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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.

clare dunn

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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)

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