This year's CMA Music Festival sees performances at multiple downtown stages, from superstars and relative unknowns alike. To see the full lineup and schedule, visit Look below to read our picks for artists playing LP Field and Riverfront Park.

Thursday, 5th

When "Big Kenny" Alphin and John Rich emerged in the early Aughts, they were the precursors to a major crossover: brash hip-hop braggadocio making its way into commercial country sensibilities. The 2004 hit "Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy" pushed Big and Rich into the big time, and a decade later, the two have started their own label (Big and Rich Records, naturally). Neither performer has had a whole lot of success on his own — when they attempted solo careers, both albums were flops. Expect a lot of winking, outsized party anthems mixed equally with veering guitar solos and power ballads. 10 a.m. at Riverfront Park CAITLIN WHITE

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While most major-label country artists rely on Music Row songsmiths to provide material, Eric Paslay has a good track record as a songwriter, scoring cuts with Jake Owen ("Barefoot Blue Jean Night"), Eli Young Band ("Even If It Breaks Your Heart") and Love and Theft ("Angel Eyes"). Paslay's self-titled EMI debut peaked at No. 4 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, and the single "Friday Night" made it to No. 6 on the Hot Country Songs chart, suggesting he might be getting some traction. A fine solo acoustic version of "Less Than Whole" on YouTube proves the MTSU grad doesn't need glitz or Auto-Tune to get a song across, and his genuine down-home charm — devoid of the cheesy swagger common in male country stars — makes it hard not to root for him. 11:15 a.m. at Riverfront Park JACK SILVERMAN

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With their black leather jackets and heads sporting neither cowboy hat nor trucker cap, duo Love and Theft doesn't exactly look the part of dirt-road country boys on the cover of their latest single, "Night That You'll Never Forget." And there's an '80s soft-rock vibe here, from cuts like "Angel Eyes" (literally sharing a title with an '80s soft-rock hit) to the aforementioned "Night That You'll Never Forget." But it's not like the specter of Alan Parsons hasn't been haunting Music Row for a while now — hey, it's 4 a.m. somewhere, and these guys have a song for that. 3 p.m. at Riverfront Park STEVE HARUCH

There's a nice little spot Charlie Worsham has cleared for himself in contemporary country — earnest throwbacks to the left of him, Silverado lift kits to the right — and he's got a voice that lets him bridge songwriter's-songwriter cleverness and cuts-to-the-heart immediacy. It's not hard to imagine him playing an even bigger CMA Fest slot in the not-too-distant future, so this is a good chance to catch him in smaller confines while the gettin's good. 12:45 p.m. at Riverfront Park STEVE HARUCH

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Critics may take a listen to that throaty frog voice and a look at those frat-boy-on-molly moves and say, "Why Luke Bryan?" But if you saw the singer take LP Field into the palm of his hand at last year's CMA Fest, the question is, "Why not Luke Bryan?" This year, the patron saint of "bro county" — with sun-soaked, keg-beer-drenched chart-toppers like "Drunk on You," "Crash My Party" and "Drink a Beer" — became a stadium headliner in his own right. That's proof positive that big things can happen when you take Toby Keith's populist party songs ("Red Solo Cup," y'all!) and replace his hard-to-look-at hair and face and asshole-ish dickishness (or dickish asshole-ness) with some kindhearted, good-ol'-frat-boy aw-shucksiness. 8:27 p.m. at LP Field ADAM GOLD

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The best material on Dierks Bentley's new album Riser recalls some of the stronger songs featured on ABC's Nashville — in other words, the hipper side of mainstream country. And that makes sense, given that co-producer Ross Copperman helmed the controls for several Nashville tracks by the likes of Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Chip Esten and Clare Bowen. Even "Pretty Girls" and "Drunk on a Plane" — which lyrically wander into bro-country territory — still manage to sound fresher than similarly cliché-ridden country radio fare. A couple of fine duets — "Bourbon in Kentucky" (with Kacey Musgraves) and the ballad "Hurt Somebody" (with Chris Stapleton) — provide Riser's most satisfying moments. Playing before a hometown crowd of 60,000 or so, Bentley is sure to provide one of the festival's strongest sets. 9:51 p.m. at LP Field JACK SILVERMAN

