It’s been over a month since I returned from CMA Fest in Nashville, and I feel like now that I’ve fully recovered and let it all sink in, I can officially try to accurately describe in detail just how incredible of an experience it really was. Of course, it’s going to be impossible to give you a full, in-depth review in just one article. So, consider this part one of my two-part CMA Fest review.

I feel like the best (and most fun) way to introduce you to just a fraction of what CMA Fest has to offer is to break everything down into lists. Below are what I believe are the most important, the most entertaining, and the most interesting aspects of CMA Fest in list form. These lists are, I feel, how I can best explain what I experienced and how I can help you prepare for your own experience, should you decide to embark on your own CMA Fest journey. I hope you enjoy reading these lists as much as I enjoyed making them.

The Top 5 New/Up & Coming/Unknown Artists
First and foremost, we all know by now how I feel about discovering new artists and sharing them with others so they can obsess over them as much as I do. CMA Fest is the perfect place to discover new music because it’s literally everywhere you turn. Whether it’s an artist you’ve never heard of before that you’re seeing in one of the many bars on Broadway or it’s an artist you’re already familiar with but finally get to see in action on stage for the first time; whether during an outdoor afternoon performance or in a writer’s round with just an acoustic guitar, I guarantee you will not leave CMA Fest without discovering at least five new artists to freak out about. Below are the new and up & coming artists I was fortunate enough to either meet or see perform or both and blew me away while I was at CMA Fest this year. Trust me when I say these people NEED to be on your radar because you are not going to want to miss being on board when they blow up, and I know they will.

1)Ryan Kinder – Holy crap is this guy talented! And no, I’m not exaggerating when I say that either. Ryan Kinder is this unique blend of country and pop in the realm of Train’s Pat Monahan and Gavin DeGraw, except that he’s from Birmingham, Alabama so he’s got that whole southern charm thing going for him and it’s INCREDIBLE! His song lyrics paint these beautiful pictures like scenes from movies that are so intimate and honest, that by the end you’re left wanting to know how their stories end. Truly, there’s nothing about Ryan Kinder that isn’t impressive. From his remarkable vocals to his sleek guitar skills and dreamy lyrics, this singer-songwriter is the raw and real deal.

2)Brandon Ray – Brandon Ray is like the guy we all knew in high school who everyone wanted to be friends with because he’s so talented, he’s fun to be around, and his boy next door personality just makes him the nicest guy you know, who would probably give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. Brandon’s music is absolutely a direct reflection of the All-American, down to earth person that he is, and emits the same kind of feeling that one might get from listening to John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. The Texas native has two singles out currently, but gave fans at CMA fest a sneak peek at what he’s currently working on, only further proving he’s no doubt an artist you’re going to want to watch out for this year.

3)Lindsay Ell – Obviously I knew before CMA Fest how amazing of an artist Lindsay Ell is, and if you listen to her Worth the Wait EP you’ll understand how I knew this. However, listening to her music through earbuds and watching her perform live are two totally different things. When it comes to talented artists, Lindsay Ell is the whole package and then some. There just isn’t another artist like her, and to see her absolutely kill it with just an acoustic guitar and three songs during a song writer round at CMA Fest was unreal. Lindsay Ell epitomizes what an artist is supposed to be with her endless amount of talent that really knows no bounds.

4)Jordan Davis – If you haven’t heard Jordan Davis’ current single, “Singles You Up,” you are most certainly missing out on one of the catchiest and most feel good songs of the summer. Though his first single definitely has a certain anthemic, Sam Hunt type of sound to it, this Louisiana native is ready to surprise country music fans with what he has planned for his upcoming debut album release. Davis’ sound is bold and refreshing, and mixes the singer’s knack for classic songwriting with his love for big production that’s resulted in a fresh twist on the pop country sound you think you know.

5)Lacy Cavalier – Before CMA Fest I hadn’t yet heard of Lacy Cavalier, but she really impressed me during an all-female songwriter’s round with her sweet but sultry vocals and girl next door persona. If you haven’t heard her music yet, it’s some of the most honest, straight forward and vulnerable you’ll hear today. This Louisiana southern belle doesn’t sugarcoat or beat around the bush lyrically. That makes her all that much more relatable, and that’s what makes her an artist you should know about now.

A favorite past time for most people at concerts and festivals is no doubt the people watching that goes on there. We’ve all found ourselves highly entertained and amused by the ridiculousness of some people while out in public. Now imagine that ridiculousness multiplied because there are literally thousands of people at CMA Fest, so of course there are bound to be at least a few oddballs in that bunch. Based on my experience this year, I feel the need to prepare you for the most common types of people you will no doubt encounter while at CMA Fest. Whether you’re standing in line at Fan Fair to meet an artist or you’re just walking through the crowd trying to make your way to one of many stages for the next performance you want to see, you’re bound to bump into at least one if not all of these types of people.

