"No other genre of music has a party like this," proclaimed Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts, the surprise performers during Thursday night's CMA Music Festival show at Nashville's LP Field. "This is our way of saying 'thank you.' Without you, we wouldn't have jobs."

The Flatts boys weren't alone in thanking fans for their support during the first of four big stadium shows at the annual fan-friendly event. "You are the reason I get to sing on this stage tonight and I love you so much for that," gushed Taylor Swift, who rocked her biggest hits in the steamy Music City heat.

'American Idol' alum Phil Stacey helped get the show underway by delivering an impressive performance of the National Anthem, which was followed by four jets roaring over the stadium. Fellow newcomers Luke Bryan and Jennifer Hanson both delivered special acoustic sets. Hanson was accompanied by her husband, hit songwriter Mark Nesler. She introduced a brand-new song, 'Love Will Find a Way Around,' and also played the Wreckers' big hit, 'Leave the Pieces,' which she co-wrote.

Montgomery Gentry were up next and turned in a rousing set, punctuated by hits such as 'Something to be Proud Of' and their fast-rising new single 'Back When I Knew It All,' the title track of the new album which hits the streets next Tuesday. By the time the duo concluded their set with 'Gone,' the sun was nearly down and a gentle breeze wafted through the stadium, providing a respite from the sweltering heat that had plagued Music Fest attendees during the daytime activities.

Though GAC's Storme Warren was the official host for the evening, he had help from Swift, who popped out to introduce her good friends Kellie Pickler and Jewel. Pickler, clad in a slinky yellow tank and blue capri pants, kicked off her lively set with 'Gotta Keep Moving' from her debut CD and followed with 'Things That Never Cross A Man's Mind,' before launching into her new single 'Don't You Know You're Beautiful.' She pranced across the stage closing her set with 'Red High Heels,' a much more self-assured artist than her inaugural Music Fest appearance last year -- a testament to the confidence that comes from logging a busy year on the road.

Following Pickler's performance, Warren surprised the crowd by bringing Jessica Simpson on stage for a few minutes of stage patter. Simpson, whose first country single recently made an impressive bow on the charts, told Warren she hopes to be back for Music Fest next year and "the year after and the year after and the year after."

"I really feel at home with this music," Simpson said of her foray into country, adding that she was supposed to have made a country album six years ago.

"If you think I started young, our next performer started singing at age six," Swift said introducing Jewel. The pop princess turned country newbie sported a long-sleeved, yellow mini-dress with a black belt and black boots. (Yellow seemed to be the dominant wardrobe choice for the night with Jewel, Pickler and even Troy Gentry -- in a vivid yellow T-shirt -- sporting the sunny shade.) Jewel began her set with the rollicking 'Love Me Just Leave Me Alone,' before delivering her current country radio single, 'Stronger Woman' and serving up her next single, 'I Do.' She finished with one of her signature pop tunes, 'You Were Meant for Me,' which had the crowd singing along.

Pickler had the honors of introducing the evening's surprise performance from Rascal Flatts. The trio immediately had the crowd on its feel with 'Me and my Gang,' and the sound was perfect as they segued into 'Fast Cars and Freedom,' followed by 'Everyday' and the infectious 'Bob That Head.'

"I wish I had better news for ya, but the Weather Channel says its gonna be hot until you leave," LeVox told the crowd, who showed no signs of letting the Tennessee heat hamper the intended fun.

Pickler and 'Dancing with the Stars' champ turned country singer Julianne Hough introduced Swift's performance. The 18-year-old multi-platinum artist bounded on stage in a short, shimmering blue dress , launching into 'Our Song.' She introduced her current single, 'Should've Said No,' as one she wrote about "choices," and then wrapped up her set with 'Picture to Burn.'

Sugarland began the evening's final set by appearing in the audience inside what Warren referred to as "snow globes," which really made Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush look like they were trapped in giant hamster exercise balls. Warren admonished the crowd not to drop them as they wheeled through the audience and back to the stage. After pausing for a moment to catch her breath, Nettles launched into the new single 'All I Wanna Do,' then served up their breakout hit 'Baby Girl.' Next up was the bluegrassy number, 'We Run,' followed by their ACM-sweeping hit, 'Stay.' Even in the enormous stadium, Nettles delivered a powerful, vulnerable reading of the hit ballad that made each member of the crowd feel like they were sitting at her feet.

In CMA Music Fest tradition, a fireworks display concluded the festivities as the crowd shuffled toward the exit already buzzing about the next day's activities.