Buckle Up Music Festival: Top 9 can't miss performers

CINCINNATI -- With so many artists booked for Cincinnati's first country music festival this weekend, Buckle Up, how do you know who to see?

We're here to help. 

It's a bit obvious to include the four headliners as "can't miss" acts but they are worth seeing.

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Alabama, extremely popular among an older crowd of country fans, has had 27 crossover hits, selling more than 75 million albums and singles, and won more than 100 awards during their biggest run in the '80s. They've been regarded as one of the most popular acts in American music history and one of the first country bands to receive significant air-play across the nation. Alabama plays Friday on the main stage to close the night out. Listen to 'Song of the South."

Alison Krauss is a bluegrass-country singer, songwriter and musician who plays the fiddle. She has won 27 GRAMMY awards, and is one of the youngest awarded stars of her time. She plays just before the final act on the main stage Saturday night. Listen to 'When You Say Nothing At All.'

Willie Nelson, still kickin' at 81 years old, has spent more than 60 years of his life writing and composing. He's put out 68 albums and became increasingly popular during the '70s. He was also one of the main figures during the "outlaw country" times; a subgenre of country music during the late '60s in Nashville. He closes out a busy Saturday night on the main stage. Listen to 'Maria.'

The final headliner on Sunday, sibling trio The Band Perry, released their first album in 2010 with a No. 1 hit following three years later. The group won breakthrough video of the year and ACM's top new artist of the year in 2011. They played in a pre-game show of this year's Super Bowl and opened at the ACM Awards. Listen to 'If I Die Young.'

As for the rest, while Buckle Up is branded as a country music festival, it isn't entirely country. For those who are on the fence about the genre, this festival is perfect for you. The majority of performers are Americana artists, not country, although they fall under the same umbrella. Many performers, like Alabama, have three tiers to their composition -- gospel, classic rock and bluegrass country. Other performers, like Houndmouth, wouldn't really be classified as "country" by any means of today's standards. They are alternative, with hints of twang and folk-rock.

So make some time for our top nine "can't miss" performers (that aren't headliners). And check the noteworthy acts at the bottom!


Eric Paslay

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About: In 2011, Palsay broke into the music scene as a songwriter, most notably for the No. 1 hit "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" by Jake Owen. The same year, he was signed onto EMI Records and released four singles within that time, including his breakout song, "Friday Night", which sat comfortably on the Billboard top 20 for weeks. In 2013, Paslay was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Country Song, ACM Song of the Year and CMA Song Of The Year for his writing for Eli Young Band's “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.” In February of this year, he released his first solo album. He's opened for Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Blake Shelton and is on Brantley Gilbert's "Let It Ride" tour this summer. He has a pop-country sound and knows how to play to a crowd.

Playing: At the VIP tent from 2:15 - 2:30 p.m. then on the main stage from 5:45-6:45 on Friday, July 18.

The Cadillac 3

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About: Formerly known as The Cadillac Black, Jaren Johnson, Neil Mason and Kelby Ray make up the trio. Before signing to Big Machine Records in 2013, they co-wrote for Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Jake Owen. Their hit, "The South," features Dierks Bentley and the Eli Young Band. Cadillac 3's sound is a gritty mash-up between Southern rock and country. They try to incorporate nodes from Lynard Skynard, ZZ Top and pop-country favorites Florida Georgia Line into their sound.

Playing: River stage between 5-5:45 p.m. on Friday, July 18

Eli Young Band

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About: Mike Eli, James Young, Jon Jones and Chris Thompson released their first self-titled album in 2002 but it was in 2008 that they signed with Universal South Records followed by Republic Nashville. Their song, "Crazy Girl," held the No. 1 spot on Billboard for quite some time, becoming their first platinum-selling digital single. The band has won ACM's top vocal group of the year, breakout artist of the year in 2012 and was nominated for a GRAMMY in both best duo performance and best country song. I'm very surprised they aren't featured as one of the headliners to draw in a younger crowd. Their music is fresh, yet original and true to the American country scene.

Playing: On the main stage from 7:45-9 p.m Friday, July 18

Sam Hunt

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About: Hunt is one of Nashville's artists on the verge; very similar in becoming a breakthrough artist just like Eric Paslay. He's only had two singles released but he's already been signed with MCA Nashville. Before 2014, he co-wrote Kenny Chesney's "Come Over," Keith Urban's "Cop Car," and Billy Currington's hot-hit, "We Are Tonight." 

Playing: In the VIP tent from 3-3:15 p.m. then on the main stage, on Sunday, from 5-6 p.m.

David Nail

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About: Nail signed with Mercury Nashville Records in 2002 but was signed onto a bigger label, MCA Nashville, in 2007. Before his first No. 1 hit, "Let It Rain," in 2011, he co-wrote alongside Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts' lead singer, Gary LeVox. He's more known for a few great hits than a popular album, but he's featured across the nation and has received a GRAMMY nod.

Playing: On Sunday, on the main stage, from 7-8 p.m.

Thompson Square

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About: Thompson Square is an American country music duo composed of husband and wife, Keifer and Shawna Thompson. They signed to Stoney Creek Records in 2010, releasing their breakthrough single, "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not." It was debuted on the Hot Country Songs chart and later became a double-platinum selling song. They were recognized as the top vocal duo at the ACM Awards in 2012 and have opened for A-list performers like Luke Bryan. For today's country crowd, Thompson Square -- along with the Eli Young Band -- are extremely popular and I'm surprised they weren't given more attention when promoting Buckle Up.

Playing: On Sunday, on the main stage before The Band Perry, from 8-9 p.m.

Ashley Monroe

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About: Monroe has gotten a little lost in the lime-light shuffle, but she has the potential to hit it big again with the right audience.  Those true country music fans should remember her as was one of three members of Pistol Annies, along with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. She landed a publishing deal with Sony Records just before 2006 and released a single featured with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn. She co-wrote for Katrina Elam, which was then recorded by Carrie Underwood, as well as Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert. She's better known for her songwriting and duet features but she has one helluva voice!

Playing: On Friday, on the river stage, from 6:45-7:45 p.m.

Jamie Lynn Spears

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About: Most notably, she's the younger sister of Britney Spears and Nickelodeon star. But in 2013, she took her hand as a country artist, releasing one single, "How Could I Want More." She has a surprisingly nice voice that's fitting for country, channeling a little of Hillary Scott, Britney Spears and Lee Ann Womack (as noted by a CMT critic). She played at CMT Fest recently and received a few nods from the country community.

Playing: On Friday, on the Bud Light Stage from 3:30-4:15 p.m.

Blackjack Billy

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About: Rob Blackledge, Noll Billings, Jeff Coplan, Patrick Cornell and Brad Cummings make up the country-rock group who released a debut single without a major record label. Taste of Country, a music outlet, gave that debut five-stars and it was listed on iTunes as the biggest-selling independent song sold in the first half of 2013. Following the popularity of "Booze Cruise" they were signed to Bigger Picture Group. Oh, and two of them are Dayton, Ohio natives. Their sound is much like Jake Owen's new "Beachin'" and serves well to a party-crowd. 

Playing: On Sunday, on the river stage, from 4:15-5 p.m.

Too bad we couldn't fit all the noteworthy acts! There are so many, including some hometown favorites (so show them some love!)

Others to check out: Sturgill Simspon, Drive-By Truckers, EmmyLou Harris, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Kentucky Timbre, The Tillers, Jamey Johnson and the Kentucky Struts.

WCPO's Jane Andreasik and Matt Peiken are covering Buckle Up all weekend. Connect with Jane on Twitter: @jandreasik and follow @WCPOarts for coverage.

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