To be clear, it's always been cool to like Dwight Yoakam. Music listeners in the "everything but country crowd" only started figuring that out in recent years. How else do you explain Dwight Yoakam — clad in his trademark cowboy hat and form-fitting denim, with a backing band decked out in Nudie suits — drawing a crowd of thousands to an early evening set at a festival topped by Teflon-cool headliners like OutKast, Beck and Jack White? But that's precisely what happened Saturday night at Louisville, Kentucky's Forecastle Festival, where Dwight got a beer and whiskey imbibing crowd hollering along to a pummeling set of twang-y barn-burners like "Little Sister," "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Fast as You."
When Yoakam did come up for air, it was to sing a drifting lullaby like "Waterfall," a major standout from his 2012 comeback album 3 Pears. (Regrettably, the album's co-producer, Beck, who performed the next night, didn't make a guest appearance.) To the faithful who've seen Yoakam before, this Bakersfield-by-way-of-the Ramones-like presentation is nothing new. But to the many in this didn't-know-what-hit-'em crowd, it was an obvious eye-opener. It also wasn't the only kick-ass country moment at Forecastle.
Unsurprisingly, the next day, reunited neo-bluegrass pop-smiths Nickel Creek drew as big a crowd as Yoakam, turning in a spirited catalog overview of favorites the likes of "The Lighthouse's Tale," "This Side," "Reasons Why" and "Helena" — the latter featuring a solo from Chris Thile that inspired the mandolin maestro to start pogoing in place with his eyes squeezed shut. But the real highlights of the set — aside from a playful cover of Fleetwood Mac's twisted Tusk ditty "The Ledge" — were selections from the trio's recent comeback record A Dotted Line, like the post-apocalypse requiem "21st of May" and the summery hoe-down jam "Elephant in the Corn." The latter featured scorching instrumental fireworks shows from Thile and the Watkins siblings.
A few hours earlier, on the main stage, the festival's other recently Beck-produced performer, Jenny Lewis, put on a set of Topanga Canyon-informed, Brill Building-inspired indie-country tunes from her forthcoming (and long-awaited) LP The Voyager. They included the airy breeze of leadoff single "Just One of the Guys" and the transparently Fleetwood Mac-homaging set-closer "She's Not Me," along with an even distribution of old Solo, Rilo Kiley and Jenny and Johnny chestnuts. Longtime Lewis collaborators the Watson Twins made an appearance, joining the bell-bottoms-clad singer on dreamy versions of their "You Are What You Love" and the a cappella girl-group doo-wop throwback, "Met Him on a Sunday." A major set-highlight, however, was a bubbling, thumping version of Rilo Kiley's "A Man/Me/Then Jim" that, augmented by steel guitar, sounded like it was reflecting the original in a bent mirror.
Sunday evening, as a gloriously messy set from reunited college-rockers the Replacements (as joined by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong on rhythm guitar) crashed to a finish on the main stage, outlaw country disciple Hayes Carll held hundreds in the palm of his hand on the comparatively smaller Port Stage across the park. No doubt, Carll — known for such self-deprecating lyrics as "I'm like James Brown, only whiter and taller" and "Boy, you ain't a poet, just a drunk with a pen" — was an underdog here. But the Texas troubadour sings woozy-voiced, dry-witted songs for downtrodden underdogs, so that's allowed.
Performing frill-free, clad in plaid with a minimalist drummer and acoustic slide guitarist backing him with rich but subtle embellishments, Carll drowned sorrows (sonically speaking) while the rest of the festival was still partying. The slack-key shuffle of "Hard Out Here" was an ideal soundtrack to the sun setting over the Ohio River, just behind the stage. "Wish I Hadn't Stayed So Long" set the tone for a crowd exhausted after three days of music festival day drinking. And it was more than a little ironic watching Carll croon a faithfully bittersweet cover of Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" for a crowd of 30- and 40-somethings nodding along while just a short walk away, hordes of Millennials were grinding along to the groovy, R&B-infused sounds of Australian EDM DJ Flume.
Hours earlier a similar scene played out, while the kids got down to some dubstep courtesy of Claude VonStroke, folkie and former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon played on the Port Stage. With his detached, shadowy vocals washed out in cavernous reverb, Kozelek cocked his head to the side, closed his eyes and sang lonely, reflective story songs while sitting still, strumming a nylon-string guitar. The songs — which boasted titles as amazing as "I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same" and "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" — coupled with the singer's stoic delivery, made for quite a juxtaposition against the sight of motorboats, barges and leisurely fisherman on the lazy river.
Jason Isbell once again made his case as one of the reigning kings of Americana, captivating a massive crowd with a mid-Saturday set of songs mostly culled from his acclaimed, 2013 post-rehab album Southeastern. A mid-show, acoustic performance of the heart-on-sleeve confessional "Cover Me Up" was delivered with so much passion, and received with so much reverence, it was almost enough to transcend the rhythm of 18-wheelers passing by on the Interstate overpass that cut through the festival and right over the audience. Minutes later, the Petty-esque heartland-rocker "Never Gonna Change" rivaled the rigs in one of four tunes of Isbell's days as a Drive-By Trucker that made it into the set.
Despite Kentucky's distinction as the Bluegrass State, it was Minnesota new-grass crew Trampled by Turtles who brought the biggest display of mandolins and banjos to the festival on Sunday, rocking out like plaid-clad stadium gladiators on the super-charged, speed-addled stompers like "Western World" — which was played at punk tempo — before pulling it back a notch to let haunting harmonies breathe on the markedly moodier ballad "Wild Animals."
Never one to miss an opportunity to prove his mettle as a musicologist (or as a country music fan), Saturday night headliner Jack White nodded at his surroundings early in the set, with a stomping cover of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and his bend-y, trippy albeit traditional take on Hank Williams' "You Know That I Know." The latter paired perfectly with the performance of the tenderly loving, country-tinged White Stripes' duet "We're Going to Be Friends," which White sang with his current backing-band fiddler Lillie Mae Rische (formerly of defunct, Cowboy Jack Clement-discovered country family band Jypsi) who plucked along on an aluminum mandolin.