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30 Must-See Acts at CMA Music Fest 2014

From the breakfast shows to the late-night jams, the artists you need to check out in Nashville this week

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Since its inception in 1972 as Fan Fair, CMA Music Festival, as it became known in 2004, has showcased everyone from Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks to Faith Hill and Taylor Swift. Even country interlopers Bret Michaels and Lenny Kravitz have showed up to play – with mixed results. But with hundreds of acts performing over CMA Fest's four official days this week, June 5-8th, figuring out who deserves a listen can be as daunting as trying to navigate the perennially hot-and-humid festival in cowboy boots (Hint: stick with sneakers). Here are the 30 performances that we'd go a country mile to see. By Chelsea Crowell, Beville Dunkerley, Adam Gold, Joseph Hudak, Katy Lindenmuth, Marissa R. Moss and Wendy Newcomer

Little Big Town perform

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Little Big Town

When/Where: Saturday, June 7th, LP Field

Who: The ABBA of contemporary country

Why You Can't Miss Them: With sinuous harmonies and a smart, signature vocal blend worthy of Fleetwood Mac, few acts on country radio leap out of the speakers with a sound as fresh as this co-ed quartet. Well-oiled, hot off the heels of a long stint supporting Keith Urban, LBT are currently at work on their highly anticipated, as-yet-untitled sixth studio album with producer Jay Joyce. The title of the long player's forthcoming lead-off single, "Day Drinking," suggests it'll pair well with the group's relentlessly infectious, Chattahoochee-ready 2012 smash, "Pontoon." Last year, the group surprised CMA Fest crowds, bringing out Sheryl Crow as a special guest during its LP Field set. Perhaps this year they'll debut some new tunes. 

Chris Janson performs

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Chris Janson

When/Where: Friday, June 6th, Bud Light Stage

Who: Crazy-eyed singer/songwriter/harmonica player who attacks the stage like Hank Williams Jr. in his prime

Why You Can't Miss Him: Don't penalize Janson for co-writing Tim McGraw's schlocky "Truck Yeah" — in the hands of the Missouri native who inspired it, it's darn near a show-stopper in a guaranteed electric set. A Grand Ole Opry favorite, Janson performs with all the fervor and danger of a born again preaching from atop a speeding Camaro. When he lights into the should-have-been-a-Number-One "Better I Don't" and makes the crowd beg for a harp solo that would intimidate even John Popper, you'll swear you're watching an arena show. Or at least a guy who should be playing them.

Natalie Stovall and the Drive perform

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Natalie Stovall and the Drive

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, BMI Tailgate Party

Who: With a fiddle as her weapon and a booming voice, Natalie Stovall and her powerhouse band recently shook the pews at their Grand Ole Opry debut.

Why You Can't Miss Them: Stovall plays the fiddle like it's Joe Perry's Les Paul — something she recently illustrated with a raucous country cover of Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge." Stovall, true to form, replaced the guitar solo with trashing horsehairs, proving that she's not shy of flamboyant riffs or even Nineties rock. In fact, her debut self-titled EP, with her band the Drive, fires like a bluesy Carrie Underwood raised on Toys in the Attic and Bon Jovi.

Brandy Clark perform

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Brandy Clark

When/Where: Wednesday, June 4th, XM/Highway Hard Rock Stage

Who: An ace Music Row songwriter whose creds include Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart" and the Band Perry's "Better Dig Two."

Why You Can't Miss Her: Last year Clark struck out on her own, releasing her critically acclaimed debut LP and "bro country" antidote 12 Stories. Whether it's on the moxie-brimming revenge fantasy "Stripes" or the stoner-blues twang of "Get High," Clark handily justifies her critical darling status, telling whip-smart tales of hard living that overflow with true grit and nuanced imagery. Recommended for those looking for something a little more intimate before the stadium-sized shenanigans kick off the next day at LP Field. 

The Railers perform

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The Railers

When/Where: Friday, June 6th, Samsung Galaxy Stage

Who: A classically trained foursome who bring a bit of string-band traditionalism to pop country constructions.

