Despite its standing as one of America’s most sonically diverse music festivals, on paper, Bonnaroo’s lineup is generally pretty light on country, despite the fact that Old Crow Medicine Show actually performed the festival’s opening set when it launched in 2002.
Bonnaroo has a long history of booking traditional country legacy acts like Dwight Yoakam, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and Kenny Rogers — along with jam-band-fest-friendly bluegrass and roots artists. But Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Zac Brown Band and Dierks Bentley are the only mainstream contemporary country entities who’ve ever made the Bonnaroo marquee.
“Country is represented with an asterisk,” Eric Church recently told Rolling Stone. “We have to perform collaborations. We have to perform a tribute. We can’t perform by ourselves. Country music right now is the most popular American format.”
Certainly Church’s comments apply to the country’s major music festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella, which, despite the genre’s commercial dominance, seldom book country stars. But Bonnaroo — which happens on a farm about an hour outside of Nashville — boasts a broader palette than its contemporaries. And yet, country at Bonnaroo is still country with an asterisk. Bentley, Bonnaroo’s lone between-the-margins mainstream country singer (who did play his own Bonnaroo set in 2007), returned to the festival this year, but only as guest on actor/comedian/musician Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation Superjam.
But that doesn’t mean Bonnaroo wasn’t without its country moments this past weekend. You’ve probably already heard about Kanye West, Elton John and even Dierks, so here are some of the festival’s twangier highlights you may have missed. (Keep in mind, though, most Bonnaroovians would probably never think to call these artists “country,” but rather categorize them under more cool-factor-friendly orders like folk, bluegrass, singer-songwriter, roots-rock or Americana.)
Somewhat unsurprisingly, a couple of Bonnaroo’s biggest country moments came courtesy of Jack White, who headlined Saturday night with a triumphant, icon-status-reinforcing, three-hour set. “Tennessee, I know you!” the Volunteer State transplant told the crowd minutes into the show. And he embraced performing in his adopted home state, paying tribute to the Tennessee troubadours that came before him, dedicating the last verse of the White Stripes’ chestnut “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” to George Jones, Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
If White is indeed morphing into his Tennessee forbearers, the effect was clear on performances of the Stripes staples “Hotel Yorba” and “We’re Going to Be Friends.” The former has gone from distorted garage-rock stomper to full-on pickin’ party in the hands of White’s ace backing band — which includes Nashville cats the likes of mad-scientist multi-instumentalists Fats Kaplin and Cory Younts, and fiddle player Lillie Mae Rische — while the latter was augmented into a steel guitar-heavy barroom weeper. Add in an electrifying version of White’s recent Appalachian folk-rocker “Temporary Ground” and you have more traditional country sounds than most main-stage sets at CMA Fest.
Several hours before White took Bonnaroo’s What Stage, more than a hundred yards across the 100,000-plus capacity field, on the tiny, wedding-tent-like “Café Where?” side stage, Sam Hunt made his Bonnaroo debut. Dressed head to toe in white, the towering college football player-turned-Music Row songwriter had a strong clique of country fans singing along to his Keith Urban cut, “Cop Car.” It wasn’t the only song familiar to some in the crowd, as Hunt peppered his hip-hop-beats and alt-rock-guitar-infused pop country with snippets of radio hits like Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and Montel Jordan’s “This Is how We Do It.”
Trucks and red Solo cups were probably far from the minds of the thousands of festivalgoers singing along to Ben Howard’s banjo-, cello- and mandolin-powered, Mumford and Sons-indebted, heart-on-sleeve anthems during the rising indie-folkie’s Friday afternoon appearance on the Which Stage. And festivalgoers who caught Birmingham, Alabama newcomer country duo John and Jacob later that day, at the New Music On Tap Lounge, might have been reminded of radio-friendly, mid-Nineties pop-rock like the Gin Blossoms or the Rembrandts (Yes, the Friends theme band!), when an Everly Brothers comparison is just as apt. A more rockin’ outfit live than on record, the band’s jangly, British Invasion-inspired ditty “Be My Girl” could have easily been a killer Dwight Yoakam cut.
