Two years ago, when Railbird was still held at Keeneland RaceTrack in Lexington, KY, there were clearly some areas the festival needed to improve. After the first day of 2021's festival, fans were upset at the limited water, shade, and vendor access.
From a music perspective, the lineup was incredible that year, the venue was stunning with the Kentucky skyline in the back, and the sound quality was unlike any other festival I had been to at that point. I believe that was because of the strategic placements of the three stages at Keeneland.
Overall my experience was great in 2021; however, clearly, festival organizers saw they needed to make a change. After taking a year hiatus, Railbird announced its return with possibly one the most popular lineups festival goers could choose from this year. Selling out in just a few hours, the demand for Railbird was back.
Fans of Country, Rock, Bluegrass, Folk, Soul, and Indie music were elated to see that not only the festival was back but with a lineup as strong as this one. With Kentucky native Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps headlining the Sunday night slot of the festival, other artists like Zach Bryan, Weezer, Sheryl Crow, The Head and The Heart, and many more were featured for the two-day festival.
This year's big surprise for many fans came under the Railbird logo. This year, the location said not Keeneland, but instead, it would be held at the Red Mile Racetrack and Casino in the heart of Lexington. A change that would allow the festival's organizers much more opportunity to focus on the overall fan experience and offer needed amenities that the fast-growing festival could not keep up with in years prior.
Having never been to Red Mile, I did not know what to expect, and at first, I was really going to miss the picturesque scenery that Keeneland brought. However, once I made my way into the festival grounds, I quickly realized that this venue would be the new home for Railbird for years to come.
Fans entered the gates on the side of the racetrack, where you first see The Burl Stage entirely covered by a long tent offering shade to fans looking to see the smaller acts of the weekend. Those same massive tents were also in the middle of the festival grounds, offering refreshments, shade, and tables to sit at or space to watch the entire weekend from inside the tents.
Surrounding the track was more food, refreshments, merch, restrooms, and hydration stations. At one point, I found myself saying to a friend that this festival may have the quickest lines I've ever experienced. This is a well-due over-correction for fans, as they deserve the service and amenities Railbird offered this time.
The heat was brutal at points but not nearly as unbearable as the August heat of 2021. However, there is something special about listening to country and Bluegrass in the summer heat in a big open field.
The first act I was able to catch on the weekend was Texas' Charley Crockett. The distant relative of American Folk Hero Davy Crockett. Charley has made a name for himself that could rival his distant relative. From rags to riches, Crockett began playing on a guitar his mom purchased from a pawn shop. Over the years, Crockett would live the life of an outlaw country musician after being arrested twice for selling marijuana in the Pacific Northwest. He used it to get by until he got his music career going. Growing up in San Benito, TX, and spending summers in the French Quarter of New Orleans with family, you can clearly see Crockett's musical influences. His soulful singing voice blends with classic Country Western music and Creole Jazz sounds. It's as if someone took Marty Robbins, Fats Domino, and Willie Nelson and made them into one. His sound is interesting; it's almost this sound that's been lost in time but is still very modern. Crockett has found a niche in this genre thanks to artists like Leon Bridges and Nathaniel Rateliff, who have been very successful at creating this sound. Like a brand new Crosley vinyl record player, Crockett's music has this vintage sheen that reminds you of a time that is long gone or, if you're my age, a time you've only read about or seen on T.V. However, the substance of his music is clearly personal and inspired by his fascinating life. Crockett treated fans with songs like "Jamestown Fairy" and even a cover of Buck Owens' "Act Naturally."
Over at the main stage, daytime festival legend Sheryl Crow took the stage. That's not to say that Sheryl Crow hasn't earned the right to play later slots at any festival, but there's something special about seeing Crow in that late afternoon sunset slot. Obviously, we wanted to "Soak Up The Sun," but there's more to that. During the '90s, many artists were pulling influence from the '60s and '70s, but what Crow was so successful at was building on the legacy of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene. Her vibes are chill, her music is melodic and easy to listen to, and she reminds fans of what music at its most blissful moments can be, fun. I'm sure many fans were also surprised that in her hour and fifteen minutes on stage, there was not one song that fans weren't singing along to. Hits just kept coming. And for the younger fans, I'm sure they were able to see the clear influence Crow's music had on bands like Hiam, Taylor Swift, and to some extent, even boygenius.
