Home Music Music Country Lists

CMA Music Fest 2015: 25 Must-See Acts

From superstars to up-and-comers, the acts that will make “country’s biggest party” one to remember

CMA Music Fest 2015

Carrie Underwood and Charlie Worsham are two must-see artists at CMA Music Fest.

Debra L Rothenberg/WireImage/Getty; Scott Legato/Getty

What started in 1972 as "Fan Fair" — a 5,000-person event inside Nashville's Municipal Auditorium — has grown into one of the biggest country music festivals in the world. Now called CMA Music Fest and spread out all over downtown Music City, the annual four-day event draws more than 80,000 fans and boasts performances by close to 400 artists.

For the festival's 44th year, superstars including Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Brad Paisley will take over the Tennessee Titans' LP Field at night, while rising talent including Kelsea Ballerini, Clare Dunn and Charlie Worsham will warm up the crowds on smaller stages during the day. Here are 25 artists who should be priorities on any music fan's CMA Music Fest agenda.

Dierks Bentley

Bill Matlock/CBS/Getty

Dierks Bentley

Bentley has always been an affable performer, but he's reached a new level with his recent tours in support of the acclaimed album Riser. Maybe it's the confidence that comes with landing seven nominations, the most of any male, at this year's ACM Awards, or from headlining his own arena tour for the first time last summer. Regardless of the reason, Bentley has matured into an artist in full command of his audience. Whether it's zany party anthems like "5-1-5-0" and "Drunk on a Plane" or more sultry or soul-searching fare like "Come a Little Closer" and "Tip It on Back," Bentley's catalog includes a song for every mood. (Thursday, 9:41 p.m., LP Field)

Ashley Monroe

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 04: (EDITORS NOTE: This image has been altered digitally) Singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe performs during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival at the MGM Resorts Village on October 4, 2014. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Ashley Monroe

Now preparing for the release of The Blade, Monroe, who is arguably the best female vocalist to come along since Lee Ann Womack, has three solo albums of material and her contributions to the pair of Pistol Annies LPs to cull from in her live shows. While there's no question she can work up a live crowd, expect to hear more than a few pins drop when she delivers the heartbreaking title cut from the upcoming record, which features one hell of a hook: "You caught it by the handle and I caught it by the blade." (Thursday, 12:45 pm, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage)

Meghan Linsey with Sarah Potenza

Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Meghan Linsey, Kimberly Nichole and Sarah Potenza

If a band were to emerge from Season Eight of The Voice, it should be a trio made up of Kimberly Nichole, Meghan Linsey and Sarah Potenza. (Call them the Dixie Soul Chicks?) The three vocal powerhouses may have lost to 16-year-old Sawyer Fredericks in the end, but each woman walked away with the promise of career staying power most reality show contestants just can't seem to sustain. Nichole is like a superhero hybrid of Aretha Franklin's vocals and Bono's stage presence. Linsey marries soul, blues, rock, country and even a little gospel together in a unique, captivating sound that has seemingly no ceiling to its range. And if Janis Joplin has been reincarnated, it's as the bewitching Sarah Potenza, who mixes her rock edge with blues and a little Alabama Shakes-esque Southern soul. Nichole, Linsey and Potenza will perform together at the "Rock N' Soul" show, hopefully previewing new music and also sharing the stage for some of those Voice cover songs that made them household names. (Saturday, 10:00 p.m., Hard Rock Café)

Little Big Town

iHEARTRADIO COUNTRY MUSIC FESTIVAL -- "2015 iHeartRadio Country Festival" -- Pictured: Little Big Town -- (Photo by: John Shearer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

John Shearer/NBC/Getty

Little Big Town

Thirteen years after the release of their debut album, Little Big Town are finally being recognized as superstars. Part of that title includes the ability to weather controversy, and the band has done that with their Number One hit "Girl Crush," which has somehow become more popular despite some complaints it celebrates same-sex relationships (the song is actually about something quite different). With their unique combination of old-school charm and pop appeal, the charistmatic foursome will host ABC's CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock — the televised portion of the nightly stadium concerts — for the third year in a row, and also perform on the big stage. (Thursday, 10:15 a.m., CMA Close Up Stage; Saturday, 10:18 p.m., LP Field)