Top 5 Types of People You’ll Meet
1) The Bragger – This is the person who brags about how many times they’ve met each artist. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for telling people about the artists you’ve been lucky and fortunate enough to meet because those are memorable and exciting moments. However, when The Bragger talks about it, they do so in such a nonchalant way that it actually sounds boring, as if it’s no big deal. In other words, they don’t know why they’re standing in line to meet so & so because they’ve already met them like seven times before and at this point they’re just here because there was no one else doing a meet and greet at this time that they were more interested in. Maybe it’s just me, but I found this to be very annoying when I encountered The Bragger. My advice? Smile and nod politely and try not to make eye contact.

2)The Hoarder – Probably the weirdest person of all that you’ll meet, The Hoarder is typically the creepy old guy who trolls Fan Fair carrying (in his tote bag older than my grandmother) his incredibly large collection of artists’ autographs and only cares about meeting more artists just so he can get their autograph. The Hoarder will almost always be alone (because otherwise it’s not creepy, right?) and they won’t have any of their own photos with the artists for them to sign. No, they only want to meet the artists who have their own photo ready to sign that they’re giving to the fans. I literally watched The Hoarder stand in line to meet new artist Ryan Griffin, only to walk away angry and grumbling to himself about what a waste of time that was when he realized Ryan didn’t have any of his own photos to give to his fans. The Hoarder did not want a photo with Ryan like the rest of us or to chat with him for a couple of minutes. No, he only wanted that signed photograph. Like I said, CREEPY!

3)The Bachelorette Party – It seems destination bachelor and bachelorette parties are becoming increasingly more popular these days, and among those destinations it appears Nashville is one of the most popular. Is Nashville a great place to party? Absolutely! So, it makes sense then to bring your closest pals and gals to Music City to celebrate the end of your life as a bachelor/bachelorette, right? I’m all for that! Hell, if you have friends and/or family who are willing to take the time off of work and spend the money to celebrate with you, then by all means go for it! However, I don’t think CMA Fest is the best time for a bachelor/bachelorette party simply because it’s TOO chaotic and busy. Nonetheless though, you will no doubt see or run into these bachelorette parties while you’re at CMA Fest. I must have seen at least five of them. You can’t miss them because they have matching outfits on, whether all in black dresses and the bride in white, or they’re all wearing the same clever tee or tank, they make themselves hard to miss. They also think they shouldn’t have to wait in line when it comes to the meet and greets with artists at Fan Fair. I watched one party all but demand to be moved to the front of the line and then angrily stomped away while throwing dirty looks. Beware the Bachelorette Party!

4)The Teenage Fangirl – Usually between the ages of 13 and 16, this girl will insist on a regular photo AND a Snapchat selfie with whatever ridiculous filter they choose. They’ve also come prepared with their own autograph book as well. Trust me, when I tell you the Teenage Fangirl means business. She’s also quite harmless, though, and really just funny to watch.

5)The Traveling Hardcore Fan – We all know the diehard fans at every concert. They arrive insanely early in order to get right up front and plant themselves there until their favorite artist comes on. If you think those fans are hardcore, imagine fans who have traveled all across the country following their favorite artists and have collected countless memorabilia and have an overwhelming number of autographs, handmade collages, t-shirts and hats. They’re also on a first name basis with the band and crew, and try to collect their autographs as well. Obsessive? Probably. Impressive? Absolutely!

When you’re at CMA Fest you’re no doubt going to run into situations where you wish you’d brought that one item with you because in that moment they would just make your life so much easier. Trust me when I tell you, you do not want to be unprepared at CMA Fest. The wrong footwear and you won’t make it up and over the bridge from where you parked your car in the Nissan Stadium parking lot to downtown Nashville every day where everything is happening. Forget to charge your phone and you could miss that Twitter or Facebook alert that tells you when Blake Shelton is doing a pop up show at Wildhorse Saloon on Broadway or when Luke Bryan decides to perform the pregame party on the rooftop of Tootsies before the last game of the Stanley Cup Finals. There are just certain items you will absolutely want to have when you’re running around Nashville at CMA Fest, and because I don’t want you to miss out on certain opportunities there, I’ve compiled a list for you.

Top 5 Must Have CMA Fest Necessities
1) Portable Cellphone Charger – It’s so easy to run out of juice before the day is even half way over because you’re so busy posting your photos and bragging about the artists you’ve met, not to mention the Twitter stalking you’re doing so you can catch those pop up shows by those big artists who you’ll probably never get the chance to see in a random bar again. Make sure to invest in a portable charger because you will most definitely need it, and make sure to charge it every night so it always has a full charge. I cannot stress enough the importance of this to you. You and your posse won’t always be together, and if your phone dies right as you’re about to meet an artist, you’re going to want to kick yourself in the behind BIG TIME for missing out.

