The big city was all about the country as the first annual FarmBorough Festival took over New York's Randall's Island for three days of nonstop country music on two stages. The theme weaved throughout every set — other than braving the rain — seemed to be the element of surprise, as acts threw in unexpected cover songs and unpredictable antics. Friday headliner Dierks Bentley's set included a beer-chugging contest with a fan and his unique take on a Taylor Swift song. And though he himself was nowhere to be seen, Tom Petty provided much of the evenings' soundtracks. Here are our most memorable moments from the inaugural FarmBorough fest.
Luke Bryan's hat was backwards at the end his first song, and he was shaking his butt mid-way through the second. By the time he finished his Sunday night encore from the roof of a pick-up truck, he had flipped the hat 11 times, purred thrice and showered the crowd with enough beer to invoke trauma flashbacks of Saturday's downpours. Bryan spent most of his stage time in party mode, but that party always seemed to be shifting locations: When he slipped into covers of Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty" (amid "Country Girl [Shake It for Me]") and Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" (a smooth transition from the "hands up" line in "I Don't Want This Night to End"), he transformed a stretch of Randall's Island into a downtown club. When he sat at the piano, swigged tequila and ad-libbed one-liners, he could have been Dean Martin at the Sands. This New York crowd, though, was ready to follow the Georgia singer down whatever backroad he chose. Two female fans ran onstage, and another tossed a bra where her feet couldn't carry her. "You got some big ol' boobies girl," Bryan told that one, choosing his words carefully. "You could put that on the back of a dragster. . . or a speedboat."
Lindsay Ell stormed the stage with her Prince-purple electric guitar, and the instrument barely left her hands throughout her Sunday afternoon set. Radio consultant Keith Hill's famous tomato comments may have brought more attention to the dearth of female singers on country radio, but Ell's fiery lead playing threw the lack of female musicians in touring country bands into sharp relief. A few hit the FarmBorough stage, including Ruthie Collins' fiddler and Logan Mize's bassist, but the instrumentalists were mostly men, and showy solos seemed to be an exclusively male activity. For now, Ell is an army of one, a dissenter — and, hopefully, a trend setter — every time she straps on the guitar.
Brandy Clark gave her band a rest halfway through their performance so that she could play a solo acoustic medley of hits she had co-written for other acts: "Better Dig Two," made famous by the Band Perry, and "Mama's Broken Heart," taken up the charts by Miranda Lambert. FarmBorough — or any festival — is all about the lead singers, but it's important not to forget that ace songwriters often help mold the tracks that earn these singers their festival spots. FarmBorough didn't feature many artists who double as writers-for-hire (Chris Stapleton was the other prominent example), but Clark's digression served as a reminder of the creativity that takes places behind the scenes. She also offered proof that a great song is durable regardless of the arrangement and the performer — as she worked her way through "Mama's Broken Heart," three fans started an impromptu line dance on the right side of the stage.
For the penultimate set on Friday evening, Kip Moore stuck to what he what he does best, performing his brand of U2-meets-Bob Seger raspy country-rock. Singing a selection of hits from his 2012 debut Up All Night alongside recent singles like "Dirt Road" and "I'm to Blame," Moore delivered a sturdy, no-nonsense rock show for over an hour. That’s not to say that the Georgian singer's show wasn't without surprises. Moore, who seemed to be in a particularly playful mood, was responsible for some of FarmBorough’s most entertaining stage banter, including an anti-selfie rant and a lengthy explanation of the three stages of breakups during the introduction to "Fly Again." Moore also sprinkled his set with an array of wide-ranging covers, from Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle" to "Stand By Me," by Ben E. King. After the latter, Moore dove right into his biggest crowd-pleaser, "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck," in what was surely one of the bravest transitions of the day.
