For Brad Paisley, it's the first place he received confirmation that he was going to have a career in country music.
The four-day festival in Nashville was still called Fan Fair back then. He was a brand new artist with a debut single called "Who Needs Pictures" struggling up the charts.
"I sang a new song in front of the grandstand audience called 'He Didn't Have To Be,' that, having never heard it, the entire audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation in the middle of a 100-degree day," he said backstage at LP Field Thursday night before his performance. "I started crying and the head of my record label started crying.That was the moment I thought, 'I think I'm going to be OK. I think this struggle that we're having on my first single will be a distant memory when that one comes out—and it was."
CMA Fest features free concerts and activities downtown during the day where fans can interact with their favorite artists, but the paid, nightly shows at LP Field pack the biggest star power. Artists like Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, Jason Aldean, Zac Brown Band and Luke Bryan helped kick off the festival's first night Thursday.
Bryan can still remember scoring free tickets from a group of girls and tailgating with them in the stadium parking lot, longing to be on stage. He said it was the year Martina McBride's hit "Where Would You Be" was huge, and her performance was a moving experience.
Now he hangs with his friends backstage. On Thursday, he was joking with the members of Lady Antebellum about making babies.
"We don't ever get to see each other. We're out doing our things. They're out doing their things. So whenever we're a part of these big festivals and certainly CMA week, we have a good time hanging with each other, laughing and joking, seeing how everyone is doing," he said.
David Nail's parents drove from Missouri to watch him perform on the big stage. He's had mixed success since moving to Nashville, highlighted by his top 10 hit "Red Light" and last year's No. 1 song, "Let It Rain."
"The last 12 years there have been a lot of ups and downs where they would come over and we would have lunch and we would kind of have that whole conference of, 'Is this something we need to continue pursuing?' They were always hell bent on me not giving up and always believed in me. So it's moments like this where you kind of, as a family, feel like you have a bit of a victory," he said.
CMA's opening night mixed old and new country. Hank Williams Jr. made a surprise appearance during Paisley's closing set, and they performed their new duet, "I'm Gonna Get Drunk and Sing Hank Williams." Glen Campbell also sang his hits. Lambert brought a fresh look to the stage, wearing a tight, black corset top with fringe beading at the shoulders, a mini skirt, and knee high fringe boots. She said she felt like she was "ready for battle."
"The energy out there is crazy. It's like a short, powerful gig," said Lambert. "CMA Music Fest it's a week of basically the artists saying thank you to the fans for giving us a job all year, for buying our records, for coming to our shows, for buying our t-shirts and supporting us. This is the only genre and the only town that actually has a week dedicated to the fans, so it's special. It's unique."
Last year over 65,000 people attended CMA Fest each day. All the artists perform for free, and CMA donates half the proceeds to music education programs. The festival will air as a three-hour TV special on ABC Sept. 17, hosted by Bryan and The Band Perry's Kimberly Perry.
For the latest country music news, follow http://www.twitter.com/AP—Country