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10 Best Things We Saw at Pilgrimage Music Festival

From Nikki Lane’s defiant cool to Willie Nelson’s eternal buzz, these were the highlights of the inaugural Nashville-area fest

Pilgrimage Festival

Nikki Lane and Willie Nelson were highlights of the inaugural Pilgrimage Music Festival.

Jason Davis/Getty Images, Terry Wyatt

With an A-list lineup (arguably the best curated of the year) and all the charm of a county fair, the inaugural Pilgrimage Music Festival, held just south of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee, established itself as a festival to watch.

Held on the sprawling but easily navigable grounds of the Park at Harlinsdale Farm — where Miranda Lambert posed for her Rolling Stone magazine cover shoot last year — Pilgrimage was a daylight-hours fest, with sets beginning around noon and ending before 8:00. As such, the mood was decidedly chill, as concertgoers migrated between three main stages for acts as varied as Willie Nelson, Jimmy Cliff, Cage the Elephant and Nikki Lane. Even the looming threat of rain wasn't enough to derail the good vibes — although the Weezer into Wilco sets on Saturday were soaking affairs. Here are the 10 best things we witnessed with our fellow pilgrims.

Chris Stapleton

Terry Wyatt

Best Tennessee Tribute: Chris Stapleton

Chris Stapleton may not have been the day's headliner, but as he sliced though rock-solid track after rock-solid track it felt like the Nashville-residing, Kentucky-born country artist earned a ruling role — especially when he offered up a searing version of "Tennessee Whiskey," off his solo debut, Traveller. With help from his wife Morgane on vocals and producer Dave Cobb on guitar, he delivered the George Jones and David Allan Coe-recorded song with the soul of Ray Charles, the spirit of Waylon Jennings (whom he also covered) and a booming voice all his own — it was only early afternoon, but he treated his set like he was playing to a packed club, not sacrificing one bit of style for the daytime crowd. "It's the best," he said about that smooth, sweet brown stuff. "The whiskey — not my singing." Agree to disagree.

Sheryl Crow

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Best Catalogue: Sheryl Crow

The amount of hits in Sheryl Crow's career is wildly impressive, but it's not until the singer-songwriter, who lives a stone's throw from the festival grounds, plays them in succession that you realize just how vast her catalogue is. Strumming the most badass guitar of the weekend — a red, white and blue Telecaster — Crow roared through her radio staples: "A Change Would Do You Good," "All I Wanna Do," "My Favorite Mistake," "Steve McQueen" and "Every Day Is a Winding Road." She also took time to implore the crowd to buy albums, especially those of the lesser-known acts on the Pilgrimage bill. To drive her point home, she welcomed Holly Williams, who excelled with her own performance earlier in the day, to duet on a sublime "Strong Enough." 

Will Hoge

FRANKLIN, TN - SEPTEMBER 26: Will Hoge performs onstage during Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on September 26, 2015 in Franklin, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival)

Jason Davis/Getty Images

Best Hometown Hero: Will Hoge

Having been raised in Franklin, Tennessee, singer-songwriter Will Hoge's set was a rock & roll homecoming, peppered with tracks from his latest album, Small Town Dreams, which he was inspired to write after revisiting his old stamping grounds. But Hoge didn't only bare his soul in his songs — he also engaged the crowd with an intimate story about a wedding he was attending that evening with his wife. It was simple, everyday stuff, but the fans hung on every word, unaware Hoge was actually setting the stage for one of his most relatable tunes, "Til I Do It Again." A rocker about swearing off nightly indulgence, Hoge delivered the song with passion, as well as his best Keith Richards-style guitar licks.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones

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Best Soul Shout: St. Paul and the Broken Bones

The Alabama-based R&B revivalists have landed on many a list like this one, but when you consistently turn in the type of high-energy, near-religious show like they did at Pilgrimage, it'd be a sin to ever omit them. Led by Mr. Charisma Paul Janeway, St. Paul and the Broken Bones are unfailingly captivating, as the fleet-footed singer shuffles, shimmies and shakes his way across the stage. But all that poetry-in-motion would be for naught if he weren't backed by such an impeccable band, elevated by a knockout horn section and a rousing Hammond B-3 organ. By the time the group wrapped up its Sunday set with the fan favorite "Call Me," it was clear that the pilgrims had found their saint.