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While sports and media personalities continue to duke it out over whether or not the Washington Redskins' name is a slur, Tim McGraw plays his 1993 novelty number "Indian Outlaw" every night on tour and zero fucks are given. His return tonight to the CMA Fest stage — where, last year, with some help from Keith Urban, he stole the stage from self-proclaimed admirer Taylor Swift on a show-stopping rendition of the trio's "Highway Don't Care" — will likely feature "Outlaw" and other Tim favorites, perhaps along with a cut or two from the singer's forthcoming 13th studio album Sundown Heaven Town. At a recent stadium show supporting George Strait, McGraw was joined by his superstar wife Faith Hill — the Hillary to his Bill; the Bey to his Jay — to duet on hits like Hill's own "This Kiss" and covers of Mötley Crüe's "Dr. Feelgood" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." Festivalgoers can only keep fingers crossed and have faith that Tim's Thursday night stadium-show closer will, er, have Faith. 11:10 p.m. at LP Field ADAM GOLD


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Danielle Bradbery landed the role of America's Sweetheart last year when she became the youngest winner of NBC's The Voice at age 16, possessing a technical prowess beyond her years. Her association with Team Blake — Shelton, that is, who headlines tonight's festivities at LP Field — led her to Nashville. Specifically, to Big Machine Records, where she released her self-titled debut last fall, featuring the singles "Heart of Dixie" and "Young in America." Bradbery's song "My Day" was featured as NBC's theme song for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and she is currently featured on the We Are Not Invisible Tour with fellow wunderkind Hunter Hayes. 11:15 a.m. at Riverfront Park ABBY WHITE

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With her 2012 LP 100 Proof, the former American Idol contender shut up anybody who'd written her off as a pop-country twinkie: It's a dynamite honky-tonk record with feeling, fury and vocal firepower to spare, and its nods to Tammy Wynette and other greats came off as a justified show of solidarity, not mere trad-country lip service. Last year's The Woman I Am came close to that high-water mark; here's hoping she leverages that career boost from Dancing With the Stars to get her records the attention they deserve. 3:45 p.m. at Riverfront Stage JIM RIDLEY

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The pay phone has all but disappeared, but "Here's a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)" is forever — at least in any fine establishment where the jukebox trumps TV. And the underrated Tritt has hung in there too, keeping honky-tonk safe for soulful roughnecks with a voice as strong as homemade hooch (and the same burn at the back of the throat). Last year's The Calm After ... is worth a listen just for his spot-on cover of the Faces' "Stay With Me," wherein he gives Rod Stewart's rasp a run for its money. 7:55 p.m. at LP Field JIM RIDLEY

It's pretty fitting that Eric Church is sandwiched somewhere on a bill between veteran country rockers Alabama and modern country king Blake Shelton. And it won't be much of a surprise if he steals the show. Whether singing a nostalgic summer anthem like "Springsteen" or the gargantuan, hip-hop-y stadium bar blues of "The Outsiders," Church's rule-breaking brand of country — a conflation of Southern rock, balladeer crooning, outlaw bravado and heavy-metal thunder — has made the perennially aviators-sporting superstar one of the most singular, unpredictable (albeit nasally) voices in a genre often encumbered by predictable clichés. And onstage, the singer strives to match the energy of a certain namesake of his biggest hit. 8:27 p.m. at LP Field ADAM GOLD

Follically blessed sibling trio The Band Perry has racked up multiple ACM, CMA and CMT awards since the release of their self-titled debut in 2010, which included the quadruple platinum single "If I Die Young," written by lead singer Kimberly Perry. On last year's Dann Huff-produced Pioneer, Kimberly, Neil and Reid Perry proved that they're at least a little bit rock 'n' roll — they've been known to cover Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" live — with hits like "Better Dig Two" and "Done." 9:09 p.m. at LP Field ABBY WHITE

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Jason Aldean has been at the helm of the country subgenre known as bro country since its inception, and the success of artists like Luke Bryan and Tyler Farr seems partially due to his trail-blazing. When Ludacris hopped on the remix of "Dirt Road Anthem" in 2011, few probably realized that rap-and-country crossover wasn't the flash in the pan it seemed. Aldean delivers appropriately stadium-sized performances that celebrate backwoods partying and nod to hip-hop. 9:51 p.m. at LP Field CAITLIN WHITE