Sunny Sweeney

Terry Wyatt/Getty

Sunny Sweeney

If you follow Sweeney on social media, you've likely seen her "Breakin' Up the Sausage Party" T-shirts for sale — a statement in protest against the current lack of country radio airplay for female artists. She frequently injects her songs with a biting sense of humor but can also pull off a heartbreaking ballad beautifully, like her recent "My Bed" duet with Will Hoge, from the excellent Provoked LP. Best of all, Sweeney's unfiltered approach means never knowing what might happen during a show. But it's a safe bet that when the show's over, there's only one party you'll want to stop – and thanks to Sweeney there's a T-shirt for that. (Saturday, 12:45 pm, Belk Park Stage)

Mo Pitney

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Country music artist Mo Pitney performs at the CMA Songwriters Series - Bill Anderson, Mac Davis, Mo Pitney And Pam Tillis Perform at The Library of Congress on April 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Paul Morigi/Getty

Mo Pitney

An unabashed disciple of bluegrass and stone-cold country, the young Pitney has a voice that calls to mind Keith Whitley and Joe Nichols. But as much of a throwback as he can seem, he's also a dynamic live entertainer who can sell the fire out of a song, whether it's his breezy back-home single "Country" or a weeper like "Cleanup on Aisle Five." If the Illinois native happens to throw "Duct Tape and Jesus" into the mix during his Thursday afternoon set, just try getting it out of your head. (Thursday, 3:25 pm, Bud Light Plaza Stage)

 

Sundy Best

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 20: Kris Bentley and Nick Jamerson of Sundy Best perform at the Agency For The performing Arts Party during the IEBA 2013 Conference - Day 1 at the The Omni Hotel on October 20, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for IEBA)

Rick Diamond/Getty

Sundy Best

Hometown buddies Nick Jamerson and Kris Bentley make up the duo Sundy Best, and their unique, new-school sound is a sort of antidote to bro country. The band often performs with just a guitar and cajon (a small wooden box used like a drum set), and strong grooves and direct songwriting are the name of the game. Linked by a lifetime of shared experience, Sundy Best transform brisk melodies and country themes into songs that connect on a deeper level. "Home," "Until I Met You" and "Lotta Love" will turn heads on the first listen — perfect for fans wandering their way toward LP Field — while the breathtaking ballad "Lily" will likely stop a few in their tracks. (Wednesday, 6:15 p.m., Kick-Off Concert at the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage; Thursday, 5:15 p.m., BMI Tailgate Party at LP Field)

maren morris

Terry Wyatt/Getty

Maren Morris

Texas-bred, Nashville-residing Maren Morris has become a fixture on the local songwriting scene since arriving to town in 2013, crafting tunes with the likes of Shane McAnally, Natalie Hemby and Chris DeStefano and scoring cuts from Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw. But Morris is a stellar solo artist in her own right, with songs that showcase her dynamite southern bellow, laced with hints of pop and soul, and lyrics that are brutally honest snips at modern life and (sometimes unsuccessful) attempts at love. Like good pal Kacey Musgraves, her live shows are equal parts poignant and witty, often capturing a room with little more than a great turn-of-phrase and an acoustic guitar — though she's equally capable of dropping the instrument, bringing on the band and launching into a full-scale country kiss-off. (Thursday, 4:45 pm, BMI Tailgate Party at LP Field)

zac brown band

GULF SHORES, AL - MAY 16: Zac Brown of Zac Brown Band performs during Hangout Music Festival 2015 on May 16, 2015 in Gulf Shores, Alabama. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Hangout Festival)