Mumford and Sons have had a strange last few years. From losing their longtime banjo player to having a less than warm critical reception to their latest release, "Delta," an album I personally enjoyed. Marcus Mumford himself seeks out more work as a solo act. Recently released his first solo album titled "Self-titled." As a big fan from their early years, I wasn't sure what to expect with just Mumford himself taking the stage. Would he have another backing band? Or would this be a solo act? As Mumford took the stage, he only had his acoustic guitar. A bold choice for such a large stage, however, Mumford can still captivate a crowd with just his unique style of singing and a guitar. For fans who thought that this would not feature much of his work with Mumford and Sons, they were wrong. From "The Cave" to "I Will Wait," "Little Lion Man," and more, Mumford gave fans exactly what they wanted. For me, though, the best part came when Lucius joined Mumford on stage to harmonize on two songs. One of which was from the Basement Tapes series, where Mumford worked with a supergroup of musicians on reimagining unrecorded Bob Dylan songs. The three sang a beautiful rendition of "Kansas City."
As the sun began to set, the one band that maybe stuck out from this curated lineup was Weezer. You have a bunch of Americana, Singer-songwriters, and an overall rootsy vibe all day, and here comes the Power-Pop 90's troubadours, Weezer. Well, for me, I was nothing but excited; I loved The Blue Album and Pinkerton growing up and could not wait to see these nerds who simply want to be an Arena Rock band like Kiss or Boston rock out with their dueling guitar solos and quirky concepts. As I was making my way back over to the Elkhorn stage, I began to hear the acoustic guitar intro to "My Name Is Jonas," a staple from their debut album. Fans began to filter in, and Weezer could feel the crowd's excitement grow. That evening was the first night of their summer tour, and it was kicked off with a bang. I have to admit I was a bit worried that Weezer, as prolific as they are, may veer toward some newer songs or some lesser-known stuff. However, to my surprise, they played a majority of their hits. I think that's where I realized that Rivers Cuomo is still that kid in his garage playing with his friends. They still aspire to be this legendary act, which sometimes doesn't age well, but if anything, it should be admired. Weezer ran through hits like "Undone (Sweater Song)," "Buddy Holly," and "Island In The Sun."
As day one came to a close, it was time to head to the main stage to see Zach Bryan and his band. Never having seen him before, my expectations were very high. Between the clear massive draw he brought to the festival, along with having loved the live record he put out this past winter, All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster, I wanted to be blown away. As he walked out on stage to Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" the crowd erupted. After greeting fans with his "ah shucks'' personality, he quickly amped it up as the guitar riff for "Open The Gates" began. Like a stampede, Bryan and his band came out at 100 miles an hour. There would be no stopping from there. Although Bryan is clearly a country artist at his roots, he draws from so many other greats. There were elements of Lynyrd Skynard's Southern Rock, The Lumineers' folksy ballads, even the swagger of artists like Bruce Springsteen in his 80's stadium rock years, and the intensity of Neil Young during his 90's rock revival. Bryan's band was a murderous row of talented studio and touring musicians who were able to elevate the somber and heartfelt songs of Bryan's. Whether it's authentic or not, Bryan seems to give every ounce of his fans each night. With the snarling vocals got the crowd excited, to him being able to bring every fan in on the edge of their seat with songs like "Something in the Orange'' and "Heavy Eyes." The real highlight of the night came during the encore of the show when Bryan and company played out the crowd with a 10-minute-long "Revival." A staple of his shows where he introduces the rest of the band, giving them a moment to shine.
Having spent my college years in West Virginia, Tyler Childers was what my friends and I were looking forward to most. However, at many of these small venues and festivals, there was always this one artist that stuck out to me, Sierra Ferrell. I didn't know who she was at the time, but I did recall seeing her a few times. A few years ago, I began to see her debut album receiving heaping critical praise and never connected the dots until I did some research and found that she, too, came from West Virginia and had been intimately involved in the Charleston, West Virginia, music scene. On her debut album, Long Time Coming, Ferrell blew me away with her unique Gypsy Appalachian sound. There were elements of Bluegrass, Creole Jazz, and Country music. Appealing to the more crunchy country fans, Ferrell carved a place for herself as a must-see touring act. Ferrell's beautiful and delicate singing voice is paired with this spellbinding and almost eerie form of New Orleans jazz. This was my first time knowingly seeing Ferrell, and she absolutely blew me away. From playing tunes like "The Sea," "Silver Dollar," and "In My Dreams," Ferrell became my possible favorite act of the weekend. Even offering fans a lovely cover of The Beatles, "Don't Let Me Down." Ferrell is a must-see going forward.