His wife may be gracing this week's Scene cover, but it's Voice coach and household name Blake Shelton who will shut down Friday night's festivities with a headlining set directly following the aforementioned Ms. Lambert's. Shelton's most recent record, Based on a True Story ... (the fifth single from which, "My Eyes," was released in April), received mixed reviews, but that didn't stop folks from buying it: According to Nielsen SoundScan, True Story was the ninth bestselling album of the year, with more than a million units sold. What's more, Shelton is probably the only person playing today with his own official Pizza Hut pizza style (i.e., Blake's Smokehouse BBQ), for whatever that's worth. 11:15 p.m. at LP Field D. PATRICK RODGERS

Saturday, 7th

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Unlike a lot of the groups you're liable to see on a big stage this weekend, The Cadillac Three is a real honest-to-God homegrown Nashvillian band. Its three members belonged to local rock outfit Bang Bang Bang (later changing their name to American Bang) before re-forming as Cadillac Black (later changing their name to The Cadillac Three). Now that frontman Jaren Johnson has co-written hits for the likes of Jake Owen, Keith Urban and Tim McGraw, and his band has found success with their tune "The South" — a Southern-till-I-die anthem featuring guest vocals from Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line and Eli Young Band's Mike Eli — you probably don't have to worry about them changing their name again any time soon. Probably. 3:45 p.m. at Riverfront Park D. PATRICK RODGERS

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"Looking back now, I should have let him run," Maggie Rose sings in what almost sounds like a prequel to Sara Evans' wise-to-the-world post-divorce catalog. Star power isn't always staying power, but on appealingly pop-infused numbers like "I Ain't Your Mama" and the aforementioned "Looking Back Now," the artist formerly known as Margaret Durante shows plenty of promise as an upstart with just enough hitch in her vocal giddy-up to bring the post-Shania twang. 4:30 p.m. at Riverfront Park STEVE HARUCH

Plenty of people upload goofy videos of themselves to YouTube that end in playful Taylor Swift covers, but not so many of them are seven albums into a Music Row career that spans three decades — so that puts Sara Evans in a league of her own. On her latest, Slow Me Down, you can feel the lived-in emotion on songs like the Vince Gill-enhanced "Better Off," and she shows off the range and charisma that have given her staying power for this long. (No T-Swizzle covers, though, alas.) 7:55 p.m. at LP Field STEVE HARUCH

How do you follow up one of the most dramatic career turnarounds of the decade? First, by releasing a hotly awaited new single, "Day Drinking," in advance of a still-untitled album; second, by hosting this weekend's festival and its August broadcast on ABC. Country's answer to ABBA made a huge commercial breakthrough with the irresistibly gimmicky single "Pontoon" and their award-winning album Tornado (getting more than a little help from production by '80s Rock Block denizen Jay Joyce). Will bad weather strike twice? 9:04 p.m. at LP Field JIM RIDLEY

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The culmination of country and rap's intermingling comes in the form of duo Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard, aka Florida Georgia Line. Spitting bars alongside Nelly in the remix of 2012's monster-truck summer smash "Cruise," FGL proved country-rap was here to stay — and the masses love it. Following up their commercial-smash debut Here's to the Good Times might be hard to do, but the release of their latest Luke Bryan-featuring single "This Is How We Roll" hints that they have no intention of slowing down. Their lovable charm infiltrates carefree celebratory songs and slower, more intimate moments with ample grace. 10:18 p.m. at LP Field CAITLIN WHITE

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Last year, thanks in part to crowd-befuddling surprise guest Lenny Kravitz's disastrous 15-minutes-too-long performance, headliner Keith Urban had to cut his set short after only five songs. But the singer still had one of the greatest stage exits this side of Elvis when he walked through the crowd mid-guitar solo, got into a red truck parked on sideline and drove into a tunnel and out of the stadium while fireworks erupted overhead. Seriously, how great would it be if the "Sweet Thing" singer makes his entrance this year by rolling to the stage in the same red truck and just picking up where he left off? 11 p.m. at LP Field ADAM GOLD


