Along with headlining sets by Pearl Jam, LCD Soundsystem and Dead & Company, the 15th annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, tapped a wealth of talent from nearby Nashville. Here are the five best country and Americana moments we saw.
Best Big Star on Bonnaroo’s Smallest Stage: Maren Morris
Midway through his Saturday evening set, Sam Hunt tossed a snippet of Maren Morris’s breakout hit “My Church” into a medley of country covers. Less than 24 hours later, Morris sang the tune during her own performance at the Who Stage, whose cramped confines provided less room than the average green room on her summer-long tour with Keith Urban. With a week-old, Number One album under her belt, Morris won’t be playing those downsized stages for much longer, making her Bonnaroo appearance a scaled-down rarity.
Best Daydreaming Mariah Carey Cover: Anderson East
Taking a break from his own sweat-soaked soul tunes, Anderson East played a trio of covers during his Saturday show, including David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and the Faces’ “Stay With Me.” It was his straight-faced take on Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” though, that elicited the biggest roar of approval. Updated with blasts of brass and a Stax-worthy swing, the song sounded less like a time capsule from East’s middle-school days and more like a lost classic from the Sixties, tucked between old tape reels in some backroom at FAME Studios.
Best Band Introductions: Chris Stapleton
The weather wasn’t exactly kind to Chris Stapleton, who played a sun-scorched, treeless field during one of the weekend’s hottest afternoons. The singer, who performed at CMA Music Festival the night before, kept things breezy, however, cracking stoner jokes during his set’s first half — “It smells good out there!” he yelled, before kicking into “Might as Well Get Stoned” — and literally singing his band’s praises during the final 10 minutes. After all, why simply speak the names of your bandmates when you can make make up mini-verses about each musician, then segue the whole thing into your cover of George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey”?
Best Guitar Heroes: Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden
Jason Isbell has been swapping guitar solos with his bandmates since his early days with the Drive-By Truckers, but he’s truly met his match with Sadler Vaden, who joined the 400 Unit during the Southeastern tour. A solo artist himself, Vaden doubles as the rare sort of guitar shredder who rarely overplays, letting Isbell’s melodies speak for themselves before filling in the gaps with swells, bends and the occasional windmill. The highlight of the 400 Unit’s main stage set on Sunday? A guitar battle during the Truckers tune “Never Gonna Change,” with both Vaden and Isbell firing back-to-back bursts of heavy-metal thunder.
Best American Blues: The Record Company
Led by Chris Vos, Americana blues trio the Record Company waylaid a capacity crowd at a small stage built more for shade than hard-rocking. When the sounds coming from the nearby Which Stage threatened to creep in, Vos turned up the volume, resulting in a wildly energetic show and one of the most communal experiences of the festival. By the time the Record Company kicked off their chugging single “Off the Ground,” fans who had been lounging under the tent were up and grooving to its propulsive beat, answering Vos’s call to dance.