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CMA Music Fest 2016: 30 Must-See Acts

From the big stadium headliners to newcomers on the Nashville riverfront

Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood will perform at Nissan Stadium as part of CMA Music Fest.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

CMA Music Festival is one of the most unique musical events in any year, combining a multi-performer summer concert atmosphere with an experience centered on fan-artist interaction. For four days, country fans from literally all over the globe descend upon downtown Nashville, with daily attendance exceeding 85,000 visitors. For the fest's 45th year, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church and Chris Stapleton will all hit the massive Nissan Stadium stage, while hot new talent like Margo Price and Jon Pardi will share bills with veterans like Shenandoah and Tracy Lawrence. For all of you flocking to Nashville this week, here are 30 must-see artists playing the 2016 CMA Fest.

Carrie Underwood

INDIO, CA - APRIL 30: Singer Carrie Underwood performs onstage during 2016 Stagecoach California's Country Music Festival at Empire Polo Club on April 30, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Frazier Harrison/GettyImages

Carrie Underwood

If there's a belle of the CMA ball, it's Carrie Underwood — going on 11 years now at the festival. No one commands the Nissan Stadium stage like this unparalleled vocalist and her enviable, prancing legs, whether she's hitting impossibly high notes on a ballad or getting in a workout during one of her sassy uptempos. CMA Fest tends to reveal some tricks up Underwood's sleeve, too. In the past, she's surprised the sold-out audiences with guest appearances by Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley, along with a killer cover of Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City" a few years ago. Here's to hoping her inner Eighties rock god comes out again this year. Friday, Nissan Stadium

Kellie Pickler

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 06: Recording artist Kellie Pickler performs onstage at the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards All Star Jam at the MGM Grand Marquee Ballroom on April 6, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)

Frazer Harrison/Getty

Kellie Pickler

Since she won ABC's Dancing With the Stars in 2013, Kellie Pickler has done most of her performances for the television cameras. There's I Love Kellie Pickler, her CMT reality show with husband Kyle Jacobs, and also the upcoming season of ABC's Celebrity Family Feud – with Pickler in a cast including Paula Deen, Lance Bass and Snoop Dogg. But thankfully, Pickler isn't quitting her day job. She's getting out to play at several festivals this summer, including CMA Music Fest, where she'll remind us of her Tammy Wynette-reincarnate vocals and, yes, that undeniable charm that has TV networks knocking down her door. Sunday, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage

Tracy Lawrence

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - APRIL 12: Tracy Lawrence performs onstage during All For The Hall at the Bridgestone Arena on April 12, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for The Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum)

John Shearer/Getty

Tracy Lawrence

One of the Nineties' most unique vocalists, Tracy Lawrence racked up an impressive cluster of hits like "Time Marches On" and "Alibis" during his streak at the top. This CMA Fest, he gets to trot out some of his favorite tunes on the newly-annexed Ascend Amphitheater stage and bring out friends from different eras of country. On the bill for the free event are John Berry, T. Graham Brown, John Michael Montgomery, Lorrie Morgan and T.G. Sheppard. Sunday, AT&T Skyview Stage at Ascend Amphitheater

Clare Dunn

GARDENDALE, TX - AUGUST 21: Clare Dunn performs at Texas Thunder on August 21, 2015 in Gardendale, Texas. (Photo by Allison Farden/Getty Images)

Allison Farden/Getty

Clare Dunn

If there were ever an artist suited to play amphitheaters and arenas at this early stage of her career, it's Clare Dunn. Much has been made of her guitar prowess, but her stage show is so much more than scripted "look-what-I-can-do" solo moments. Her songs, like "Move On" and current single "Tuxedo," are positively overwhelming coming through a set of loudspeakers with their deep, pulsing rhythms and Dunn's assured, soulful vocals. Wednesday, Ascend Amphitheater; Thursday, Chevrolet Cruze Park Stage

Parmalee

INDIO, CA - APRIL 24: Parmalee performs onstage during day one of 2015 Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival, at The Empire Polo Club on April 24, 2015 in Indio, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Kevin Winter/Getty

Parmalee

From Old Dominion to A Thousand Horses, there's a clear band renaissance happening in country music, and at least a portion of that movement has to be credited to Parmalee. In an age of country hip-hop beats, the tirelessly touring North Carolina quartet brought rock guitar and brotherly camaraderie back to the format and perfected the hometown pride anthem with their ubiquitous 2013 Number One "Carolina." It remains a show-stopping singalong — regardless of in what part of the U.S. the group is performing — and, with new single "Roots," the Thomas siblings and their cousin Barry Knox and best bud Josh McSwain are poised to add another universal hit to their catalog. Sunday, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage

