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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.

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