Bluegrass at Bonnaroo

Since 2013, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has featured a SuperJam dedicated to the appreciation of bluegrass music.  The annual showcase is presented by The Bluegrass Situation and headed by Ed Helms who, rumor has it, moonlights as an actor when he’s not picking a banjo. While Helms adds a bit of star power, it’s the impressive mix of musical talent, including Helms’s own fabulous playing, that make this SuperJam so magical.

Unlike most shows, Bonnaroo’s bluegrass SuperJam is widely free-flowing, which harkens to the spontaneity at the root of bluegrass music. It’s one thing to point out some highlights and share some pictures, but it’s really something to witness it in person.

This year, one of the most anticipated names on the bluegrass SuperJam lineup was Nashville country music legend, Martina McBride. While the SuperJam is generally a toe-tapping barn dance, there was a marked anticipatory hush when McBride took her turn on the stage.  McBride basked in the glow of her first ever Bonnaroo performance while doing a solo of “Blackbird” by the Beatles.  “In my visions of this moment I’ve always pictured you all singing along with me,” she shared, and the crowd was more than willing to help out.

Embracing the collaborative environment fostered by the SuperJam and Bonnaroo, on her second song, McBride welcomed Swedish folk rockers Baskery to join her in the spotlight. Together, they collaborated on “Those Memories of You,” in the vein of the Parton, Ronstadt, and Harris version that made the song famous.

Making the rounds from the media tent, to his solo show, and finally to the bluegrass SuperJam, Aaron Lee Tasjan definitely made his mark on Bonnaroo.  Whether collaborating with Ed Helms or sharing a fiery take of Todd Snider’s “Hey Pretty Boy,” ALT showed his range from strumming Americana to bona fide guitar shredding.

While the lineup was already stacked–The Bryan Sutton Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Mandolin Orange, River Whyless, Gaby Moreno, and Lillie Mae–there were a couple surprises for the SuperJam crowd.  To a welcoming roar from the audience, bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne joined Lillie Mae for a fiddle and mandolin feature.  A little while later, Osborne gave the expectant Tennessee crowd what it wanted with his traditional and iconic “Rocky Top.”

 






To close out the incredible evening, Helms brought everyone back on stage for a stirring version of “God Bless America.”  A show this big required two finales, so the ensemble continued straight into John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the USA” which included a verse from yet another surprise guest artist, Margo Price. Not only did we get one more chance to hear from each artist in the SuperJam, but it led to a spirited singalong from the now overflowing crowd, and made the 2017 event stand out as a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, swaying good time.


[These amazing photos were taken by the illustrious Sammi Maifair.]

George Maifair

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