Americana music has experienced unprecedented growth over the last few years, both in fanbase and styles included within the genre. With such expansion, it comes as little surprise that many U.S. music festivals have started including more Americana acts on their lineups. Bonnaroo has always been ahead of the curve in this area. In the seven years I have been to the festival prior to this year, I have watched the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Margo Price, Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson, and many more come across the Bonnaroo Stages.
This year’s lineup arguably included more Americana and folk bands than ever before. When you add in the return of Thursday’s legendary Grand Ole Opry show, you could have made a schedule that was your own Americana and folk festival within the festival. While I made sure to take in as many sights and sounds that Bonnaroo had to offer, I also carved out plenty of time to listen to many of the amazing Americana artists featured on The Farm each day:
Friday June 14:
As an unseasonably chilly morning made way for a sunny, but mild afternoon, we made our way into the festival’s main event area Centeroo just in time to hear the first few rocking blues notes from Ida Mae lifting from the Who Stage. Walking up to the stage, I had expected to find the husband and wife duo supported by a full band. Their sound was thick with nuanced tones that my mind attributed to heard at least 4 instruments. However, it turned out that the rich sound was mostly attributable to guitarist Chris Turpin’s masterful use of the resonator guitar. The set featured plenty of traditionally folksy roots influences with songs like “Reaching,” and “If You Don’t Love Me.” The latter featured heavy doses of falsetto from Chris Turpin that were perfectly matched on harmonies by wife Stephanie Jean. Most notable from their set was the way their heavier blues rocker, “My Girl Is A Heartbreak,” drew the passing festival crowd into the show. The song noticeably stepped out of their normal folk roots with a wailing guitar edge that drew comparisons in the crowd to Jack White and was an audience favorite.
Just around the corner and across the massive field that holds Bonnaroo’s main stage, festival veterans The Avett Brothers were getting set to take the stage. Over the years, The Avetts have picked banjos and foot-stomped beats across most of the festival’s tents and stages. In 2019, the trend is for electric bands to go acoustic in concert. Never conformists, the Avetts, known for their traditional sound, opened their set with a rocking edge, featuring heavy doses of electric guitar. After a few songs, the band returned to their acoustic roots with crowd favorite, “Talk on Indolence,” which they quickly followed with the acoustic/electric blended, “Ain’t No Man,” which had fans clapping along. Later in the set, there was a field-wide singalong to the optimistically sad “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” followed by the whole crowd swaying to “January Wedding.” The Avetts proved why they are always a Bonnaroo favorite no matter whether it was back in 2008 or now in 2019.
Saturday June 15:
How to listen to a Ruston Kelly Concert: Step one, ponder the coexistence of sadness and redemption when he plays “Blackout” and “Big Brown Bus.” Step two, get nostalgically punk with a slow tempo, emo laden cover of Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag.” Step three, get “Mockingbird” stuck in your head for the rest of Bonnaroo and the week after. Kelly is a continuous ebb and flow of melancholy and hope. You feel his emotions in each lyric, which has an infectious way of connecting to his audience.
It had been several years since I had taken in the folksy blues riffs of Shovels & Rope in concert. Seven years to be exact. The husband and wife duo are as musically linked as they have ever been. Whether pairing harmonies, jamming, or even talking to the crowd, the pair has a fluid symmetry. For Bonnaroo, the duo put together a career and influence spanning show. They hit on their earlier, rawer works with the toe-tapping “Birmingham,” and the foot stomping energy of “O’ Be Joyful,” but weaved in some of their newer, and more polished songs like the Appalachian rich “The Devil Is All Around,” and the folk-synth filled “I’m Coming Out.” It was a set that inspired plenty of head nodding and large groups of dancing around the fringes of the packed crowd.
As the sun started to set, one of the largest audiences of the entire weekend was assembling in anticipation of Kacey Musgraves taking the Which Stage. Having always heard about her amazing shows but never actually experiencing one before, the show was on my “can’t miss” list. Starting with hits, “Slow Burn” and “Wonder Woman,” I noticed that some of her more faithful fans were in tears, soaking in the moment. In the twilight, couples slow danced to “Golden Hour.” Before the end of the set, Musgraves led the crowd in a singalong cover of “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips—a cover that fit right in with her emotionally tender set.
Sunday June 16:
Before I knew what happened, it was already Sunday at Bonnaroo. I have long argued that the festival saves the best for last and I had been anticipating Sunday’s performances weeks in advance.
Ever since her show stopping performance at the 2018 Americana Music Awards and Honors, I had been on a mission to see Brandi Carlile in concert. A prior attempt to see her at a different festival had been thwarted by a rain delay that became a rain cancellation. With the sun shining bright, I found I wasn’t the only one with high anticipation for her concert, as the line for the pit area snaked down the side of the stage and out into the What Stage field. Carlile didn’t disappoint.
While she has always been known for emotionally charged and revealing lyrics, she took it a step further sharing deeply personal stories of love, sadness, and hope between each song. However, you can never mistake Carlile’s openness for weakness. She has an edge of strength in her voice that won’t allow it. Whether dedicating her tender ode to parenthood, “The Mother,” to all the fathers at Bonnaroo—it was Father’s Day—or sharing the pain of a difficult breakup on “Every Time I Hear That Song,” Carlile was simply so genuine, you felt an immediate bond, even if you’ve never gone through the same challenges. The Bonnaroo crowd also got a surprise appearance when Carlile collaborator Tanya Tucker stopped by to share a shot of tequila and one of her new songs, “The Wheels of Laredo.”
Of course, the show stopping moment was Carlile’s live performance of her Grammy winning hit, “The Joke.” With amazing vocal clarity that is only broken by perfectly timed emotional hitches, Carlile led the swaying crowd that was singing along. It was easily one of the top shows that I have been to in my eight years on The Farm.
With only one more Americana act on our schedule, it was time to face the sad reality that Bonnaroo 2019 was almost over. Fortunately, it was set to end on a strong note with over an hour of folk-filled, handcrafted and a touch pretentious songs from The Lumineers. The last time I had been to one of their concerts, it was in a venue that could barely hold 1,000 people. At Bonnaroo, the band proved that their jamming live show can fit on any stage and reach any sized audience. It was about halfway through the set when the band played their latest single “Gloria,” which reminded me that some of my favorite “older” songs they played, including “Ophelia” and “Cleopatra” aren’t all that old. I’ve just listened to them so many times they feel like classics. Before signing off to put another year of Bonnaroo in the books, The Lumineers returned to the stage for a touching encore tribute to Tom Petty with their version of “Walls.” Around me, people danced, embraced, and swayed, holding on to the last minutes of the festival in a scene that captured all of the things that make Bonnaroo the special place that it is.
[Coverage and Photos by George & Sammi Maifair]