Getting a festival crowd to roar at the sounds of an upright bass is quite a feat, and one that came naturally to the Wood Brothers, who returned to Bonnaroo. Appearing at This Tent, the (mostly) acoustic, minimalist Americana trio bound spells with set highlights like a coffee-house-quiet cover of Los Lobos’ “I Got Loaded” and the title track from their 2013 LP The Muse.
Just around the bend, on the Sonic Stage, Greensky Bluegrass participated in a live Q&A/performance session. A particular highlight was the group trading solos and taking melodic liberties on a delicate-to-urgent rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska classic “Atlantic City” — a song that’s essentially a modern-folk/Americana standard at this point. “Bluegrass festivals are just like this,” singer-mandolin player Paul Hoffman told the crowd.
Not all of Bonnaroo’s roots-y performers were so pensive, though. Bandana-donning, bearded and be-mutton-chopped Atlanta longhairs Blackberry Smoke cranked up their saloon-piano-driven Southern rock Saturday afternoon on the Which Stage. In the same space where 40,000-plus 20-somethings raved hard to the dubstep sounds of Skrillex a mere 12 hours earlier, hoards of sprawled-out sun-bathers, hula-hooping hippies, shirtless noodle dancing bros and at least one person proudly flying a giant Canadian flag with a weed leaf on it, loved on the band as they busted out guitarmonized riff-rockers like “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” and “Up in Smoke”. The latter — a song that, complete with a truck-commercial-ready monster chorus, rife with references to girls in skin-tight britches, redneck backbeats and hillbilly hoedowns — would just as easily fit in between Blake Shelton and Hank Williams Jr. spins on country radio as it did at Bonnaroo. But while the current country standard is to celebrate small-town living, Blackberry Smoke sings about small-town trappings on the soulful country blues “One Horse Town” — a Springsteen-esque set highlight that clearly resonated across a crowd of people who were in their own world on a farm in rural Tennessee.
Getting even grittier on the country rock front, standing in the That Tent audience late Sunday afternoon, (where you could spot Dierks Bentley getting in some Father’s Day time with his kids), watching Shovels and Rope felt like an act of voyeurism. Facing each other on a small riser at the front of the stage, the Southern gothic husband-and-wife garage-folk duo of guitarist-singer Michael Trent and drummer-singer Cary Ann Hearst dripped with sweat, sexual tension and almost unbearable suspense as they fiendishly locked eyes and harmonized on the menacing mellow-drama “Shank Hill St.” like they were the only two people on the planet. Release came with the set-closing, savage, blues-rock stomper “Hail, Hail.”
While that was a little too dirty and distorted to count as a bluegrass moment, it happened on Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation stage, where neo-traditionalist, multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz and a two-piece, strings-only backing band serenaded a hangover-nursing crowd with moody originals like “Tell Me True” and covers like the old-timey John Harford instrumental, “The Squirrel Hunters.” By sets end, Jarosz and company had the crowd up on their feet singing along to a wistful, playful take on Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House,” her full-bodied, butter-dripping voice resonating in sharp contrast to Waits’ iconic gravel gargle. In a cruel scheduling move, Jarosz’ set completely overlapped with longtime Bonnaroo vets Yonder Mountain String band — with always welcome special guest pickers Sam Bush and John Frazier — who were meanwhile leading tens of thousands in a grassified sing-along of Bob Marley’s “One Love” on the What Stage.
Jarosz and Yonder Mountain’s Dave Johnston would appear together later that night — along with Robert Ellis, the Black Lillies, Lake Street Drive, the Lone Bellow, session guitarist extraordinaire Bryan Sutton and others — at Ed Helms’ Bluegrass Situation Superjam. True to both bluegrass and Bonnaroo traditions, the show thrived on musical cross-pollination, Helms and friends putting old-timey touches on classic country and pop gold like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Islands in the Stream” (“One of the greatest country tunes of all-time!” according to Helms), Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (which pretty much describes the crowd’s reaction) and Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” which made one helluva prelude for Sir Elton John, who was just beginning his festival-closing set on the What Stage.