The Cadillac 3

TACOMA, WA - SEPTEMBER 13: Jaren Johnston of The Cadillac Three performs on stage during Hometown Throwdown hosted by 100.7 the Wolf at Cheney Stadium on September 13, 2015 in Tacoma, Washington. (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)

Mat Hayward/Getty

The Cadillac Three

The Cadillac Three are one of country's most fascinating enigmas. With only three members, their ridiculously fun, sludgy country-rock is still considerably louder than any other band playing CMA Fest this weekend (and most at Bonnaroo). Furthermore, TC3's singer Jaren Johnston is one of Music Row's most in-demand hit songwriters, responsible for Keith Urban's "Raise 'Em Up" and Frankie Ballard's "Sunshine & Whiskey," among others. Still, fame eludes his own band. With a new album due in August, Bury Me in My Boots, this CMA Fest is the time to correct that. Thursday, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage

Kelsea Ballerini

CULLMAN, AL - JUNE 04: Singer/Songwriter Kelsey Ballerini performs during Pepsi's Rock The South Festival - Day 2 at Heritage Park on June 4, 2016 in Cullman, Alabama. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Pepsi's Rock The South )

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Kelsea Ballerini

Last year's CMA Fest was Kelsea Ballerini's first as an artist, though she'd visited as a fan many times in her teen years. She played the modest stage set up outside Bridgestone Arena, meant for an audience of maybe 2,000 to watch comfortably, with a decent view of the stage. Well, 4,000 showed up. So this year, the CMA smartly promoted her to the big stage at Nissan Stadium. The "Peter Pan" singer has proven — by the crowds and the charts — to be country music's next big thing, and for CMA Fest specifically, she fills the Taylor Swift void. During her country-pop days, Swift brought a whole new demographic of fans to Nashville, and Ballerini's fanbase is largely similar. So is her live show: full of sass, energy and earworms.  Thursday, Nissan Stadium

Brent Cobb

Brent Cobb

This Georgia native has had his songs recorded by everyone from Luke Bryan ("Tailgate Blues") to Little Big Town ("Pavement Ends") to Miranda Lambert ("Old Shit") in his few years working in Nashville, and his new album is being recorded by red-hot producer Dave Cobb (who also happens to be a cousin). In early 2016, Cobb co-wrote "Sweet By and By" with Miranda Lambert and sang his own "Down Home" for producer Cobb's Southern Family compilation. Live, he's every bit the charming raconteur, setting up catchy rural anthems that have the loose and earthy feel of a front porch sing-along. Sunday, Music City Stage

Kip Moore

SANTA ROSA, CA - JUNE 04: Kip Moore performs during Country Summer Festival at Sonoma County Fairgrounds on June 4, 2016 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Kip Moore

At some point, Kip Moore just decided to embrace comparisons to Bruce Springsteen when it comes to his performance style. The Georgia-born singer, whose second album Wild Ones trafficked heavily in Eighties Springsteen-as-sex-symbol mode, makes singing live seem like a heroic gesture — his toned, bare arms reaching skyward and hips swiveling like Elvis in heat. With songs like "Beer Money" and "Hey Pretty Girl," he comes on alternately rebellious and sweet, and his delivery makes it feel like he's singing directly to every individual in the room. Baby, he was born to run the stage. Thursday, HGTV Lodge

Drake White

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: Drake White performs at Wildhorse Saloon on June 6, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/FilmMagic)

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Drake White and the Big Fire

With his close-as-brothers band the Big Fire behind him, Drake White promises to deliver one of the most praiseworthy sets of CMA Fest. And we do mean praiseworthy — the Alabama singer-songwriter's shows are akin to tent revivals, with White shouting and stomping his way across the stage. Whether he's spreading the gospel of "Livin' the Dream," his current single, or time-warping his audience to childhood innocence in "Back to Free," White exudes a special kind of rare magic. It's called "showmanship." Thursday, Chevrolet Cruze Park Stage 

Hank Williams Jr.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 16: Hank Williams, Jr. performs at The Life & Songs of Kris Kristofferson produced by Blackbird Presents at Bridgestone Arena on March 16, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Essential Broadcast Media)

Rick Diamond/Getty

Hank Williams Jr.

While CMA Fest is undeniably about country's young guns, the Powers That Be do make an effort to showcase some of the genre's veterans, a tradition that, we think, should only grow. This year, Hank Williams Jr. lands a stellar Nissan Stadium slot, where his influence on fellow Friday-night main-stagers Eric Church and Chris Stapleton will be crystal clear. Bocephus may say and do damn near anything he wants, but that's only because he doesn't have to appease anybody. Expect a welcome dose of the unpredictable, whiskey-soaked country classics and, with all the guests on Williams' latest album It's About Time, maybe even some rowdy-friend cameos. Friday, Nissan Stadium

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