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Zac Brown Band, Brad Paisley + More Kick Off CMA Music Fest With Night Full of Surprises

Zac Brown Band, Jason Aldean, Easton Corbin, Sara Evans and Brad Paisley were among the artists who welcomed fans to CMA Music Fest 2011 with a memorable show Thursday night at Nashville’s LP Field. Daytime temperatures soared into the upper 90s in Music City, but as night fell over the stadium, a gentle breeze wafted through the crowd and music filled the air.

Kicking it off, the Isaacs performed a stunningly beautiful rendition of the national anthem and then treated the audience to a rousing performance of their hit ‘Walk On.’ One of the most popular groups in Southern gospel music, the Isaacs are siblings Ben, Becky and Sonya and their mother Lily. Sonya has also recorded solo as a country artist. You can hear her celestial voice singing harmony on Brad’s new album, on the track ‘A Man Don’t Have to Die.’

Zac Brown Band delivered a highly entertaining set that got underway with such fan favorites as ‘Toes,’ ‘Free’ and a cover Charlie Daniels‘ ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia.’ Next up, Zac introduced Amos Lee, proclaiming him “one of his favorite voices” and touting Amos’ new album, ‘Mission Bell.’ Amos joined the band on a moving version of ‘Colder Weather.’ ZBB followed with ‘Knee Deep’ before bringing out Sonia Lee.

As promised, Zac Brown Band’s set featured several guest artists, and the crowd went wild when Randy Travis joined him on stage. They delivered a spirited version of ‘Forever and Ever, Amen,’ which they recorded for Randy’s new album, ‘Anniversary Celebration.’ Alan Jackson joined Zac and the band for their hit collaboration, ‘Walking Away.’ Thousands of cameras could be seen flashing as fans all over the stadium snapped photos. After thanking the military for their service to our country and serving up ‘America the Beautiful,’ Zac closed out his lengthy, star-studded set with his breakthrough hit, ‘Chicken Fried.’

Steve Wariner and Bill Anderson served as wonderful hosts for the evening. This year marks the 40th anniversary of country music’s annual artist-fan love fest, originally known as Fan Fair before the name changed to CMA Music Fest in 2001, when the event moved from the Tennessee State Fairgrounds to downtown Nashville. Whisperin’ Bill was at the very first Fan Fair back in 1972.

Before introducing the next performer, Steve and Bill asked fans to prepare a little surprise for Brad when he came out. They played a video of a girl dancing to ‘Working on a Tan’ from Brad’s new album, ‘This Is Country Music.’ She was dancing The Swim, a popular dance in the ’60s that imitates the movements a person would make swimming. Steve and Bill asked fans to surprise Brad by doing that dance when he played ‘Working on a Tan.’ They showed the video a couple times to let fans learn the moves.

Making his first appearance on the LP Field stage, Easton Corbin thrilled fans with a five-song set that included his breakthrough hit, ‘A Little More Country Than That.’ Sara Evans hit the stage next, looking beautiful and delivering a hit-packed set that started off with ‘As If’ and ‘Born to Fly’ before seguing into her recent No. 1 hit, ‘A Little Bit Stronger.’

“My next single comes out June 20. It’s a Rod Stewart song I’ve always wanted to record. I hope y’all love it as much as I do,” she said before launching into ‘My Heart Can’t Tell You No.’ She closed out her set with ‘A Real Fine Place.’

Next, fans welcomed Casey James, a contestant on the ninth season of ‘American Idol.’ He showed promise during a brief two-song acoustic set. When he finished, Bill Anderson praised his moxie, telling the crowd, “It’s hard to come out with all these bands that have been playing and perform by yourself. Let’s give him a hand!”

Next, Jason Aldean stormed the stage, working the crowd into a frenzy playing ‘Crazy Town’ and ‘My Kinda Party’ back to back, before launching into ‘Big Green Tractor.’ He thanked the fans for making the next song a No. 1 hit before performing ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay.’ His duet partner, Kelly Clarkson, joined Jason on stage while the shrieking crowd swayed and sang along. Jason cranked the tempo back up on his latest hit, ‘Dirt Road Anthem,’ and then launched into ‘Hicktown’ before finishing off his blistering set with ‘She’s Country’ as the crowd danced and cheered.

“I got tired just watching him. He worked so hard,” Bill said as he and Steve returned to the stage. “Y’all didn’t come to Nashville to sleep, did you?” Bill asked. “We might be here till five in the morning.”

Next, fans were treated to an acoustic performance by multi Grammy and CMA Award winning veteran Ricky Skaggs who sang ‘Simple Life’ and ‘Can’t Shake Jesus,’ the latter track from his critically acclaimed album, ‘Mosiac.’

As Steve and Bill introduced the evening’s final performer, they recited his lengthy list of accomplishments, including 19 No. 1 hits and his title as reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year. The crowd went crazy as Brad Paisley took the stage, launching into his hit ‘Water’ as a sun-splashed tribute to all things aquatic played out behind him on the giant video screen.

“It’s great to be in front of the greatest fans in all of music. How are you tonight?” he asked the cheering crowd before serving up the title track to his 2009 album ‘American Saturday Night.’ He followed with the title tune from his new album, ‘This Is Country Music,’ which has reigned at the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart since it released two weeks ago.

“God bless the best fans in the whole world,” Brad said. “You guys are sweaty and you smell like beer. Thanks for coming back year after year to the greatest festival in the world.”

He continued to hold the crowd in the palm of his hand with ‘She’s Everything’ and ‘Mud on the Tires’ and then the audience got a chance to show Brad the dance moves they’d been practicing when he launched into the perfect summertime anthem, ‘Working on a Tan.’

The stadium filled with the sound of fans singing along as Brad delivered his hit ‘Alcohol.’ He then launched into ‘Old Alabama,’ and there was an air of anticipation. Would the legendary group show up to perform with Brad at CMA Music Fest? Yes, they did, and it was amazing! It was a wonderful homecoming as Alabama and the fans savored the moment (made possible, of course, by Mr. Paisley). Alabama closed the night with their classic ‘Tennessee River,’ with lead vocalist Randy Owen sounding better than ever.

Brad, Alabama, Sheryl Crow, Darius Rucker, Sara Evans and many others are slated to perform in Birmingham June 14 at the Bama Rising concert to benefit Alabama tornado recovery. The event is sold out, but to learn how you can donate to this worthy cause visit www.bamarising.org.

It was 12:16AM as Brad, his ace band, the Drama Kings, and Alabama exited the stage. All in all, it was a great night that showcased some of country’s rising talents, as well as celebrating its legends. CMA Music Fest 2011′s stadium series could not have had a better start.

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