Taylor Hill/Getty

Zac Brown Band

Surprise guests on the LP Field main stage have become a staple of the nightly concerts, and Brown and his eclectic group are often the catalyst. At CMA Festivals past, they've trotted out Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis and Kid Rock, with Richie Sambora sitting in last year on a shred-tastic version of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." With "Heavy Is the Head," the band's Jekyll + Hyde collaboration with Chris Cornell, Number One on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart, it's entirely possible that the Soundgarden screamer could make a cameo. But even on their own, Zac Brown Band are a can't-miss, one of the few acts for whom the massive stadium stage truly feels like home. (Friday, 9:51 p.m., LP Field)

Wynonna

Paul Marotta/Getty

Wynonna

Radio had ignored Wynonna long before Saladgate — the unfortunate comparison by a radio consultant of female country singers to tomatoes — exploded in May, but the fiery redhead won't be denied. Appearing with her band the Big Noise, Wynonna has a personality bigger than the state of Tennessee and a smoldering growl that rivals Elvis Presley's. Between her solo smashes and songs made famous with her mama Naomi in the Judds, she offers a hit-packed show. But the real star is always her unparalleled vocal prowess. (Saturday, 7:55 p.m., LP Field)

brad paisley

Christopher Polk/Getty

Brad Paisley

Paisley is still cranking out singles from his most recent studio album, 2014's Moonshine in the Trunk, and it's easy to get intoxicated from his heady brew of guitar wizardry, catchy tunes and lightning-quick stage wit. The singer-guitarist (who will open for the Rolling Stones at the Nashville date of their Zip Code Tour just a few days after his LP performance) goes all-in onstage — including designing his show's graphics, like he did for his clever "Crushin' It" video — and the audience benefits from his perfectionism. He's the consummate professional but in the end, is really there to have fun. (Sunday, 11 p.m., LP Field)

Tucker Beathard

The Greenroom PR

Tucker Beathard

Newly signed to Dot Records, Beathard has been playing music with a hard-country edge and plenty of heart for most of his young life. Not surprising, since his last name might be familiar to country fans. His dad, Casey Beathard, is the award-winning songwriter behind a plethora of mega-hits, including Kenny Chesney's "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems" and Billy Currington's "Walk a Little Straighter." With a summer schedule that includes opening shows for Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban and Eric Church, this relative newbie is quickly becoming an old pro. (Sunday, 5:15 pm, BMI Tailgate Party at LP Field)

brothers osborne

Larry Marano/Getty

Brothers Osborne

Last year, the sibling duo of T.J. and John Osborne performed one of their sets on the steps of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The stripped-down gig succeeded because of its intimacy (at one point, T.J. requested and received a beer from the crowd) but failed to capture the attitude of the band's freewheeling live show. Fresh off an arena tour with Eric Church and currently playing amphitheaters with Darius Rucker, the outspoken BROS will come guns blazing. And with a guaranteed show-stopper: guitarist John's wickedly improvised solo at the end of stunning new single "Stay a Little Longer." (Friday, 3:25 p.m., Bud Light Plaza Stage)

carrie underwood

Kevin Winter/Getty

Carrie Underwood

The new mom's maternity leave is officially over, and what better way to mark the occasion than with a big ol' stadium show? Ten years since her CMA Fest debut, the "Little Toy Guns" singer will take the stage at LP Field Saturday night to show off those legendary pipes in all their Jumbotron glory. An undeniable powerhouse live, Underwood's always been full of surprises — covering Guns N' Roses, hopping in for a duet with Miranda Lambert — but here's betting she uses the occasion to herald all those greatest hits she's logged over the past decade, proving there's one Idol in zero danger of being canceled. (Saturday, 11 p.m., LP Field)

chris janson

Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic/Getty

Chris Janson

The skinny-as-a-mic-stand Missouri native has played CMA Fest in the past, but never with such a bona fide hit as "Buy Me a Boat." Expect Janson, who recently made his network TV debut on NBC's Today, to be especially wired, buoyed by the Cinderella run he's been on since "Boat" scored him a record deal and a slot on Toby Keith's summer tour. A high-octane performer with enough electricity to power the Bud Light Plaza Stage on which he'll perform, the singer, songwriter and harmonica wizard's shows are among the most thrilling in the biz. Catch him now, before he graduates to an even bigger stage next year. (Saturday, 2:05 p.m., Bud Light Plaza Stage)

keith urban

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 18: Musician Keith Urban performs onstage during ACM Presents: Superstar Duets at Globe Life Park on April 18, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for dcp)

