There are two middle Tennessee music traditions that are like no other. In Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry is a name known around the world for bringing together some of the biggest stars and emerging artists of the country music scene for its famous live radio broadcast. In Manchester, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival sets up camp with a temporary city filled with tens of thousands of music lovers. In 2018, Bonnaroo and the Grand Ole Opry joined forces for the first time to inject more country music flavor into the traditionally rock and rap focused festival while giving the Opry’s radio audience the chance to hear the roar of the Bonnaroo crowd.
For 2019, the Opry returned with a slate of artists favoring the traditional country sounds that are the anchor of today’s Americana charts. With a prime Thursday evening timeslot—no opposing main stage headliners and a fresh to The Farm crowd of at least 80,000 waiting to hear some music—the Grand Ole Opry was ready to shine in the Bonnaroo twilight.
Both the Opry and Bonnaroo love tradition, so it was with little surprise that 2019 saw the return of festival favorites Old Crow Medicine Show and their dynamic front man Ketch Secor as hosts for the broadcast. Whether truth or legend, OCMS lays claim to being the first band to ever play the festival, so it is only fitting that they have served as an ambassador linking these two institutions. I also always get some amusement watching the amped stage presence of Secor paired with the suit-wearing, stoicism of Opry announcer Bill Cody; it personifies the uniqueness of joining the Opry with Bonnaroo. Together, they presented a show filled with legendary artists, new names to watch, and some true one of a kind performances.
The Rising Stars:
The Opry is dedicated to bringing rising artists to the spotlight—a goal also ingrained in the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Playing the Opry is a dream of every country music artist, so the audience always expects a show filled with top talent that has emerged above the thousands of hopefuls. This year, the country music variety show featured performances from rising artists Molly Tuttle, Morgan Evans, Wendy Moten, and Ashley Monroe. Country music can mean a lot of things and with this group, The Opry gathered performers that hit on all the genre’s influences.
Molly Tuttle won over a range of country music fans, as she got The Opry night started with her bluegrass heavy, “Take the Journey,” which was contrasted by her more folk rock styled, “Light Came In (Power Went Out).” She dazzled the crowd with both her picking skills and her rainbow dress—the latter shiny enough it jammed the sensors on my camera! Morgan Evans gave the Bonnaroo crowd a taste of modern country with his singles, “Young Again,” and “Day Drunk.” Wendy Moten showed us why she’s a name everyone knows in the blues and R&B world while putting a Memphis spin on some Opry classics including Earnest Tubbs’, “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin.” Ashley Monroe shared sultry voiced songs as the sun set, including her hit, “Hands on You.”
Of course, the Opry is also known for bringing its star power. The list of legendary artists that have crossed the Grand Ole Opry Stage is like no other. The Opry is usually a mix of Top 40 and traditional country music, but for Bonnaroo 2019 they did a fantastic job of finding the right fit for the audience. With Steve Earle & the Dukes, Ricky Skaggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show leading the bill, there was enough authentic country flavor to please any Bonnaroovian.
Of course, before the headliners could take the stage, we were visited by one of the acts that puts the variety in each Opry show. A long time Opry favorite, The Riders in the Sky, showed us how they do things “the cowboy way” and made sure to include their montage of favorites from Toy Story’s ‘Woody’s Roundup.” A mix of humor and dusty trail music, the band can win over any crowd.
Whether you think of him as a country, Americana, or rock artist, we can all agree that Steve Earle has that outlaw, independent spirit that fits right in at Bonnaroo. Hitting on his rock roots, Earle opened his set with the electric guitar backed, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” before running through three classic county songs. Showcasing his picking prowess on both guitar and mandolin, and with support on fiddle, Earle hit on a toe-tapping cover of Bobby Bare’s, “New Cut Road,” as well as the harmony-rich, “I’m Still In Love With You,” and the ominously strummed, “The Mountain,” both from his album with the Del McCoury Band.
No one can claim they know bluegrass and gospel music without knowing the name Ricky Skaggs. Starting with some blistering mandolin picking, the Country Music and International Blue Grass Music Association Hall of Famer hooked the festival crowd with a traditional take on the Stanley Brother’s classic, “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” While you don’t hear a lot of gospel at Bonnaroo, the crowd knows its music and listened in silent appreciation to Skagg’s hit, “Can’t Shake Jesus.” Before leaving the Opry Stage, there was a special collaboration in the works, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Arguably no other band has as tight of a bond with the Bonnaroo family as Old Crow Medicine Show. They could perform every day, each year and would still draw the bulk of the festival crowd to the show. That’s because they have an endless supply of energy and always put together a setlist of “the songs that got them here,” and quirky unique takes on modern hits. Always knowing their audience, OCMS started their set with the Tennessee favorite, “Rocky Top.” The appropriately timed “Woos” from the crowd demonstrated that while international, Bonnaroo draws a good part of its attendance from its home state. Switching from classic bluegrass, OCMS’s Ketch Secor let us know it was time for a cowboy song. Last year, I joked that some of the Grand Ole Opry founders probably were spinning in the grave at host Bill Cody’s suggestion for tie-dyed Opry shirts. There is no telling what the ghosts of Opry founders were doing when OCMS went completely new-school with their take on the wildly popular, “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X. With the band’s rich, almost orchestral sound, the song took on a darker tone and is a welcome addition to the variety of ways this hip-hop crossover keeps crossing over. Thanks to OCMS, at least one debate has been put to rest: “If anybody’s wondering if that’s country music,” Secor advised, “I played it on Roy Acuff’s fiddle.” It doesn’t get more country than that!
One of the most anticipated events of the rocking side of each Bonnaroo is its famous SuperJam, which was covered by our sister publication East of 8th. Known for combining an array of talent, often in unique collaborations, the SuperJam is one of those things where you never know what might happen. The Grand Ole Opry is also known for bringing together artists for once in a lifetime collaborations in its legendary circle. This year, the Opry added even more of these special moments, making its timeslot take on the feel of a true SuperJam.
The rarest of collaborations came early in the Opry show as Ricky Skaggs was finishing his time in the circle. If you are a Skaggs fan, you will think of the song, “Hillbilly Highway,” as one of his hits from 1997. If you are a Steve Earle fan, you remember it as the hit he co-wrote and launched in 1996. For the first time, Earle and Skaggs joined each other on stage to perform the song together. Watching the two iconic artists trading lines and sharing choruses is one of those moments where you remember why you go to concerts instead of listening from home. It was something you just had to experience live.
Later in the show, OCMS featured a rotation of the night’s acts. The crowd sang along with Wendy Moten and OCMS to a jamming cover of Kris Kristofferson’s, “Me and Bobby McGee.” Next, Secor yielded the mic to outlaw country upstart Charlie Worsham for some rowdy gospel singing on his own, “I Hope I’m Stoned When Jesus Takes Me Home.” Both the Opry and the Bonnaroo SuperJams love to go out with a couple songs sure to stay in the crowd’s memory. Welcoming Molly Tuttle and Riders in the Sky, OCMS led the crowd—and most likely the listener at home—in a singalong of an extended, fiddle filled version of the always audience favorite Wagon Wheel. Of course, the Opry would not be complete without one of its most iconic traditions: the boisterous, all-hands-on-deck singing of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” With the full cast of the night’s Opry show stretched across the stage, taking turns belting out the classic lines, you could feel the history of the Opry in the air and the appreciation for music of all kinds pouring from the crowd.
[Make sure to check back tomorrow for the rest of Mother Church Pew’s coverage from the 2019 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival]