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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.

Eric Church

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 04: Musician, Eric Church performs at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Christopher Polk/Getty

Eric Church

If there's one thing that the festival — or country music, really — is lacking, it's unpredictability, especially from its marquee stars. Thankfully, Eric Church knows how to keep 'em guessing, whether in his performances or spontaneous album drops. On stage, Church can spend an entire concert by himself with an acoustic guitar, or he can enlist the full thrash of his dynamic band for a full-scale Southern rock fest (and, often, he'll do both of these things in one night). Church hasn't played a proper Nashville set since the release of Mr. Misunderstood, so it's prime time for him to show the town how he's been translating that dynamite LP live: which, lately, has been by kicking off his shows with the stunning "Knives of New Orleans." Friday, Nissan Stadium

Lauren Alaina

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 12: Recording artist Lauren Alaina performs onstage at the CAA Party on Day 2 of the IEBA 2015 Conference on October 12, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for IEBA)

Rick Diamond/Getty

Lauren Alaina

There's a reason that former American Idol finalist Lauren Alaina manages to stay top of mind despite the five years since her last full-length release in 2011 – and that's her powerhouse, honey-toned vocals that meld timeless twang with a modern sass. Live, she's happy to pepper her performances with pop-tinged barnburners, dynamic ballads and bold stage banter, and, when she takes the Chevrolet Cruz Park Stage stage on Friday, she'll hopefully also give a preview into the 200-song thick catalogue she's been collecting for her new LP. Thursday, Radio Disney Stage; Friday, Chevrolet Cruz Park Stage

Brothers Osborne

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 06: John Osborne (L) and T.J. Osborne (R) of musical group Brothers Osborne perform onstage during the 2016 CMT Music Awards - Rehearsals Day 1 at Bridgestone Arena on June 6, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CMT)

Mike Coppola/Getty

Brothers Osborne

It's a strange time indeed when one of the best rock groups around is killing it in country. Brothers TJ and John Osborne come steeped in the language of rock & roll — TJ's resonant voice has echoes of Nineties grunge along with Waylon Jennings, while John peels jaw-dropping guitar solos that never cede their musicality to technical flash. With gutsy songs like the barnstorming "It Ain't My Fault" and weed-sparking "Greener Pastures," they're a compelling argument for families staying (and playing) together. Thursday, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage

Brandon Lay

Brandon Lay

One of Universal Music Group Nashville's newest signings, Tennessee's Brandon Lay has been honing his chops on tour opening for Old Dominion and Eli Young Band, and as a popular performer on the college circuit. With a strong twang and a songwriter's eye for detail, he's evidence of a new school of Music Row men who aren’t afraid to be more subtle in their lyrical or wardrobe choices (no bro tropes, no spiked wallet chains) while still keeping things perfectly radio-friendly. Expect a nice balance of low-key ballads and raucous rockers — he does count Elvis as an early inspiration, after all. Thursday, Gildan Broadway Stage at Hard Rock Café

Charlie Worsham

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 05: Singer-songwriter Charlie Worsham performs at the 2014 CMA Festival on June 5, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

Terry Wyatt/Getty

Charlie Worsham

With his infectiously upbeat personality, keening tenor voice and some of the sharpest guitar chops in country music, Charlie Worsham is an ideal host of the revived "Midnite Jamboree." For decades beginning in the 1940s, Ernest Tubb ran the all-star show at the record store that still bears his name in downtown Nashville. The program's new incarnation debuts during CMA Fest at the same venue. The interior isn't exactly spacious, so look for long lines and cramped SRO quarters. But the list of guest artists is insanely impressive — we're sworn not to reveal names but, trust us, it'll be worth the wait. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Ernest Tubb Record Shop

Aubrie Sellers

INDIO, CA - APRIL 29: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Musician Aubrie Sellers performs onstage during 2016 Stagecoach California's Country Music Festival at Empire Polo Club on April 29, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images Portrait for Stagecoach)

Jason Kempin/Getty

Aubrie Sellers

Yes, Sellers has a traditional voice that will immediately remind you of her classic-country-loving mom, Lee Ann Womack. But as soon as she cranks up the electric guitars and what she deems "trashy drums," you can toss aside any other comparisons. That's not to say she has completely forsaken her family roots (her dad is lauded songwriter Jason Sellers), but the "new" in the title of her fantastic debut LP, New City Blues, hints at the modern spin Sellers puts on her music, blending country with a little taste of Sixties garage-rock and electrifying flashes of cool confidence. Thursday, The Park Stage

Jon Pardi

BLOOMINGTON, IL - MAY 09: Jon Pardi performs at US Cellular Coliseum on May 9, 2015 in Bloomington, Illinois. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

Daniel Boczarski/Getty

Jon Pardi

This California native has been on the verge of a breakthrough for some years now and he may finally have it with "Head Over Boots," which is as sweetly swinging as country love songs get these days. Pardi's new album California Sunrise will be released on June 17th and — like his debut — injects his Bakersfield-centric brand of country traditionalism with a youthful energy that doesn't sound trapped in the amber of the Sixties. Sunday, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage

Shenandoah

Courtesy Of Absolute Publicity

Shenandoah

Musical chops was never a question with Shenandoah, considering their formation from session players in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But adding the high-lonesome sound of singer Marty Raybon to the equation resulted in one of the Nineties' most enduring bands, with hits like "The Church on Cumberland Road," "Two Dozen Roses" and "Saturday in the South," the last of which was directly referenced by Miranda Lambert on her album Platinum. Go relive those halcyon days. Thursday, Durango Music Spot; Friday, AT&T Skyview Stage at Ascend Amphitheater

Brandy Clark

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 08: Musician Brandy Clark performs onstage during The 57th Annual GRAMMY Awards at the STAPLES Center on February 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty

Brandy Clark

Perplexingly early set time aside (10:00 a.m., really?), Brandy Clark's slot on one of the festival's free stages — the same day her album Big Day in a Small Town comes out — is sure to be a big draw. Since the release of her breakthrough 12 Stories, Clark has learned to adapt herself to stages big and small, telling her stories as quiet conversations or directing them at the back of the arena in her big, bell-clear voice. It's hard to know which Clark will show up for CMA Fest, but it hardly matters when she comes armed with another album's worth of incredible storytelling. Friday, Chevrolet Riverfront Stage

Jack Ingram

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 16: Jack Ingram 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 Images

Jack Ingram

Seven years have passed since the Texas troubadour has released an album. But so what? When he hits the stage and slams into "Measure of a Man," "Barbie Doll" or his classic kiss-off anthem "Love You," he ignites the crowd like a twentysomething newbie trying to prove himself for the first time. You can’t learn Ingram's no-nonsense charisma, vivid lyrics and affinity for raw, high-impact, hard-rockin' country in a Belmont University classroom. No, he matriculated on the Lone Star club circuit, where you're good or you're gone. Like the red-dirt heroes he celebrates in "That's a Man," he's a survivor. Sunday, Chevrolet Park Stage

Chris Stapleton

LOUISVILLE, KY - JULY 18: Chris Stapleton performs during day 2 at the 2015 Forecastle festival at Waterfront Park on July 18, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/WireImage)

Timothy Hiatt/WireImage/Getty

Chris Stapleton

Following his sensational CMA Awards performance with Justin Timberlake back in November, Chris Stapleton immediately became one of the hottest tickets in all of country music. Multiple sold-out nights in every city beckoned an intense, feverish hysteria from the crowds lucky enough to see the Kentucky native perform — he doesn't traffic in showy rock & roll stage moves, he just sings and strums his guitar. But with a voice as big and powerful as Stapleton's singing about breaking up and getting stoned, anything else would be overkill. Friday, Nissan Stadium

Drew Baldridge

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - APRIL 16: Drew Baldridge performs onstage during Tortuga Music Festival on April 16, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage)

Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage/Getty

Drew Baldridge

Funky horns and a guitar scratching James Brown-like licks are habitually Drew Baldridge's co-stars when he hits the stage. The country-music newcomer also needs plenty of room up front to show off his dance moves. For his forthcoming debut album, Dirt On Us, the lanky Illinoisian wrote uptempo songs with his live performance in mind. His single debut, "Dance With Ya," along with "Train," "Everyday Light" and "Everywhere I Go," were built to accommodate instrumental breakdown sections where Baldridge can flaunt his love for Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind & Fire. Friday, Chevrolet Cruze Park Stage

Frankie Ballard

SANTA ROSA, CA - JUNE 05: Frankie Ballard performs during Country Summer Music Festival at Sonoma County Fairgrounds on June 5, 2016 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Frankie Ballard

With three consecutive Number One songs in "Helluva Life," "Sunshine & Whiskey" and "Young & Crazy," guitar-wielding Michigander Frankie Ballard has carved out a promising future — as well as his own niche, that of the cool Fifties country greaser. His new album El Rio arrives on Friday, June 10th, so be prepared for a little extra fire in his playing during CMA Music Festival: his lightning-quick blues guitar licks are especially enviable. If the early releases from El Rio are any indication, like the smoldering "Cigarette," Ballard has only turned up the energy (and the amps) since his first taste of success. Friday, HGTV Lodge; Friday, Nissan Stadium

Brenda Lee

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 09: Country and Rock N Roll Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee performs at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the CMA Theater on December 9, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMHOF)

Rick Diamond/Getty

Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee is "only" 71 years old, which is actually pretty young for somebody whose career goes back six decades — when she emerged as "Little Miss Dynamite" herself, large of voice despite being all of four-feet, nine-inches tall. Since then, Lee has gone on to become the rare performer who is in both the Rock and Roll and Country Halls of Fame (and she still has an annual gig announcing each year's inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame). Among Lee's CMA appearances this year will be a "Girl Talk" session alongside fellow veteran hitmaker Jeannie Seely and the always-enchanting Holly Williams. Friday, CMA Close Up Stage

Jamie Floyd

Courtesy of Alliance

Jamie Floyd

From the deep Southern sultriness of emboldened tunes like "Casino," to the clear-eyed, full-on vulnerability of "The Blade," Jamie Floyd's live show is a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride, but well worth the twists and turns. Fans of Ashley Monroe's "The Blade," which serves as the title cut of the Pistol Annies singer's most recent LP, already know Floyd, a Florida native, has a firm grasp on heartbreak and devastation, but swampy rockers including "Hey Love" and "The Devil Don't Live in Georgia" are delivered with gator-like bite that's wicked and fearless. Floyd's Sunshine & Rainbows EP is a brief, thrilling glimpse into a bright musical future. Saturday, CMA Close Up Stage

Courtney Cole

GEORGE, WA - JULY 31: Courtney Cole performs at the Watershed Music Festival at The Gorge on July 31, 2015 in George, Washington. (Photo by Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic)

Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic/Getty

Courtney Cole

Talented Courtney Cole had the incredible (and incredibly difficult) job of opening shows on Miranda Lambert's Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour last fall and somehow only needed a couple of acoustic guitars and a cajon to win over fans. With songs like "Drunk" and "Ladylike," the Mandeville, Louisiana, native balances sweetness and sentimentality with a progressive feminist streak and a casual ease with melody, flexing her impressive range strategically for maximum impact. If the crowds are anything like the unsuspecting folks who saw her on Lambert's tour, she should have them eating out of the palm of her hand by the second song. Sunday, Gildan Broadway Stage at Hard Rock Cafe

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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