Mike Windle/Getty

Keith Urban

Few musicians combine artistry with an Everyman sense of humility as well as Urban. He melts into his guitar as he bends notes with impossible ease, but there's never an air of posturing or arrogance, only a sense of gratitude as he runs through such hits as "Days Gone By," "Somewhere in My Car" and "You Look Good in My Shirt." Expect a taste of his John-in-triplicate new single, "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16," and quite possibly a cameo from fellow Sunday night performer Eric Church on "Raise 'Em Up," their Number One duet from Urban's 2013 album, Fuse. (Sunday, 10:18 p.m., LP Field)

kelsea ballerini

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 17: Kelsea Ballerini performs onstage during the ACM Party For A Cause Festival at Globe Life Park on April 17, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neil/ACM2015/Getty Images for dcp)

Cooper Neil/ACM2015/Getty

Kelsea Ballerini

In order to have the "I saw her back when. . ." bragging rights, now is the right time to catch Kelsea Ballerini in concert, because the Tennessee native is about to blow up. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter has only been on the country scene for a few months now, releasing her debut album in May and seeing its first single, "Love Me Like You Mean It" hit the Top Five. But she has the songwriting chops of a tunesmith twice her age and the stage swagger of a performer with years of confidence-building gigs under her belt. Look for Ballerini to caffeinate the crowd with clever uptempos such as "XO" and show her introspective, vulnerable side with thinkers like "Secondhand Smoke." (Friday, 12:45pm, Bud Light Plaza Stage)

charlie worsham

DETROIT, MI - NOVEMBER 28: Charlie Worsham performs at The Fillmore Detroit on November 28, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Scott Legato/Getty

Charlie Worsham

When Charlie Worsham released his debut album, 2013's Rubberband, fans and industry folks expected big things from the Mississippi native. A fleet-fingered guitarist and empathetic vocalist, his talent is reminiscent of a young Keith Urban in all the best ways — but his big break is still to come. "Could It Be" reached Number 13 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart, but when the follow-up "Want Me Too" stalled out, Worsham's label decided to go back to the drawing board. A new album is in the works and Worsham just finished up a four-week residency at East Nashville's vibey 5 Spot, showing him to be an engaging entertainer who can work in any setting. (Sunday, 6:50 p.m., BMI Tailgate Party at LP Field)

Maggie Ros

Chris Schwegler/Corbis

Maggie Rose

The perennial CMA Fest performer has done some terrific covers live — everything from Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" to a sweet country take on "Some Nights" by fun. — and her 2013 LP Cut to Impress did just that, earning raves for a voice that's both bluesy and playful. The dramatic "Looking Back Now," a spine-tingling tale of domestic abuse and murder, is one of the best things she's recorded (if not exactly an outdoor party anthem), but Rose also had a hand in writing one of her most crowd-pleasing tunes, "Mostly Bad" — in which she promises to "show you a little crazy." (Saturday, 11:15 am, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage)

Neal McCoy

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 03: Singer Neal McCoy performs during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival at the MGM Resorts Village on October 3, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ethan Miller/Getty

Neal McCoy

The party starts the minute that veteran country artist McCoy walks on the stage. Between his own good-timing hits from the Nineties like "Wink," "The Shake" and "Billy's Got His Beer Goggles On," and his left-field covers of songs like Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" and Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon," he makes sure the audience leaves with a smile. McCoy counts Blake Shelton among his biggest fans, so much so that Shelton had McCoy as an opening act on 2014's Ten Times Crazier Tour. Shelton and Miranda Lambert even produced McCoy's 2012 album. (Sunday, 7:55 p.m., LP Field)