Why You Can't Miss Them: The concertina may not make an everyday appearance in country music, but it somehow weaves seamlessly into the live show of the Railers (brothers Jordan and Jonathan Lawson, Tyler Oban and Jonathan's wife, Cassandra Lawson). The group's live shows ignite with scorching energy, built on everything from Celtic rock to R&B harmonies – something they showcase on a cover of Boyz II Men's "Motown Philly." After a road run with the likes of Sara Evans and Hunter Hayes, they're getting ready to release a debut LP that will show how a mandolin, violin and the accordion's smallest cousin, can play with the big boys when held together through undeniable chemistry and effortless harmonies. 

Kristian Bush perform

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Kristian Bush

When/Where: Friday, June 6th, Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: The scruffy half of Grammy-winning duo Sugarland known for wearing many hats, both figuratively (singer-songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist) and literally (bowler, fedora, cowboy).

Why You Can't Miss Him: With Sugarland on hiatus, this seasoned musician is venturing out solo. (For the record, he and Jennifer Nettles insist it's not a permanent split.) The affable Bush is readying a full-length solo album for later this year — meaning the hardcore R.E.M. fan will be treating CMA Fest audiences to shiny new material, including the buzzed-about "Trailer Hitch" and "Light Me Up." And, you never know, maybe a Sugarland gem or two, too.

Sundy Best perform

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Sundy Best

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, Bud Light Stage

Who: The most minimalist of country duos, Nick Jamerson plays acoustic guitar and sings, while Kris Bentley slaps away on a cajon.

Why You Can't Miss Them: Country's take on the White Stripes are influenced not by the blues and garage rock that fueled Jack White's two-person band, but by the Appalachian folk and country of Sundy Best's old Kentucky home. With songs like current single "Until I Met You" and the yearning "Home," these boys know their way around a singalong and have developed a passionate following, especially in college towns. With only that guitar and drum box, Jamerson and Bentley will have the most spare setup of any act at CMA Fest, but just wait until you hear what they can do with it.

Corey Smith perform

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Corey Smith

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: Rural troubadour who values truth in songwriting above all else — even if it includes calling out his hometown police department for a bogus arrest in the blistering "F–k the Po Po."

Why You Can't Miss Him: Smith's concerts blur the line between frat party and church revival, and his predominantly college-age crowd follows the Jefferson, Georgia, native as their guru. But Smith's jam-based acoustic music has broad appeal and its intelligent lyrics reflecting small-town life often spur self-reflection. See the coming-of-middle-age single "Ain't Going Out Tonight" and the live favorite "I Love Everyone" – a.k.a. "I Love Black People" — which Smith wrote as a rebuttal to a drunken bigoted fan. 

David Fanning perform

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David Fanning

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, BMI Tailgate Party

Who: The whippersnapper Nashville producer who went viral with a Justin Timberlake cover

Why You Can't Miss Him: Trying to break an artist with a cover is a risky move, but that didn't stop fresh-faced David Fanning from introducing himself to the world with a countrified take on Justin Timberlake's "Drink You Away." The result: In true Nashville style, Fanning's amped-up, honey-voiced version of the 20/20 Experience Muscle Shoals send-up sounds like twanged-out Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." In true YouTube style, videos of the cover went viral, racking up views in hundreds of thousands. Although the Jason Aldean-associated singer has already made a small name for himself producing hits for Thompson Square and Parmalee, with "Drink You Away" his lone release, Fanning is still a man of mystery. Catch him live to see what other tricks he’s got up his sleeve. 

Wynonna perform

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When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, Riverfront Stage

Who: A country music treasure who commands the stage like Elvis in bedazzled wedges

Why You Can't Miss Her: This five-time Grammy winner is as much of a musical spitfire as she was in the Eighties, when she and mom Naomi were making country history as the Judds. Now in her 22nd year as a solo artist, Wy has perfected her ability to make even a stadium show feel as if she's performing in her living room to a group of longtime friends. If the sentimental – and oftentimes hilarious – stories she tells in between her beloved hits aren't reason enough to go, hit the Riverfront to hear what is sure to be a mix of songs you know by heart and heartfelt new songs from her upcoming album, backed by her stellar Big Noise band.

Charlie Daniels Band perform

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Charlie Daniels Band

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, LP Field

Who: The most famous fiddle player in country music who showed that no good devil exactly who's boss

Why You Can’t Miss Him: At 77, Charlie Daniels is the oldest headliner at this year's CMA Fest, but he fiddles as nimbly as he did in '79, when his band's career-defining hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was released. (Perhaps those fingers stay so deft from Daniels' near constant and always opinionated tweeting.) And with fellow Southern rockers Zac Brown Band – who often cover "Devil" – on the LP bill that same night, perhaps a collaboration will be in order.

