BUCKLE UP AND GO: The 2014 Buckle Up Music Festival

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July 19, Cincinnati: It was a country-music and Americana cage match featuring, in this corner, slick corporate-country act Jason Aldean and, in this corner, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Drive-By Truckers and more. Guess who got his ass pinned to the mat?

BY STEVEN ROSEN

As musical-taste clashes go, it maybe wasn’t up there with Mods vs. Rockers, but the head-to-head showdown in Cincinnati between the Buckle Up Music Festival and a stadium concert by Jason Aldean was instructive.

The first Buckle Up, which was sort of promoted as a “country music” festival and held over a three-day weekend in a Downtown park along the Ohio River, really featured Americana – the kind that included folk-country troubadours (Emmylou Harris), outlaws (Willie Nelson), Southern-rock-influenced acts (Jamey Johnson, Houndmouth) Appalachian-music revivalists (Old Crow Medicine Show), and more.

It did have an act or two that has gotten played on Modern Country radio stations, but most were the type favored on Cincinnati’s influential Americana/Alternative Rock public-radio station, WNKU-FM. (That station even broadcast live from the event.)

But on its centerpiece day, Saturday, one of Modern Country’s biggest acts – Jason Aldean – would be playing at Great American Ball Park, virtually next-door to the festival on the riverfront, in a rival event. Would slick, expensive Modern Country, with all the corporate power behind it, steal the thunder (and the attendance) from scruffy, populist Americana? A lot was at stake: Buckle Up’s top acts for Saturday evening, when Aldean would be playing, were Nelson, Harris, Old Crow, Alison Krauss and Union Station and Drive-By Truckers.

The bottom line was that Aldean did draw about 35,000 people, but the show created little buzz beyond a letter to the daily newspaper protesting the long wait by fans to go through a search and get inside the stadium. His show ended so early, with a fireworks display that Buckle Up fans could see, that his supporting act Miranda Lambert moseyed on over to Buckle Up to appear with Nelson.

And Buckle Up’s Saturday was its most crowded day, resulting in great reviews and talk throughout the city. The crowd was quite a mix – some hard-core outlaw-country fans with the tattoos to prove it and lots of younger hipsters with the thick Samuel Beam-style beards (and also tattoos) to prove it, along with the more “respectable” picnic-basket-toting fans of public radio and television who these days follow Americana singer-songwriters the way their parents did classical musicians.

The festival’s local presenter, Bill Donabedian, already has announced Buckle Up will occur again. Take that, Modern Country!

I couldn’t get to all the Saturday events – nobody could because of the overlapping concerts – but here are observations from those I attended:

Lera Lynn, a new Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose material has lyrical intelligence and a folk-rock bite a la Tift Merritt, played with her combo at an afternoon set for a modest but keenly interested crowd. She featured songs from her upcoming album The Avenues, and an earlier record, Lying in the Sun.

Lera Lynn

Joe Pug followed her onto the River Stage, a steep-sided amphitheater rising up from the riverbank. As boaters listened from the water and festivalgoers from their seats, he sang and played harmonica and acoustic guitar on a series of tough-minded, vividly written songs with a rocking, minor-key flavor that recalled Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” With hard touring, his reputation has grown – the crowd was familiar with “I Do My Father’s Drugs” (“hell of a title,” one fan yelled) as well as his poignant introduction to Texas songwriter Harvey “Tex” Thomas Young’s “Deep Dark Wells.” (The song is based on a poem Young wrote for an imprisoned brother.) With Greg Tuohey providing rumbling electric guitar and Matt Schuessler on upright bass, his “How Good You Are” crackled with the kind of bitter truth that recalled Steve Forbert’s “It Isn’t Going to Be That Way.” He closed with a newer song, about a world where his songs one day will be played on “Silver Harps and Violins.” Don’t know about that, but they’re going to be played a lot more often, in a lot more places, as he keeps building his fan base.

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Houndmouth, a young band from New Albany Ind. with both male and female vocalists, showed itself plenty capable of playing the kind of Southern-rock-influenced contemporary roots music that bigger bands like My Morning Jacket and Kings of Leon are finding success with. (Personally, I don’t think anyone incorporates Southern-rock strains into urgently modern, real country music the way Jamey Johnson does – he played a great, gritty set in a drizzle on Friday night.) The highlight was a new song featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd-like overtones mixed with some Mott the Hoople-style upbeat pounding rhythm, about Hollywood.