Joe Nichols' time on the main stage was filled with sly winks, most notably during his songs "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" and "Size Matters." Yet the cheekiest (no pun intended) moment of all came midway through his Friday set, when he noted the current fusion of hip-hop and country music. After promising a country version of a hip-hop song, Nichols launched into his country-fried take on "Baby Got Back." Ever since he's started including it in his nightly set lists, his take on Sir Mix-A-Lot's 1992 novelty rap hit has gone from silly to an (almost) serious cover, making it a purely Joe Nichols moment.
Most FarmBorough acts were muscled, aimed at high energy and big crowds. Ruthie Collins played a different sort of music at her Sunday evening set. She declared several times that she loved old-fashioned things, but she didn't need to say it out loud — it was clear from the way she relied on fiddle, stand-up bass and the occasional banjo to fill out her tunes. Collins' voice has the fluttery nuances more common in Seventies Laurel Canyon than in modern country. She can soar when she wants, though; at one point, she performed an impressive cover of Ariana Grande's "One Last Time," remaking the pop ballad into a folk tragedy.
"Is everybody just here 'cause it's raining, or are you guys having a good time?" Sturgill Simpson asked from the safety of the indoor tent toward the end of his Saturday evening set. With a rapturous crowd dancing along to every word of an expansive, 17-song performance, the answer was definitively the latter. Despite being perhaps the most left-of-center, boldest booking of the weekend, Simpson’s FarmBorough set was an undisputed triumph, a raucous celebration of the hard sounds and styles of classic Seventies country that were seldom heard throughout the rest of the festival. Although songs like "Life of Sin" and "Long White Line" from his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, provided the biggest sing-alongs, Simpson's 70-minute slot focused just as heavily, to great effect, on his rowdier debut, High Top Mountain. On Saturday night, the guy could do no wrong.
One way to win a crowd? Hit 'em with a song about wanting to party in your El Camino. Logan Mize's "El Camino" isn't as quite direct as Kesha's immortal "Gold Trans Am" — which is only to say it doesn't open with Logan Mize ditz-ing, "This song makes me wanna have sex in my car" — but the sentiment is the same and the riffs are heavier. Such was Mize's style. Rather than run the fretboard like Brad Paisley or Keith Urban, he and his band blasted loud, distorted chords that could be heard across the back half of the muddy festival grounds. Lyrics, apparently, came second. "This song is called 'High and Dry,"' he said before one of his best. "I have no idea what it's about, but I love playing it."
OK, there's not much hair under Lynch's cowboy hat, but the 30-year-old made up for it with a series of big, loud riffs that took us to the country by way of the jungle. Better yet, on songs like "She Cranks My Tractor" (here's one where you hope the title isn't a double entendre), he and his band emulated not just Guns N' Roses' guitar sound but their quick, tight rhythms, pushing ahead into a covers medley that included "John Deere Green," "Meet Me in the Middle" and "Boot Scootin' Boogie." Later, he got cuddly for Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home," but the subsequent version of Garth Brooks' "Rodeo" was particularly heavy. Rock on, Dustin.
Last weekend, a thunderstorm forced Brad Paisley to postpone his set at Chicago's Windy City Lake Shake. If he sensed any danger during his Saturday night FarmBorough set, he expressed only gratitude. "What's really nice is I had to be here," he told the crowd, "You didn't." Of course, there was also a little snark: "In the rest of the country there's this thing going on called summer. It's really cool." Whatever season it felt like, Paisley had the songs for the occasion. He dropped "Hot for Teacher" and "Waiting on a Woman" from his standard tour set list, but he added "Perfect Storm," which became the make-out jam of the festival. "Water," meanwhile, provided an ecstatic, all-in sing-along, and "Mud on the Tires" became even more relatable as everyone trudged toward the exit. There was also "Alcohol" and alcohol, plenty of guitar shredding and a great Kim Kardashian visual gag — in other words, just another "American Saturday Night."