Ryan Kinder perform

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Ryan Kinder

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, Samsung Galaxy Stage

Who: The John Mayer of country music — minus the tattoos and tainted love life

Why You Can't Miss Him: If you didn't get to a recent Tim McGraw show early enough to see the opening set by this Tennessee-born, Alabama-bred singer-songwriter, do yourself a favor and see him command the Galaxy as if he's been headlining for years. Kinder is a guitar virtuoso with a penchant for the kind of heartfelt lyrics that play out like a Rachel McAdams movie. Make that, a Rachel McAdams movie that even guys enjoy. His sound channels hints of everyone from Mayer and Jackson Browne to Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley, yet his voice is one of the most unique of any country newbie on the radio today.

Drake White perform

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Drake White

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, Bud Light Stage

Who: An eclectic good ole boy with an engineering degree from Auburn University and a penchant for singing about the simple life

Why You Can't Miss Him: A relative newcomer with a meticulously manscaped beard and a bell-clear bluesy drawl, White straddles the line between old and new, tempering his wide-open, radio-ready heartland rock with hints of bluegrass, folk, freestyle and a dash of outlaw country bravado. The singer has already cut his teeth touring as an opener for the likes of Eric Church and Lynyrd Skynyrd, making a name for himself one fan at a time with a greasy, barn-burning live show.

Maggie Rose performs

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Maggie Rose

When/Where: Saturday, June 7th at Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: A disarming, yet big-voiced singer with a Stevie Nicks air of mystique

Why You Can’t Miss Her: Rose's set runs the gamut from fun hip-shakers to dark country with a little rockabilly and a few ballads thrown in. After trial, error and a name change (she once went by given name Margaret Durante), this blonde country chameleon has finally found her sound and released her first full-length album to prove it. Exceptional murder ballad single "Looking Back Now" is a haunting bit of classic-sounding country, especially when Rose tackles it live. With career longevity a good bet, you may be able to say you saw her when.

Frankie Ballard performs

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Frankie Ballard

When/Where: Saturday, June 7th, Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: An amazingly gifted guitarist who could challenge Keith Urban and Vince Gill for "country's best shredder"

 Why You Can't Miss Him: After his first two singles, "Tell Me You Get Lonely" and "A Buncha Girls," stalled, Ballard came back strong with a new album and his first Number One, "Helluva Life," creating a buzz and even inspiring lyric tattoos on fans. Country radio placed "Helluva Life" on repeat and fast-tracked this multi-talented singer/songwriter/player to "one to watch" status. Ballard's idol may be fellow Michigan native Bob Seger (with whom he has toured), but the first thing he bought to celebrate his chart-topper was all country: a custom-made Manuel suit. It's doubtful he'll wear it in the Nashville heat, but kudos to Ballard for bringing rhinestones back to modern country.

Shooter Jennings performs

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Shooter Jennings

When/Where: Wednesday, June 4th, Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: The Nine Inch Nails-influenced prince of outlaw country who, true to his lineage, never quite adhered to the Music Row norm

Why You Can't Miss Him: As the son of Waylon, Shooter Jennings may come from a classic country pedigree, but his latest offerings – like 2013's The Other Life, which was way more Pink Floyd than honky-tonk – prove he's easily able to shuffle from reverence for the past to a quirky future. On Wednesday, he'll be backed by his dad's legendary band, Waymore's Outlaws, shooting back at critics who refuse to look beyond his history by showing just how wild those roots can grow. "Don't call me an outlaw," he sings on The Other Life track "The Gunslinger," to ambient, free-jazz horns. "I'm a motherfucking gunslinger."

Will Hoge perform

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Will Hoge

When/Where: Friday, June 6th, Bud Light Stage

Who: A pungent truth-teller who melds grit, guts and glory on songs that twang like country but cut a dusty rock & roll groove

Why You Can't Miss Him: Hoge was a relatively quiet Nashville institution until his song "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" was nominated for a Grammy. Only problem? It was for the version recorded by Eli Young Band. But Hoge's been a strong, subtle force for well over a decade, mixing a Springsteen ethos with raspy vocal kicks – never at the expense of melody. It was 2013's Never Given In that put Hoge on the charts, but it's lyrics like "corporations count as people/and people don't count much," from Modern American Protest Songs, where he proves that this man has both a voice and something to say. 

