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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

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

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Michaelis

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. 

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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