Ricky Skaggs & The Kentucky Thunder:
Bluegrass Legend Ricky Skaggs was a must-see for me this weekend, and he did not disappoint. With the revival of Bluegrass in artists like Billy Strings, Greensky Bluegrass, and even with Sturgill Simpson rerecording all of his catalogs into a two-part bluegrass series. Ricky Skaggs is a contemporary touchstone for all of these artists, as he was able to bring his fast-picking sounds to the mainstream with songs like "Highway 40 Blues." Skaggs and the incredibly talented Kentucky Thunder took the stage at 2:45 pm and ran through a slew of Bluegrass standards and hits. Including a cover of the late great John Prine's "Paradise," a personal highlight for me.
From one bluegrass legend to another, fans made their way over to see Carlsbad, California's Nickel Creek. The virtuoso mandolin player Chris Thile along with brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, have carved out a legacy for themselves as one of the most experimental and unique acoustic acts of the last 20 years. Touring in support of their latest record, Celebrants, the trio ran through a series of classics from their career, as well as some new tunes. To hear their ability to harmonize in person is something even more special than hearing it on their studio records. The Watkins siblings' ability to harmonize is as impressive as past sibling acts such as the Louvin Brothers or The Beach Boys. However, when Sara Watkins takes lead vocals on songs like "Destination," you are able to see the versatility of all three members. It's also so cool to see someone who is arguably the best in the world at anything. So to see Chris Thile do things with a mandoline that no one else can is just a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As a Jam Band fan, I am very familiar with the jam scene's fastest-rising star, Connecticut's Goose. Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are very familiar with the five-piece band, as they cut their teeth playing venues like Madison Live. Even just recently hosted an incredible two-night New Year's Eve run at The Andrew J Brady Music Center down on the banks this past winter. So I was excited to add another notch to my Goose show number, even if this was just a snippet of what they can do with a proper 4-hour show. Wasting no time, Goose took the stage and kicked it off right with "Animal." A very groovy and danceable tune, into a live staple for them, "Flodown." "Flodown" draws from their contemporaries like Phish; however, what really allows Goose to stand out is their connection to current indie music and their desire to be praised not only by their fans but their heroes like Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, and Cincinnati's The National. Becoming a regular cover for the band, Goose once again performed their rendition of the National's "BloodBuzz Ohio." A pairing that at first would seem strange but instead is one of the best songs they currently perform live. Lead singer and guitarist Rick Mitarotonda doesn't attempt to impersonate Matt Berninger's Baritone voice but instead brings the song to new heights with his ability to make the song sound like a U2 Joshua Tree-era chorus and still fit the improvisational creativity of Goose. The set ended with an incredible run of "Hungersite" into "Slow Ready," finishing with the single that any fan doing basic research knew, "Arcadia." Already reaching new heights every few months, Goose will not be doing these daytime slots for much longer, so it was a pleasure to see the band play during this afternoon time slot.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats:
Nathaniel Rateliff is the story of a slow burn. For years traveling the country trying to make it as a solo singer-songwriter but never getting the right opportunities. That is until he started playing with his band, The Night Sweats, in Denver. The big band brass sound elevated Rateliff's voice and songwriting to new heights. Giving his voice a new vehicle to bellow out songs like "S.O.B." and adding complex textures to songs like "Wasting Time," a personal favorite of mine. As the evening sky began to set, Rateliff relished in the beautiful scene with the Lexington City skyline in his purview. Rateliff seemed to be right at home on the main stage at a festival which almost felt made for someone like him.
The Head & The Heart:
In the last two decades, there's been a renaissance of the folk-rock band. Now if you call it the "Roots Revival" or just the evolution of folk-leaning bands, there are some bands that were really at the forefront. One of those bands was The Head and The Heart (TH&TH). In 2011, TH&TH came into fans' playlists with songs like "Rivers and Roads" and "Lost in My Mind." One of those early fans was Zach Bryan, who actually performed "Down in the Valley" with the band. Their somber ballads and lovely melodies were the perfect appetizer to get fans ready for the final act of the night. Their songs give fans the ability to feel like they are participating, and that was abundantly clear as it felt like the entire crowd was singing along with the band. These songs are meant to be played by fireside as much as they are meant for the big stage.
This one is going to be personal. In my first week of journalism school at Marshall University in 2014, I offered to cover the Huntington Music and Arts Festival with a friend for a school Television show I was reporting at. I had to get some interviews with the bands and acts. As a huge music fan, this was exciting. Throughout the day, I saw several bands and artists I would follow for years to come, but one artist just blew me away. Not only because he got a standing ovation from the crowd and actually played an encore, which did not happen often, but because of the material he was singing about the ability of his band, and the way he was singing. It was unlike any country music I had heard to that point.
