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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

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. 

Jamie Lynn Spears performs

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Jamie Lynn Spears

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

Who: Britney's baby sister-turned Nickelodeon star-turned tabloid teen mom-turned country singer

Why You Can't Miss Her: The first single Spears released, "How Could I Want More," was received in the world of country criticism with a, "You know, this isn't half bad." The young singer exhibits a vocal style not unlike Lee Ann Womack and the song featured surprisingly restrained production. Curiosity will probably gain her a crowd on Sunday at the Bud Light Stage, but her unforeseen talent should keep that audience coming back. 

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