Brothers Osborne perform

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Brothers Osborne

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, Bud Light Stage

Who: Maryland-born brothers who prove that the state's location south of the Mason-Dixon Line is more than just a matter of geography

Why You Can't Miss Them: At first listen, Brothers Osborne's single "Rum" can sound like a twangy trip down Jimmy Buffett lane. But really, they're singing about the simple realities of down-home country life, where "the lucky folks go to the ocean" while they're stuck making a pool out of a truck bed. T.J. and John Osborne have been kicking around the Nashville songwriting circuit for years, forming an artist-friendly clique with Kacey Musgraves, Kree Harrison and Charlie Worsham. Playing Thursday at the Bud Light Stage, they’ll show off their own mellow grooves, genetic harmonies and bluesy takes on Southern soul.

Dierks Bentley perform

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Dierks Bentley

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, LP Field

Who: A needer of no introduction whose dozen-plus Top 20 singles include “What Was I Thinkin’,” “Every Mile a Memory” and “Sideways”

Why You Can't Miss Him: A class act and a CMA Fest main-stage staple, Bentley's affable, emotional, lighter-cuing performances have long made him a cut above his fratty contemporaries. The singer's latest, Riser, is his most mature record to date. Despite the sorrow-drowning novelty single by design "Drunk on a Plane" (the video for which premiered on Funny or Die), the album leans heavy on personal meditations like "Here on Earth" — a heartfelt rumination on the death of his father — and the weepy Kacey Musgraves collab, "Bourbon in Kentucky." He picks the mood back up with open-road anthems like "Sounds of Summer" and party jams like the über-bro-y "Back Porch."

Heath Haynes perform

Emily Hazelwood

Heath Haynes & the Hi Dollars

When/Where: Saturday, June 7th, Samsung Galaxy Stage

Who: East Nashville's patron saint of the western boogie, who plays swingin' originals — and maybe a Merle Haggard tune or two

Why You Can't Miss Him: Haynes has "this machine kills fascists" inked on his forearm; it's the famous fighting words of Woody Guthrie, and Haynes attacks his songs like a true solider, battling to preserve the sacred catalogues of country's greats. Though he can be found every Sunday cranking out a mix of classic covers at East Nashville's the 5 Spot, he's showcasing his own quirky rockabilly numbers that justify his status as an occasional guitarist for Wanda Jackson at CMA Fest. And ever the working musician, Haynes and his Hi Dollars band will also be hitting Broadway's honky-tonks: Catch him at the Wheel on Friday, Layla's on Saturday and, of course, across the river at the Fiver on Sunday. 

Charlie Worsham performs

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Charlie Worsham

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: A Mississippi-born, music-school-educated singer-songwriter with a warm, gentle voice and chugging guitar chops

Why You Can't Miss Him: Worsham came to Nashville via Berklee College of Music — not the most traditional path for an aspiring country star, but a testament to his commitment to keen musicianship and a solid, studied approach to songwriting that's apparent on his 2013 debut, Rubberband. Currently on tour with fellow guitar virtuoso Brad Paisley, he layers his performances with both tender, acoustic moments and swinging rompers that showcase tasteful instrumentation – though he's not shy about letting a roaring solo rip occasionally, too. Here's betting he lets his fingers do some talking Thursday at the Riverfront.

Zac Brown Band perform

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Zac Brown Band

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, LP Field

Who: Singer, songwriter, chef, label head, creator of the Southern Ground Music & Food Festival, Zac Brown is country music’s renaissance man.

Why You Can't Miss Them: Whether Brown and his eight-piece group are singing the straight-ahead country of "Chicken Fried" and the Buffett-inspired "Toes," or segueing joyfully into jam-band mode, there's no better way to spend the last night of CMA Fest than with this multi-platinum band of musical explorers. One can only hope for a special appearance by Dave Grohl, who produced their latest project, The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1. But even without any special guests, ZBB will dazzle.

Holly Williams performs

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Holly Williams

When/Where: Friday, June 6th, Bud Light Stage

Who: The Nashville-based singer-songwriter (and owner of two trendy Nashville boutiques) has country-legend lineage: Her dad is Bocephus, her grandfather Hank Williams.

