Once Jimmie Allen and Lindsay Ell fill the morning of June 9 with music at the Riverfront Stage in Nashville, a three-year wait will be over with the return of CMA Fest.
The four-day country music extravaganza, which brings tens of thousands annually to Music City, was — like the rest of the globe — hampered the last two years by a pandemic that cost over 1 million Americans their lives, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The festival’s six official outdoor stages, an exhibit hall for autograph hounds with two more stages and a bevy of adjunct events surrounding Nashville’s active honky-tonk tourist district will quench the sonic thirst of the genre’s most ardent followers. The offerings include sets by such superstars as Luke Combs, Jason Aldean, Kane Brown and Carrie Underwood while also providing exposure to acts fans may be unfamiliar with, including Shy Carter, Hannah Ellis, Reyna Roberts and Kassi Ashton.
“The fact that that’s still happening and we’re getting to see the fans, we’re getting to plot shows, I’m just so grateful for that,” Ell says. “I’m going to be right there playing and eager to see my fans.”
Visitors who’ve attended in the past will see some new wrinkles. A platform in the center of Nissan Stadium will offer massive exposure for Lily Rose, Frank Ray, Kat & Alex and Dylan Scott. The main stage is likely to feature more surprise collaborations than before, and fans who want to upgrade can experience special amenities — including air-conditioned restrooms and VIP seating — with the Riverside Retreat package at the Riverfront Stage.
This will also be the first CMA Fest since the opening of 5th + Broadway, a downtown center with a food court, plus a sky deck that promises performances from Sawyer Brown, Brett Eldredge and Josh Turner. The building also houses the National Museum of African-American Music, which will offer several screenings of For Love & Country, a documentary about the long-overlooked Black roots in the genre.
Music industry workers will experience a few necessary changes, too. The nightly stadium press conferences, which gave a bundle of media useful access to most of the artists performing on the big stage, has been eliminated for the 49th gathering, though a makeshift press pool will allow for some exchange. And more elaborate credentialing will require some executives to organize a series of laminates.
“The main reason that things changed at the stadium was due to COVID-19 protocol,” says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. “I imagine that as we look at the 50th, whether it’s a press conference or something else bigger and better to replace it, it will come back for next year. But unlike other festivals or regular shows that are going on around the country, because we are also a network TV show, we have to at the stadium abide by COVID-19 television protocols, which are stricter.”
Dierks Bentley and Elle King are in line to host the network special, airing Aug. 3 on ABC.
Meanwhile, the pandemic is not getting significant outward-facing public attention. The festival’s FAQ section includes a long list of prohibited items — including firearms, drones, chairs and, for the first time, Confederate flag imagery — but the only mention of COVID-19 is contained in the CMA’s “Event Policies” section, in which the visitor assumes a variety of risks, including communicable diseases.
“People are living their lives,” Trahern says. “I hope that people will use their own judgment — No. 1, feel comfortable if they want to wear a mask.”
Nashville’s COVID-19 situation is complicated. The state legislature’s Republican super majority, weighted toward less densely populated rural areas, passed a law that prevents Nashville from mandating precautions without state approval. But testing totals are not as accurate as they once were, in part because people who home-test generally do not report results. A Los Angeles music executive recently cut a Music City trip short when two appointments were canceled because of positive tests; at a third appointment, the head of the company announced he had just received a positive result.
“This virus is now endemic, meaning it’s going to be here all the time,” says Metro Nashville Public Health Department medical director Dr. Gill Wright.
Wright, who was hospitalized after contracting COVID-19 in Ecuador last fall, believes the latest surge of omicron variants has subsided in the city, though he’s concerned that the mass of visitors might bring in infected people from other states. He plans to attend CMA Fest, but he intends to limit his indoor activities while using judicious flexibility at outdoor events, where he will still keep social distancing front of mind.
“I will probably wear a mask when I am in big crowds moving through to get into the stadium or get out of the stadium, or if I’m going to go get a drink,” he says. “I may not wear a mask when I’m sitting outside in the stadium itself.”
The coronavirus is not the only sensitive public issue affecting CMA Fest. March for Our Lives will hold a downtown demonstration at 11 a.m. on June 11, beginning just blocks from the festival footprint. Second Avenue, the site of a bombing on Christmas Day 2020, is adjacent to the event’s grounds, providing a reminder of the combustible cultural atmosphere. Preparing for the unthinkable, however, is not new for CMA.
“While I’m concerned about security this year, I’m not any more concerned in 2022 than I was in 2017, ’18 and ’19,” says Trahern. “Making sure that our fans and our artists and tourists are safe is the No. 1 thing when I wake up in the morning.”
The morning of June 9 launches what’s planned as a four-day party that serves as a diversion from the world’s troubles and as a reunion between thousands of country fans and their favorite artists, beginning at a stage on the banks of the Cumberland River.
“There’s always just such an amazing energy with that stage,” Ell says. “It’s one of a kind, like the downtown mecca. I’m so excited to be there.”