, and sometimes I think about myself when I was her age. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t enjoying the journey. I look back and think, ‘That was the best part of the whole thing.’ You’re going to get to the peak, you’re going to get to where you want to be, and it’s going to last a minute -- but the journey lasts a lifetime.”

Festivals 2018