Jimmy Cliff

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Best Exhortation: Jimmy Cliff

While a hoped-for collaboration between Willie Nelson and the reggae icon Jimmy Cliff on "The Harder They Come" didn't materialize, Cliff's set didn't need any special guests to make it one of the most moving of the weekend. His was a showman's performance, full of dramatic yelps, yearning gestures and grand exhortations to sing along and lift arms aloft. Cliff's cover of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly" now was jubilant, for a moment helping to magically part the gray clouds overheard, and his take on Cat Stevens' "Wild World" stood as the second Yusuf Islam song of the festival (Sheryl Crow covered "The First Cut Is the Deepest" on Saturday, which was also a hit for her). Still, the high point was "The Harder They Come," a song that continues to motivate 43 years after its release. 

Willie Nelson

Terry Wyatt

Best Deja Vu: Willie Nelson

Aside from a few spontaneous change-ups, ol' Willie essentially plays the same set these days: you can set your watch by "Crazy" into "Night Life." But that's alright by his ardent fans, who eagerly anticipated each song transition during his closing Pilgrimage performance. No matter how many times he opens his shows with "Whiskey River/Still Is Still Moving to Me," it never fails to rally the crowd. And Sunday night was no different. The highlight, though, was the fairly recent addition of the one-two pot punch "It's All Going to Pot," his duet with Merle Haggard from their Django & Jimmie album, and "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die." The song may remain the same for the Red Head Stranger, but there's something reassuring about such reliability.

Band of Horses

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Best Festival Namesake: Band of Horses

For a weekend that took place on a horse farm, it wouldn't be right to omit a Band of Horses, would it? There were no actual stallions roaming the fields of Harlinsdale, but Band of Horses' set was blue-ribbon worthy, as they played songs like "No One's Gonna Love You" and "Older" — appropriately, as they told the crowd, written in Nashville. The real stunner was the set's closer, "Funeral," which was the perfect match of late-afternoon sky with the track's thundering crescendo. The rainy clouds parted to clear, crisp pre-sundown light in a bit of kismet that couldn't have been choreographed better if the show's co-founder, Kevin Griffin, had designed the weather himself. If there's one thing Band of Horses knows how to do, it's create a signature festival moment that matches mood with music. They're at home on the range.

Dawes

FRANKLIN, TN - SEPTEMBER 27: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes performs onstage during Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on September 27, 2015 in Franklin, Tennessee. (P@ à ASCII

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Best Attitude: Dawes

"You guys have given us the right kind of energy to help us do our fucking job," Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith told the crowd as the band drew their Sunday afternoon set to a close. As festival regulars and incessant road-dogs, it would be easy for the quartet (now touring with Dickey Betts' son Duane as an additional guitarist) to dial it in — instead, they sounded tighter than ever on tracks like "Somewhere Along the Way" and "Right on Time," from their most recent Dave Rawlings-produced LP, All Your Favorite Bands. And they seemed more at ease than ever, too. Last time Dawes played in the Nashville area, it was a headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium: a solid, skillfully executed set, but maybe more focused on form than fun. Here, they relaxed around the warm, rolling riffs, repeatedly thanking the audience and letting the jams marinate as they led the ultimate sing-along with their anthemic "When My Time Comes."

Nikki Lane

FRANKLIN, TN - SEPTEMBER 27: Nikki Lane performs onstage during Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival on September 27, 2015 in Franklin, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival)

Jason Davis/Getty Images

Best Unapologetic Edge: Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane touts herself as the First Lady of Outlaw Country, and during her Sunday afternoon set, she didn't tone herself — or her signature badgal twang — down one bit. "I smoked a little too much pot," she laughed to the audience (filled with plenty of preschoolers) in between songs like the raunchy "Sleep With a Stranger" and the Buddy Miller track "Gasoline and Matches," which she chose "because he's the shit." In a hat with a rim longer than the hemline on her skirt, she brought up friend and new Nashvillian Frankie Lee to sing the Dan Auerbach part on her duet "Love's on Fire," simply because she wanted to convince him to stay in town. How better to show your pal a good time, anyway? Lane does everything on her own terms (sometimes, she said, to the disdain of her band), wherever she may roam. . . and thankfully so.

Punch Brothers

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Best Back to Basics: Punch Brothers

With fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin, upright bass and banjo, the always energetic Punch Brothers kept things simple during their Saturday afternoon performance of string-based jams. Never ones to be too serious onstage, the group also kept things wry, joking about their "nihilistic instrumental tunes," which are "not about anything at all." During one interlude, they even suggested the crowd turn around and marvel at the bucolic grounds instead of watching the stage, and dropped a zinger about Nashville's unchecked growth by noting they were glad that the Park at Harlinsdale was home to a festival and "not a Panera." There's a reason that Dierks Bentley enlisted the Brothers, led by Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek), for his 2010 bluegrass album Up on the Ridge — there's no one better at merging the past and the present.