The Lone Bellow offered a Brooklyn-based version of Americana, a studied update of old-timey music that accentuates the drama through body language, hand-clapping and stop-start singing style. Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin picked up on each other’s vocal contributions to a song, not just trading lines but also phrases within lines. They also would eccentrically stop and start the rhythm in order to break in and out of harmonies. It would be too melodramatic without good songs, but on “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” and especially the new “If Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” they showed they have some.

Emmylou Harris’ late-afternoon set at the main stage drew keen anticipation. She is the Americana crowd’s Beyonce, looking regal with her silvery white hair. And yet, there was nothing overbearing or theatrical about her stage presence or show. It was down-to-earth as she made introductory remarks between each song that she and her sterling band played. Her voice was perfectly on key before the large open-air crowd – ethereal with clarity and country pining, but with a fluttery abstraction, a slight slurring at the end of lines, that’s so mysterious. And on “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” she revealed a quietly impressive yodel.

The early inclusion of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” made some wonder if the set would focus on songs from Wrecking Ball, her landmark Daniel Lanois-produced album from 1995 that was recently reissued. But she instead gave a sampler of best material through her career, some her own compositions and others covers – “Here I Am,” “Michelangelo,” Kitty Wells’ “Making Believe,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “The Road” and more.

The standout was the ballad “Back When We Were Beautiful” from last year’s Grammy-winning album with Rodney Crowell, Old Yellow Moon. Overall, the set was a tour de force, yet she was so confident in her material and her talent that she didn’t need to “work” the crowd at all. This was artistic greatness in action – a classy role model for all entertainers.

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Alison Krauss and Union Station played with as much humility and lack of hubris as Harris, and the set featured flawless pop- and folk-inflected bluegrass. But her plain, politely unassuming gentle voice came off as bland for the setting, although the large crowd did enjoyed her immensely. Most interesting thing about her set was the drone that flew over the field, taking overhead crowd shots for the large screens flanking the Main Stage.

Old Crow Medicine Show, with a choice Saturday-night spot on the very week that saw the release of new album Remedy, evoked a crowd reception that bordered on pandemonium. With each of the members trading stringed and percussion instruments between songs, and with Cory Younts sometimes stepping forth for a show-stopping whistling solo or occasional hoedown, this was a Saturday-night barn dance raised to the 10th power.

Old Crow member Ketch Secor stroked and stoked the audience with numerous shout-out references to Cincinnati and the River Stage’s location along the Ohio River. Actually that location was much too small for a band that seems, at this point, to be about to break very big after years of preparation. The floor between the stage and the steep rows of amphitheater seats was so tightly packed with happy, sweaty, dancing fans that it looked claustrophobic.

I had a standing spot on the plaza behind the seats, but overlooking the stage, and continually had to make room for those who wanted just a quick peek at Old Crow Medicine Show before stepping back. It was like the Beatles in 1964.

One young woman couldn’t decide whether to leave early to get a good spot for Willie Nelson, or stay to hear “Wagon Wheel.” When that song – a reworking of a Bob Dylan outtake from the 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid album – finally came at set’s close, the response was enormous. It was a giant sing-along. When did this tune become such an Americana anthem? (Darius Rucker’s cover was a Modern Country hit.) And could Old Crow Medicine Show do it again? Judging from the warm and already familiar response to “Sweet Amarillo,” another reworking of a Dylan Pat Garrett outtake from the new album, the answer is yes.

Sheer exhaustion prevented me from staying for more than the first half hour of Willie Nelson’s hour-and-a-half closing set, but he came out on the Main Stage promptly with his band, waved hello and began his no-nonsense playing from his ample repertoire. The flanking big screens concentrated on the supple, confident way his 81-year-old hands coaxed sounds from his weathered wooden guitar. And harmonica player Mickey Raphael offered sweet bluesy accompaniment. “Still Is Still Moving to Me” and “Beer For My Horses” both had some bite; “Whiskey River” and “Good Hearted Woman” were like old friends.

A great cap to an excellent day of Americana music.

Pictured below, photo courtesy WNKU-FM: Emmylou Harris, Patterson Hood and the radio station’s John Patrick share a moment.

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