If you haven’t noticed, non-mainstream country music—call it alt-country, Americana, or roots-rock, if you prefer—is having a moment.
It hasn’t come from out of nowhere, given the rise of artists like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers over the past decade. But it might surprise you to know just how big the next wave of artists from this shit-kickin’ little corner of the music universe is becoming.
For instance, in sleepy Redmond, Oregon the FairWell Festival took over the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center (heretofore best known as the home of elephant ears and mutton bustin’) for a three-day gathering of 36 “good country” bands. The festival came together courtesy of C3 Presents, the Texas-based event promoter behind world-renowned festivals like Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Festival.
FairWell projected an attendance of 35,000, many traveling to Central Oregon to see 90-year-old country legend Willie Nelson and Zach Bryan, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter from Oklahoma who started uploading his songs to YouTube in 2017 as a member of the US Navy and is now arguably the hottest concert act of the summer not named Taylor Swift.
Bryan played for a huge audience Saturday night and Nelson did the same Sunday, but acts up and down the festival’s lineup performed in front of sizable, passionate crowds no matter the time of day. Here are five that caught my eye, ear, or both.
This West Virginia country-folk singer’s excellent 2021 album How the Mighty Fall is a collection of low-key songs that are deeply rooted in the Appalachian music tradition. Live, however, Godwin and his band turned into a rollicking country-rock combo, ripping through songs like their hair was on fire. And with temps topping out in the mid-90s all weekend, it might’ve been. I was shocked at how many people showed up to see his set—the second of the festival, at 5:30 pm on a Friday— until I realized his affiliation with Bryan, who came out to sing a duet with his pal. The place went wild.
If you aren’t familiar with the name Molly Tuttle, you need to hop on the bandwagon, like, yesterday. The Northern California-bred bluegrass guitarist is already a star in her world, and considered one of the best bluegrass guitarists on Earth. She won the most recent bluegrass album Grammy for Crooked Tree, and world domination is next—thanks to her catchy songs, progressive point of view, bountiful charisma, and killer band, which might just be the best musical unit on the road right now. Their Saturday-afternoon set at FairWell was a powder keg of pickin’, grinnin’, and dancin’.
Singer-songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza Ramos and her eclectic sextet had a challenging job Sunday afternoon: Win over a crowd of sun-scorched and twang-drunk country fans with an hour of fizzy, funky, Mexican-tinged indie-pop. Watching Y La Bamba do exactly that was a highlight of the festival, as the band turned a field of curious onlookers into a small sea of writhing bodies and bobbing heads. Mendoza Ramos may not live in Portland anymore, but Y La Bamba remains one of our city’s finest musical exports.
After starting off as an indie-folk-rock darling in the mid-2000s, it feels like Band of Horses is sorely underrated these days. Granted, they released a couple of middling albums along the way, but last year’s Things Are Great was, well, great, and the group’s Saturday set on FairWell’s second stage was a perfectly timed rock ‘n’ roll kick in the pants. After a day and a half of fiddles and pedal steel, head Horseman Ben Bridwell and company cranked up the electric guitars and crunched their way through punky rockers like “NW Apt.” and “Crutch.”
Anyone who has been to a three-day festival knows you need some sort of pick-me-up in the homestretch if you’re going to make it to Sunday night, and Yola provided that at the FairWell Festival. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the powerhouse British singer-songwriter brought irresistible energy to covers of Elton John and Anita Baker classics, as well as originals from her two excellent albums. For at least a segment of fest-goers, her explosive set of rootsy rock ‘n’ soul felt like a musical second wind that came along at just the right time.