With six No. 1 singles to her credit since the mid-1990s, Canadian chart-topper Clark is overdue for another: Maybe her new single "Some Songs" will do the trick. It's been almost 20 years since she hit the Top 10 with a cover of Warren Zevon's "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," and two years ago she tested her strength as an interpreter on an album's worth of country standards titled simply Classic. She says online that she's been rehearsing hard in town for this show — and with true Canadian politesse, she's advising fans to dress cool for the downtown heat. 10 a.m. at Riverfront Stage JIM RIDLEY

Last year's Dos Divas project didn't have the spark (or the strong material) you'd expect from the pairing of these stellar pros. But their double-barreled Grits and Glamour Tour has gotten raves — not just for their reservoir of hits, from "Something in Red" to "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial," but for a smartly chosen repertoire that encompasses Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" as well as nods to their lineage as country royalty. Here's a chance to see a headliner-quality show in a schedule-friendly afternoon slot. 2:15 p.m. at Riverfront Stage JIM RIDLEY

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If there's one to watch at this year's CMA Fest, it's Thomas Rhett. Recently wrapping Brantley Gilbert's Let It Ride Tour, the son of Rhett Akins boasts back-to-back No. 1 singles with "It Goes Like This" and "Get Me Some of That" from his fall 2013 debut It Goes Like This. The 24-year-old also penned Florida Georgia Line's multi-week No. 1 "Round Here," Jason Aldean's "1994" and Lee Brice's "Parking Lot Party." After a steady stream of sold-out headlining shows, fairs and festivals throughout the country this summer, Rhett will hit the road with Miranda Lambert and Justin Moore in August. 8:27 p.m. at LP Field ABBY WHITE

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Last year, Lady A's lone lady Hilary Scott performed at the CMA Fest eight months pregnant, and the passing year brought more than a new baby to this seven-time Grammy winning trio. In May, they released "Bartender," the first single from their upcoming fifth studio album, which Scott wrote with bandmates Dave Haywood and Charles Kelly and hit-maker Rodney Clawson. This is the only Nashville stop on the group's Take Me #DowntownTour, so catch them while you can. 9:04 p.m. at LP Field ABBY WHITE

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Hunter Hayes is poised to be America's next country sweetheart, earning accolades from crowds and publications that generally shun the heartland's stars. A Louisiana boy with a distinct interest in Cajun culture, Hayes has harnessed the same pop-country formula that made Keith Urban into an international star. His rollicking love songs run the gamut from loved-and-lost to true romance, and his sophomore album Storyline promises to be a worthy follow-up to his self-titled debut, which produced the quadruple-platinum "Wanted." 9:41 p.m. at LP Field CAITLIN WHITE

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Given they are country music's leading jam band, it's almost cruel and unusual to limit bearded foodie and local festival-purveyor Zac Brown and his sometimes-Dave Grohl-featuring Zac Brown Band's performance to a mandatory, curfew-abiding 30 minutes. Last year, when closing out CMA Fest's first night, Brown & Co. called Kenny Rogers to the stage for a surprise performance of the "The Gambler." Seeing as how Brown's own Southern Ground Music and Food Festival (hopefully due back in Nashville for the third year in a row this fall) typically includes a star-studded "and friends" style jam sesh, a stadium-rattling special guest appearance of some sort seems downright inevitable for this final-night performance. Throw in a little bit of "Chicken Fried" and you're sure to have one helluva half-hour set. 10:18 p.m. at LP Field ADAM GOLD

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When his tour brought him to Nashville's Bridgestone Arena in February, guitar-slinging superstar Brad Paisley put on an outsized show that featured two-story LED walls and an 8-foot puppet. Sunday night's headlining set — the last performance of the festival — probably won't feature all the bells and whistles of a full, proper Paisley set, but it probably will include a performance of the brand-new summertime-vibin' single "River Bank" from Paisley's forthcoming Moonshine in the Trunk. And don't be surprised if the famously wisecracking crooner has a couple of jokes up his sleeve as well. 11 p.m. at LP Field D. PATRICK RODGERS




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