Luke Bell

Luke Bell

Want to know what CMA Fest might have sounded like back in the Seventies, when it was still called Fan Fair and Wranglers were more commonplace than trucker hats? Enter Luke Bell, who plays classic honky-tonk with a wink and a yodel that summons the sleeping ghosts of country better than any voodoo spell ever could. Often playing with other arbiters of traditional twang like Cale Tyson and Johnny Appleseed, Bell's shows are welcome excuses to click your boots and down an extra sniff of bourbon. And songs like "Sometimes" are such uncanny time warps they almost make his sets appear in Technicolor. (Saturday Night, Acme Feed & Seed on Broadway)

Muddy Magnolias

Paul Moore

Muddy Magnolias

Male-male duos are a country staple — from Brooks & Dunn to Florida Georgia Line — but the power pair of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North show it isn't only a boys' club. With North's porch-side Mississippi roots and Wilson's asphalt Brooklyn breeding, they bring a sound that melds city grit and Delta dirt, exploding onstage not like two lead singers but more like parts of the same whole — sometimes back-to-back, sometimes sharing a mic, sometimes favoring unison over harmonies. Last year, Rolling Stone Country crowned them CMA Fest's Best Unsigned Duo after an explosive set; this time, they hit the stage with an I.R.S record deal and a set of R&B-tinged country grooves they've been honing with Butch Walker. (Friday, 6 p.m., BMI Tailgate Party at LP Field)

clare dunn

Chris McKay/Getty

Clare Dunn

Listening to Dunn play guitar, it's easy to understand why she cites Keith Urban as her chief inspiration — like the Sunday night LP Field headliner, there's a fluidity and nuance to her picking. But the Colorado-raised farm girl — one of Rolling Stone Country's Artists You Need to Know — sets herself apart from even Urban by attacking her instrument with a ferocity not often seen on country stages. Her cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock & Roll" is a barnburner (and hopefully one she'll find time to play during the typically short CMA Fest sets), while her own songs "Get Out" and "Cowboy Side of You" reveal a raw vocalist unafraid to shred her emotions along with her guitar strings. (Friday, 2:45 p.m., Bud Light Plaza Stage)

aaron watson

NASHVILLE, TN - JANUARY 12:  Aaron Watson attends the Aaron Watson listening event hosted by Peter Cooper at SiriusXm Studio on January 12, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Gabe Ford/Getty Images for Shorefire)

Gabe Ford/Getty

Aaron Watson

Red Dirt king Aaron Watson broke the mold with his last record, The Underdog, which managed to snag the top slot on the Billboard charts without the support of a Music Row record label or even a proper radio campaign. That's probably because everyone from his home state of Texas bought a copy like their residency depended on it; there, he routinely leads massive hometown crowds in modern honky-tonk sing-alongs on tracks like "That's Why God Loves Cowboys." But Watson can transport that Lone Star spirit anywhere. He manages to be old world without sounding purely vintage, playing entirely by his own rules but always tipping his signature hat to the genre's founding fathers. (Saturday, 12:45 p.m., Chevrolet Riverfront Stage)

Sam Hunt

Mike Pont/Getty

Sam Hunt

The country-pop hybrid has made a huge impression on country fans in two short years, and the powers that be at CMA Fest were clearly paying attention: Hunt's been fast-tracked to the festival's biggest stage. Joining the LP Field lineup as one of only four first-timers, the singer will be put to the test in front of 50,000 fans — his biggest gig yet and a far cry from last year's spot on the Bud Light stage outside Bridgestone Arena. Out-of-the-gate hits "Leave the Night On" and "Take Your Time" have shown the stylish newcomer has tons of potential — and a rabid fan base — so expect his sink-or-swim set to be a big draw. (Thursday, 8:27 p.m., LP Field)