In 2014, there wasn't this revival of popular Outlaw Country music like we have now. There weren't shows like Yellowstone using these musicians as soundtracks; there frankly weren't any country musicians singing about their demons and their struggles with the authenticity of someone truly raised in Appalachia. He was clearly just a few years older than me and dawning a yellow cowboy shirt, he looked nervous, and his band was called the Highwall at the time, I believe. I knew after that performance that it would be my very first interview for a college news outlet. I was nervous because this guy had just blown the roof off the place, and even if there were just a hundred people there, it felt like a thousand to me.
He was incredibly humble, and I asked him for an interview. He almost seemed surprised. That was a 22-year-old Tyler Childers. As he put his guitar away, he made the time for me and my friend to set up our camera and mic him up and give what was probably the worst interview of my career. However, Childers was patient and just happy to be considered to be on a show that no one except our parents would watch.
I will admit I left that show wanting to show everyone what I thought I had discovered. To me, Tyler Childers's music was the best-kept secret in the world, and I wanted to tell everyone I knew about it. It had the rawness of hearing Live From Folsom Prison for the first time. With the painstaking vocals of Willie Nelson on Red Headed Stranger. And a dash of that badass appeal Waylon Jennings brought to each one of his songs. It was the coolest moment of my life up to that point.
What would proceed would be my group of college friends and me spending the next nine years following him and his incredible band, now named the Food Stamps, around West Virginia, from having my first date with my now fiance at a Tyler Childers show, where he played in a parking lot in Huntington on the back of a trailer, to cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and more. To then all end up at the biggest stage we had seen him at, the headlining spot of Railbird.
It's surreal to see your local band make it big; if you ever get that chance, my advice is just to be happy. They're not yours to gatekeep. All that time you spent listening to your favorite local artist is now being shared with nearly 100,000 people in one place. That's amazing.
After taking a break from touring due to the pandemic, Childers got sober, found a new outlook on life, had a child, and released two albums that were nothing like his first two studio records. First, an entirely instrumental fiddle album titled, A Long Violent History, and his recent release, a three-part reimagining of some of his live and studio songs titled Take My Hounds to Heaven. The records were almost defiant in their creative freedom; they challenged his fans to rethink what the Country star could do musically and allowed his incredibly talented band to shine. Focusing on a more Country Funk vibe, with religious music undertones on songs like Hank Williams' "Old Country Church," Childers has broken any conventional thought about what he could do, much like his peer and friend, Sturgill Simpson.
So when it came time to play, I was elated to finally hear this new reinvigorated arena-ready band and see how it would translate to the big stage. Before coming out on stage, Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton announced that Sunday, June 4th, would be known from that day on as Tyler Childers Day in the city of Lexington.
The crowd erupted, and Childers and the Food Stamps broke into their first song, a classic at this point, "White House Road." From there, Childers would run through a series of his hits like, "Going Home," his first time playing that song live since 2019. To "Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?" and "I Swear to God," just to name a few. Even covering Charley Crockett with "Tom Turkey" and Kenny Rogers with his incredible rendition of "Tulsa Turnaround." Clearly working on new material, Childers mixed in some new songs and blended them perfectly with the hits.
To hear thousands of people sing along to songs you were singing at the V-Club in Huntington, WV, nearly a decade ago is a strange feeling, but it also felt like, "Finally, everyone understands!" As for the Food Stamps, they, too, are at the heights of their powers, playing with a swagger of an arena rock band, held down by original members Rodney Elkins and Craig Burletic on the drums and bass.
As the band finished their final song, "Heart You've Been Tendin," the Food Stamps departed the stage. Childers grabbed a chair and his acoustic guitar and began to play the intro to "Nose to the Grindstone," a song that helped build his following. He then would play a personal favorite of mine, "Follow You to Virgie," a beautiful song about the death of his grandmother.
Childer's finished with an acapella cover of the late Cory Branan's "Sour Mash." I found this particularly beautiful as it seems like Childers is in the best place he has been mentally in a long time. Smiling from ear to ear, he looked in amazement at the size of the crowd. He has clearly become the voice of many in Appalachia, and he is comfortable with that now. A voice of empathy, acceptance, and progress.
For fans lucky enough to see Childers that evening they got to see someone who I consider one of the most important artists of our generation. He gives voice to an incredible part of the country and the good people who live there. We should reward artists who speak for those without a voice and those who need to share that emotion they themselves can't express. That's what Tyler Childers does for millions of fans around the world.
Railbird came to a close just as it did two years ago, too short and on a high. Leave them wanting more, I guess. I know for me I will be back every year they are there.
Check out CincyMusic's interview with The Head and The Heart from Railbird later this week.