Justin Moore kicked off his Saturday evening set right as the drizzle turned into a downpour. He rightfully screamed, "Fuck the rain!" as he launched into his 2013 single "Point at You." Later, after performing a few songs from the slightly more covered part of the stage, he made his way out to the middle of the runway, getting as fully soaked as the attendees. He remained there for the rest of the set. Drenched, Moore powered through songs like the Brantley Gilbert collaboration, "Small Town Throwdown" and his own "Lettin' the Night Roll," showing his appreciation for an audience willing to stick it out in the awful weather.
Dim lights, hard rain and loud, loud music — that was Yoakam's formula for Saturday night, though the second bit was mostly out of his control. A last-minute schedule change left fans wondering why the 58-year-old looked and sounded so much like Justin Moore, but an hour-and-a-half later — just before Brad Paisley's headlining set — Yoakam's band filled the main stage with walking bass lines, sparkly jackets and a few covers older than most people in the crowd: no to "Suspicious Minds" but yes to "Ring of Fire" and "Streets of Bakersfield." The new "Second Hand Heart" was a smooth fit amid hits like "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Honky Tonk Man," and even the Luke Bryan fans danced to all three. We all become a traditionalists eventually; Dwight just got himself a head start.
Despite consistent sound problems, Maddie & Tae treated their afternoon slot as if they were mainstage headliners, commanding an adoring crowd by playing a large portion of their forthcoming debut Start Here. Selling a festival audience on a batch of unreleased songs is no easy task, but the Nashville duo performed tracks like "Shut Up and Fish," "No Place Like You" and "Downside of Growing Up" with such conviction and unabashed star power that the crowd received the teenage upstarts like fan-favorite veterans. Mixing in covers by Rihanna, Fleetwood Mac and Dolly Parton, Maddie & Tae worked extra hard to engage fans, running back and forth from the catwalk during the cover portions of their set. By the time the first notes of their sing-along finale "Girl in a Country Song" rang out, it was hard to resist the euphoria.
On Saturday afternoon, when most attendees were searching for a roof, Charlie Worsham left his to sign autographs on the catwalk of the main stage. The ink was no match for the rain, but Worsham was back out 15 minutes later, singing tracks off his debut LP, Rubberband, with wet hair and soaked Chucks. "I can't feel my fingers, but I don't care," he said before some expert banjo picking. Morning-after convo "Could It Be" was a highlight, and Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance" received a convincing country make-over. Finally, he ran for shelter: "When I come back to New York, to Randall's Island, I promise I'll be able to feel my fingers!"
Every male country artist wants to be the genre's Everyman, but Dierks Bentley was the most successful at it. "I've been waiting all day to have a drink with you guys," Bentley offered in such an endearing way that it was difficult to not believe him. Onstage, he shared many drinks with folks in the crowd, even pulling one up to shotgun a beer during "Sideways" — and later lamenting that he had lost the quick-drinking competition to the fan. Other highlights included a surprisingly excellent take on Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" and a story about the first time he played New York City, performing for a 300-person crowd at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill a decade ago. He noted how he was on the much bigger FarmBorough stage with the same guitar he played back then before launching into "I Hold On," bringing some levity to his victory lap of a performance.
Much of Striking Matches' Nothing But the Silence is a soft mix of country, soul, pop and folk, but there's a moment during the song "Make a Liar Out of Me" that seems incongruent — a fraught lover's duet that suddenly explodes with an assertive, belligerent guitar solo. But Striking Matches' performance at Farmborough proved this strident burst isn't out of the norm. Making up for an absent band, Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis filled their set with fierce, aggressive strumming. They watched each other warily like boxers, and their riffs were equally pugnacious: Zimmermann's needle-pointed and precise, Davis's chaotic and bluesy. They closed, appropriately, with "Make a Liar Out of Me," and remade it as a volatile jam, eliciting cheers with their most ferocious solos of the night.