2) Walking Shoes – Forget the cowgirl/cowboy boots. Ditch those heels. In fact, don’t even bother with the flip flops or cute sandals. You’re going to be on your feet constantly and doing a TON of walking while at CMA Fest. Therefore, you are going to need and want comfortable shoes. So bust out those cute gym shoes or Converse and get ready to do the most walking you will ever do in four days. I saw women in heels and boots and flip flops and for the life of me, I do not know how they managed. I wore converse and my feet were still killing me from all the walking (and some running) I did. Wear the wrong shoes and you risk blistering your feet and then you’ll really be sorry. Is it really worth it?

3)Manila Envelope or Folder – This may seem like a weird item to suggest, but when you start collecting those autograph photos from the artists you’ll meet at Fan Fair, you’re going to wish you had an envelope or folder to keep them from getting bent and ruined.

4)Crossbody Bag or Small Backpack – You may think a clutch, wristlet, or small purse will do, but it’s amazing how much stuff you end up wishing you had with you because you’re gone all day, and how much stuff you end up collecting or buying while you’re at Fan Fair. I definitely recommend going the route of a small backpack. It’s not in your way while you’re hiking from end to the other and it’s big enough to hold your necessities and newly bought goodies. I promise you won’t regret this decision.

5)Plenty of Money – This may seem like a no brainer, but it’s CRAZY how easy it is to spend a small fortune at CMA Fest. In Fan Fair alone there are dozens of booths with t-shirts, clothes, vinyl, CDs, posters, jewelry, etc. and you are going to be tempted to buy, buy, buy. There are certain artists you’ll want to meet and therefore you’ll need to buy CDs or records so they can sign them for you. You’re going to want that cool t-shirt from your favorite website so you don’t have to waste money on shipping. You’re going to get thirsty and hungry and food and drinks are not exactly cheap. Do yourself a favor and remember to bring more than enough money with you. You won’t regret bringing extra, but you will be mad when you don’t have enough.

My four days in Nashville for CMA Fest went by so fast, it all feels like a blur. While we accomplished a lot, there was still so much more to do. Since it’s practically impossible to do everything, though, looking back I’m more than happy with what we were able to do. CMA Fest and Nashville in general, to me, felt like Disney World for music lovers. There was literally live music everywhere you looked. Whether it was coming from one of the many stages within the fest or Fan Fair, or it was coming from inside one of the dozens of bars on Broadway, if live music is your thing then Nashville is the place to be. The opportunity to meet so many amazing artists also blew me away, as well as the fact that everyone was SO nice! I don’t think you could find another other genre where the majority of the artists just have this overwhelming amount of appreciation for their fans that they would take time out of their busy schedules to do something like CMA Fest that allows them to spend time with their fans and really get to know them. My overall experience at CMA Fest and in Nashville was hands down, without doubt incomparable to anything else I’ve done. The number of incredible moments I had while there are countless and unforgettable. It’s hard to narrow them down, but my final list for you is my Top 5 Best Moments of CMA Fest.

Top 5 Best Moments of CMA Fest
1) Meeting Keith Urban – Yes, you read that right. I met Keith frigging Urban! It’s ok, you can be shocked. I still have trouble believing it myself. After Garth Brooks, Keith Urban is my favorite country singer and one of my favorite artists of all time. I can’t tell you the details of how I met him because it would ruin a CMA Fest fan trade trick we learned while we were out there. I will tell you, though, that it took a lot of patience and wishful thinking because we waited outside in the 90 degree heat for just about five hours, not even knowing for sure that we would actually get to meet him. It was all on a whim. Meeting him, though, was such a dream come true and so worth the wait. He didn’t have to take time out of his day to talk to, sign autographs for, and take photos for the (approximately) 35 fans that were waiting with the hope of meeting him, but he did anyway because he’s apparently just that remarkable of a human being. Keith Urban is THE sweetest artist I have ever met, and yes ladies, he smells as good as you would think he does. He also drives the Batmobile. Needless to say, this was most definitely the highlight of my trip.

