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.
4. Elle King. 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sunrise Stage. Elle King is the sort of singer/songwriter who wields heartbreak like a gleaming pistol. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Ohio, King has a sound that was forged on the road, as she hopped among London, Malibu, Memphis, and New York. This musical vagabond and her raspy, rowdy style borrow from the garage fuzz of the White Stripes, the blues-rock of the Black Keys, and the street-smart rebellion of Amy Winehouse. In her live shows, paired with the banjo-happy antics of Mumford and Sons, King is a whirlwind of sounds and perhaps one of the most original acts taking the stage at this year’s Tortuga.
3. Walker County. 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sunrise Stage. Perhaps the most traditional country band out of all the artists on this list, Walker County also stands out for the close bond the trio shares. Billy Walker (lead guitar), Ivy Dene Walker (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, bass), and Sophie Dawn Walker (drums, backing vocals) are, you guessed it, a family. Sisters Ivy and Sophie take the lead with beautiful two-part harmonies that oscillate from girlish to mighty in one fell swoop, while their dad, Billy, lays it down on guitar, a veteran in the industry, having been in bluegrass bands previously. Forming in 2006 when Ivy was 11 years old and Sophie was 8, Walker County follows in the footsteps of the Band Perry and the Dixie Chicks, enveloping their penchant for pop melodies in Southern-fried county rock that sizzles as much as the ladies sparkle.
2. Muddy Magnolias. 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunrise Stage. Brooklyn-native R&B songwriter Jessy Wilson and aspiring guitarist/singer Kallie North from Mississippi via Texas met by chance in Nashville and almost immediately joined forces in the studio. Combining their powerhouse voices and equally strong personalities, Muddy Magnolias was born, and so was their first blues-rock banger of a single, “American Woman.” Since their inception, North and Wilson have expanded their musical palette to incorporate folk, gospel, and Southern rock and have toured with the likes of the Zac Brown Band and Gary Clark Jr. The antithesis of bro-country, Muddy Magnolias are a can’t-miss act.
1. Ryan Hurd. 2:30 p.m. Friday, Sunrise Stage. Blending rugged good looks and enough songwriting chops to pen hits for Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw and other stars, Ryan Hurd is on the cusp of breaking out. He might have one only five-song EP, Panorama, to his name, but that’s far from the extent of his arsenal. The excitement of seeing Hurd at Tortuga extends from the limitless possibilities of his set and the obvious potential of a young singer/songwriter hungry to establish himself on the strength of his tender voice and heartfelt, pop-country tunes.
Tortuga Music Festival
Featuring Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Sam Hunt, Thomas Rhett, and more. Friday, April 15, to Sunday, April 17, along Fort Lauderdale Beach, 1100 Seabreeze Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Single-day tickets start at $100; three-day general-admission tickets start at $199. Visit tortugamusicfestival.com.
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