From Nick Jonas to Patty Loveless to Sir Mix-A-Lot, Farmborough's artists chose a wide range of artists to cover throughout the three-day fest. But no artist's songbook was better represented, or more faithfully honored, than Tom Petty's — his hits could be heard at various stages all weekend long. The first Petty tribute came with Chris Stapleton's bluesy take on "You Don’t Know How It Feels." Minutes later, Joe Nichols could be heard serenading the main stage's crowd across the field with his own rendition of "Runnin' Down a Dream." Logan Mize and Cassadee Pope both paid homage to their favorite Heartbreaker, too, with respective covers of "You Wreck Me" and "I Won't Back Down." By the time Kip Moore ended his set by segueing his song "Faith When I Fall" into (you guessed it) "Free Fallin,'" FarmBorough had turned into an all-out Petty love fest.
Saturday's overcast skies and annoying drizzle made a tempting case to stay indoors rather than head over to Randall's Island. But staying away would've meant missing the day's packed slate, which was opened (and later ended) by rising star Mickey Guyton. During her own set, she found the perfect balance between the emotional tenderness of songs like "Why Baby Why" and the looser sexiness of "Cool Ya." Guyton's all too short time at the stage concluded with her Top 40 single "Better Than You Left Me," although she spoiled the audience by returning later that night to sing "Whiskey Lullaby" with current tour mate Brad Paisley.
Early on Friday, sassy singer-songwriter Courtney Cole made up for a slow-to-arrive crowd at the Next From Nashville Stage by delivering a high-energy set of radio-friendly material, including the SiriusXM favorite "Drunk." But the most exciting moment of her set came when Cole decided to weave a cover of Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" into her upcoming single "Shady." Cole, who will be opening for Miranda Lambert on her fall tour, delivered an inspired take of the R&B Number One, which didn’t need all that much altering to be transformed into a country tune. Cole's effortless, twangy take on the "yea-yea-yea-yea" outro brought to mind Beyoncé's 2007 performance with Sugarland — proving that even a country upstart can be a Queen Bee.
At one point during Red Dirt singer-songwriter Wade Bowen's performance, a fan climbed onto his friend's shoulders and turned to rally a crowd soggy from a rainstorm by waving his arms and vigorously chugging beer. Bowen declared the fan his hero. "You're my boy, Blue," he said, doing his best Will Ferrell from Old School. "It's people like you — it doesn't matter what the weather is, the sun is always shining." It also made for one heck of a smooth transition as Bowen launched into his inspiring "Sun Shines on a Dreamer." And that wasn't Bowen's only attempt to dispel the clouds: he and the band also trotted out Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and his own "West Texas Rain," making for the most weather-appropriate set of the weekend.
The select few who ventured to the Next From Nashville Stage on Friday afternoon to hear Chris Stapleton were treated to perhaps the finest old-fashioned country show of the weekend. Backed by a four-piece band that included his wife Morgane Stapleton on vocals and legendary pedal-steel guitarist Robby Turner, Stapleton led the small but devoted crowd through some of the more fast-paced rockers from his universally-acclaimed debut Traveller. Morgane delivered an unexpected highlight with her sensual, slow-burning reinvention of "You Are My Sunshine," which featured some excellent bluesy fills from her husband on guitar. But the set's finest moment came early, with Stapleton's cover of the David Allan Coe/George Jones classic "Tennessee Whiskey," just one of several songs in Stapleton's set that paid tribute to country music's hard liquor of choice.
Cassadee Pope not only hit every note during her Sunday afternoon set, she hit every note while dancing in heels, greeting fans and taking photos from the stage. (Brad Paisley and Justin Moore needed a few minutes of instrumentals to take their "manly selfie break" the night before.) The belting began with opener "Wish I Could Break Your Heart" and continued well past "Everybody Sings," a blithe party song that would have been hands-in-the-air even without much vocal embellishment. Pope really displayed her range with the ubiquitous Petty jam "I Won't Back Down," letting it known that this past winner of The Voice is far from just a reality-show idol.