2) Songwriter Rounds – For those that don’t know what a songwriter’s round is, I’ll explain. It’s when a group of songwriters take turns performing a few of their own songs that they wrote and telling the stories behind those songs. It’s very raw and personal and intimate because it’s literally just the songwriters and their acoustic guitars. If you’re like me and fascinated by the stories behind the songs, then a songwriter’s round is exactly where you want to be. It had been on my list of things to try and do while in Nashville because you just can’t find something like that anywhere else, but I wasn’t sure with the hectic schedule if we would actually be able to attend one. Thanks to Fan Fair we were lucky enough to watch not just one, but two different sets of writer rounds. The first one we caught was Saturday and featured Kristian Bush from Sugarland, new artist Ryan Kinder, and up and coming artist Brandon Ray. I could go on and on about how amazingly talented and super funny they each are, but I wouldn’t know when to stop because they were all that captivating with each of their own set of songs. The second writers round we saw was an all-female showcase known as Song Suffragettes, and included the following artists: Savannah Keyes, Lacy Cavalier, Lindsay Ell, Lauren Duski, Kim Paige and Lena Stone. These ladies are beyond talented, and their angelic voices left their audience stunned and wishing for more. Flawless is the most accurate word I can think of to describe them. If you’re a music nut like me, you have to add attending a songwriter’s round to your bucket list. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

3) Meeting Bobby Bones – In case you’re not familiar with who he is, let me enlighten you. Bobby Bones is a nationally syndicated iHeartRadio morning host, a NY Times best-selling author, a standup comedian, a successful podcaster, and a singer-songwriter for his comedy band The Raging Idiots. That’s not where his list of accomplishments ends, though. Bobby Bones also gives to those in need and supports various programs and organizations that work to raise money in order to help people all across the world. I quickly became a fan of him and his co-hosts while listening to his radio show every day for the past couple of years. Needless to say, when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped on the chance to meet him since we were both at the female songwriters round on Sunday. Bobby Bones is, as he states on a regular basis on his radio show, just a regular guy. He wasn’t bothered by someone bothering him. He made conversation, asking where I was from and what I’d gotten the chance to do so far while at CMA Fest. He even suggested, without me having to ask, that we take a photo together. Bobby Bones may be just a regular guy, but he’s also a pretty incredible human being, which made meeting him a highlight for me.

4) Meeting Lee Greenwood & Darryl Worley – For those of you who don’t know who these two guys are, let me explain. Lee Greenwood is responsible for what is arguably the best patriotic song of all time, “God Bless the USA,” and Darryl Worley wrote and recorded the 9/11 tribute that went on to become his biggest hit, “Have You Forgotten?” What made meeting these two artists so special, though, was sharing the experience with my brother, an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan. If you ask him, he’ll tell you that “God Bless the USA” and “Have You Forgotten?” are partly what inspired him to join the Army and serve his country the way both of our grandfathers did. Seeing him have the chance and listening to him tell Lee Greenwood and Darryl Worley what each of their songs meant to him, and hearing them thank my brother for his service and carry on conversations with him, even while there were lines of people waiting, were experiences I’m so grateful I got to be a part of. Moments like those are rare and won’t be forgotten.

5) The Bridge – For anyone who has never seen the TV show, Nashville, there is this infamous bridge that in the very first episode of the series Rayna (played by Connie Britton) and Deacon (played by Charles Esten) stand on while they’re reflecting on their very complicated relationship. My first day in Nashville while crossing that bridge to get to CMA Fest, I realized it was in fact the very same bridge from the TV show, and so I took a picture standing on it. It’s not the greatest story ever told, but it’s one of those cool, kind of surreal fan girl moments you don’t get to have often.

CMA Fest was no doubt the most amazing experience I’ve ever been lucky enough to have. The number of artists alone I was fortunate enough to meet while there was pretty fantastic in itself. No, I didn’t meet Luke Bryan or Dierks Bentley. But I did meet Eric Paslay, Waterloo Revival, Kristian Bush, Canaan Smith, Bailey Bryan, Russell Dickerson, Love & Theft, Jordan Davis, Ryan Griffin, The Swon Brothers, Temecula Road, Brandon Ray, Elizabeth Lyons, Lee Greenwood, Darryl Worley, Smithfield, and Kenny Foster. Some of you might not even recognize or know who all of those artists are because they’re new, up and coming, singer-songwriters and/or are just successful on a smaller scale, and that’s okay because hopefully after reading this article you’ll get to know them and their music. And if you do decide to go check out these artists and stream or download their music, and you like them, then hopefully you’ll tell your friends, family and co-workers about them too. And if you do that, well then I did my job, not just as an aspiring music journalist trying to make it in the media industry, but as a music fan as well.

At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about. In fact, that’s what CMA Fest is all about. It’s about discovering new music and sharing it, and being able to get up close and personal with the artists behind the songs you love. CMA Fest is all about the fans and the music they love, and what the artists who make that music can do for their fans. Now that you’ve read only one half of my review of CMA Fest, hopefully you have a better idea of what it involves, what to expect and what to (try to) prepare for. The number one most important part of CMA Fest, though, is just to have fun and enjoy it to the fullest extent possible because those four days go by way too fast, and you’re going to want to remember every last bit of it.