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Dixie Fuller knew what he needed to do, standing at a show in Nashville last October. He just heard a band, a relatively new band, and he needed to find their manager.
There's something about these guys, he thought. He couldn't quite put it into words, the mystique that turns solid musicians into chart-toppers. But whatever the magic is, it coursed through Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line that night.
Fuller knew he needed to act quickly. He found the country duo's manager, and he booked them for this year's Riverbend right there, during the show.
"I remember that look of something that was going to be big," said Fuller, the entertainment director for Riverbend. "They had it. I knew they were going to blow up."
And they have. Florida Georgia Line released its debut album, "Here's to the Good Times," on Dec. 4. A week later, the band's song "Cruise" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music chart.
It still hangs there today, and another Florida Georgia Line song, "Get Your Shine On," sits at No. 5 on the same chart.
On Wednesday night, Hubbard and Kelley won Breakthrough Video of the Year at the CMT Music Awards. And they closed the show with a "Cruise" remix featuring Nelly.
And at 7:45 tonight, the first night of the Riverbend Festival, they will take to the Bud Light Stage. Some say they could draw a record crowd.
Fuller and others involved in booking the show said this year's Riverbend lineup could be the strongest one in recent memory. While the festival sometimes receives criticism for catering mainly to fans of country and classic rock, this year's acts are, overall, younger than those of the past and arguably more relevant.
Of the 10 acts headlining this year's festival, which runs through June 15, four released albums within the last year. That's twice as many acts with new albums as last year, and more than any Riverbend of the past five years.
In addition to Florida Georgia Line, this year's festival is highlighted by Cee Lo Green, who has churned out hits for two decades, first with Goodie Mob in the mid-1990s, then with Gnarls Barkley in the 2000s.
Cee Lo has won five Grammy Awards: two for work with Gnarls Barkley and three for his solo work.
"It's as good of a lineup as we've ever had," Fuller said of this year's shows. "The country acts are high-quality acts. Cee Lo Green? What can you say about him? He's as good as it gets."
Beyond the headliners, those in charge of booking have tried to push for a diverse lineup. Next Thursday, four-time Grammy Award-winning jazz act Larry Carlton will perform on the Unum Stage. Fuller said Riverbend has struggled for years to bring in what he described as a signature jazz artist.
And on June 15, the Unum stage will feature a pair of electronic dance music acts: Cherub and Break Science.
"This is the first time we've really gone full blown and done the EDM weekend," said Jeff Styles, a talk show host on WGOW and a talent coordinator for Riverbend. "That's kind of an experiment."
This year's show isn't quite what Styles hoped for when he and the rest of the staff began to recruit acts. The shows never match a booker's original dream.
Styles said he wanted to sign the alternative rock group Weezer, but the band backed out at the last minute. That would have been as big a signing as Cee Lo and Florida Georgia Line, Styles said.
Instead, he and others reached out to all sorts of acts -- OneRepublic, 311, deadmau5, Gary Clark Jr., the Alabama Shakes. They offered the gig to about three musicians a day, Styles said.
"You couldn't name a band that headlines a festival that we haven't tried," he said. "People don't understand it."
In the end, pop-rock artist Gavin DeGraw signed a contract. He will perform on the Coca-Cola Stage at 10 p.m. June 14.
Styles said he feels good about the lineup, as good as he has for any lineup since he began working for the festival in 1996. But he still expects to hear criticism. He always does.
Styles himself was a critic of Riverbend before he began working for it. On his radio show, he would tell listeners that the festival wasn't hip enough, that the acts weren't as good as this city can get.
He was invited to help make the show better, and he has seen the other side. It's difficult to coordinate these acts. And you want to represent many different musical tastes, he said. That really means you aren't going to represent anyone's musical taste -- not fully, at least.
Still, he said he's happy with the lineup. And he's excited for the shows to start today. And he's ready for the criticism, again.
"There's a certain element of folks out there ... if you gave them the pen, the paper and told them to pick whatever they liked, they still wouldn't go," Styles said. "Some people are just haters."
Contact Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.
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