Eight Underrated Acts at Tortuga Music Festival 2016

Cam has previously written songs for Miley Cyrus.
Cam has previously written songs for Miley Cyrus.
Photo by Nenelle Efremova

The big names need no introduction: Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, and Tim McGraw will draw the biggest crowds of Tortuga 2016. But it’s the little guys, the wildcard acts at the massive, annual country-music beach party, that will provide the surprise thrills. Though most are relative newcomers, several of the artists on this list, including Cam, Muddy Magnolias, and Ryan Hurd, have experience singing and/or writing for huge stars. Their names might not be familiar yet, but these eight acts sure as hell know how to put on a good show.

8. Randy Houser. 5:30 p.m. Friday, Tortuga Stage. The music video for Randy Houser’s “We Went” follows a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-like lovers as they steal from the less deserving and hand out cash to a church and later a struggling single mother. The film and the song combine the two worlds that Houser occupies, the sometimes-sensitive, always manly arena-rock country and the Jamey Johnson, Merle Haggard-led outlaw country. Having written for the likes of Trace Adkins, Houser didn’t see his own work top the charts until 2013, when he was in his mid-30s, with “How Country Feels.” This late-blooming honky-tonk crooner has enjoyed a series of number-ones, continuing his ascent with the recently released Fired Up. 

7. Cam. 1:30 p.m. Friday, Tortuga Stage. After a star-making performance at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards, Cam (born Camaron Marvel Ochs) won’t be flying under the radar much longer. She performed an acoustic version of her single “Burning House” and blew the crowd away. The 31-year-old California native and former Miley Cyrus songwriter satisfies the hunger for pop-country outside of the boys club that makes up the headliners. With a sound that’s a mix of Dolly Parton and Katy Perry and a genre-bending debut LP, Untamed, Cam is on the threshold of superstardom.

6. Drew Baldridge. 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Tortuga Stage. On his current hit single, “Dance With Ya,” Drew Baldridge does his best impression of a country-music Robert Palmer with a serious twang. Despite his country trappings, Baldridge is a product of pop music through and through, having grown up listening to both Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson, in addition to country stalwarts Alabama and Eric Church. Describing his music as “fun, real, and positive,” Baldridge injects every facet of himself — an honest, God-loving, small-town boy who really loves dancing — into each song.

5. Kelsea Ballerini. 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Tortuga Stage. “Xo,” the opening cut off Kelsea Ballerini’s debut album, The First Time, is a girl-power, pop-country ditty torn straight from the pages of a frustrated woman’s diary. Following the blueprint left behind by T-Swift’s country ghost but with a more confident swagger, 22-year-old Ballerini channels the lyrical strength and radio-friendly harmonies of her heroes the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain. Though some might find her approach heavy-handed, even when using metaphors as on “Peter Pan,” Ballerini doesn’t waste time getting to the point. Whether the subject is the divorce of her parents (“Secondhand Smoke”) or the pain women endure to look good (“Stilettos”), Ballerini dresses it all in sparkling robes and catchy sing-alongs.

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