Why You Can’t Miss Her: Williams released one of the most acclaimed, though criminally under-heard, albums of 2013 in The Highway, which included the beautifully tragic single, “Drinkin'." Williams won't be doing much of that, now that she's expecting her first child in October with husband Chris Coleman (the touring fifth member of Kings of Leon). But you can expect her to captivate crowds with her real-deal blend of Americana, folk and classic country.

Michaelis performs

Sarah Barlow


When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, The Buckle Stage

Who: Dixie Chicks comparisons are inevitable for these three sisters from Sugarland, Texas, but Meagan, Mallory and Madeline Michaelis have a country-hippie vibe all their own.

Why You Can't Miss Them: Producer Dave Brainard (Brandy Clark, Jerrod Niemann) helped refine the sisters' sound in the studio, and while an album has yet to be released, the single "Shoot Straight" announced Michaelis as a breath of fresh air. And, thankfully, a welcome dose of estrogen to young country. Expect cool harmonies and, if you're lucky, a twangy cover of Lana Del Rey's "Blue Jeans."

Chris Stapleton performs

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Chris Stapleton

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, Bud Light Stage

Who: The writer behind such monsters as Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer" and Josh Turner's "Your Man," with a voice that rattles windows

Why You Can't Miss Him: Stapleton's writing is masterful, but his huge country/blues voice — think Gregg Allman by way of the Kentucky coal mines — is what will really blow your hair back and make you literally feel every word he sings. As the former lead singer of "blues-grass" band the SteelDrivers, Stapleton is also a three-time Grammy nominee. While his debut single as a solo artist, "What Are You Listening To," didn't make much of a dent at country radio — undeniably radio's loss — the hirsute Stapleton has been opening shows for Dierks Bentley, making many fans ask, "Who is this guy?!"

Lorrie Morgan Pam Tillis perform

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Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, Chevy Riverfront Stage

Who: Nineties superstars who have teamed up to launch the deliciously devilish Grits & Glamour tour

Why You Can't Miss Them: Yes, fans, there really was a time when women were played on country radio… about 25 years ago. Morgan and Tillis have only gotten better through the years and their songs are still relevant. Go for the nostalgia of hearing enduring Number Ones like Morgan's "Something in Red" and Tillis' "Maybe It Was Memphis." But stay for the clever duo's new music from their 2013 Dos Divas album, including their knowing, moving ode to female empowerment, "I Am a Woman."

Josh Dorr perform

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Josh Dorr

When/Where: Thursday, June 5th, AT&T U-Verse Showcase Stage

Who: A former college football star sidelined by injuries but rehabbed by Music Row

Why You Can't Miss Him: With a penchant for creeping builds and big choruses, Dorr's self-titled EP doesn't create timid moments. With the heartfelt chug of Lady Antebellum one moment and vibrating croon of Jason Aldean the next, he makes songs fit for celebrations that are still grounded in solid storytelling. Despite the slightly perplexing grammar of his single "Mine Looks Like You," there's also a subtle, singer-songwriter refinement to what he does, always pumped up with coffeehouse intimacy but arena aggression. 

Julie Roberts performs

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Julie Roberts

When/Where: Sunday, June 8th, Samsung Galaxy Stage

Who: Nashville veteran who recently put out an album with Sun Records, making hers their first release in 40 years

Why You Can't Miss Her: If you ever wished you could listen to Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang and Fiona Apple all at the same time while backed by a more sedate Dap Kings or a modern Glen Miller Orchestra, here's your chance. Roberts' tunes on her exceptional Good Wine and Bad Decisions release are sleepy but not senile, and flooded with melody. In her new direction, you won’t find much kitschy country but instead an elegant mix of rhythm and well-placed lyricism. 

The Band Perry perform

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The Band Perry

When/Where: Friday, June 6th, LP Field

Who: The high-haired Perry siblings — lead singer Kimberly, bassist Reid and mandolinist Neil — who sing about hookups, breakups and everything in between.

Why You Can't Miss Them: Kimberly’s full-body pantomiming and Swift-grade facial expressions are a show all their own — especially when singing lyrics about digging her lover's grave or wielding a sharp blade in "Better Dig Two" and current single "Chainsaw," respectively. Fortunately, there's legit star power behind those theatrics and some damn fine songs as well. Not to mention a respect for flamboyant rock bands like Queen that further informs TBP's live show and makes them a can't-miss at this year's fest.