It seems unnecessary to spotlight droolingly anticipated shows like Willie Nelson, Alabama, The Band Perry, Alison Krauss, Old Crow Medicine Show and Drive-By Truckers, so we’ll stick to some of the lower-tier artists that deserve your attention at the inaugural Buckle Up Festival.
For Country fans unfamiliar with the format, many acts will be playing simultaneously, so it’s good strategy to have a schedule of who you want to see and when they’ll be playing ahead of time each day. If there’s overlap, you can catch part of one show and then head over to another, which is the advantage and beauty of the festival set-up (FYI, out-of-towners — make room for Cincinnati-area faves like Kentucky Timbre, The Tillers, Straw Boss and The Kentucky Struts, among a good many others).
With that in mind, here are some folks you should make an extra effort to catch at Buckle Up 2014.
Amanda Shires (River Stage; July 18 @ 2 p.m.) Amanda Shires is one of those rare artists who absorbs elements of several genres and utilizes those raw influences to create a sound that is eerily familiar yet utterly unique. Shire’s four powerful albums — 2005’s primarily instrumental Being Brave, 2009’s West Cross Timbers, 2011’s Carrying Lightning and last year’s Down Fell the Doves — could certainly be appreciated by Country fans, but she weaves a spell that draws on Folk, Rock, Americana and dashes of more exotic musical spices. Take “Bulletproof,” from Doves, for instance; the tribally ethereal track has the eclectic texture of Shelby Lynne collaborating with Suzanne Vega and Tom Waits. Of course, some Country aficionados require a degree of legitimacy before they sign on and Shires provides that as well; the Texas native started playing fiddle at age 10 and joined the Texas Playboys, the late Bob Wills’ backing band, when she was 15. We’ll save a place for you down front. And you’re welcome.
Sturgill Simpson (Main Stage; July 18 @ 4:15 p.m.) After just two albums, Sturgill Simpson has earned a truckload of critical praise and displayed the kind of creative vision that signals the potential for a long and incredibly diverse career. His 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, was a compelling if somewhat standard issue Country album that still presented Simpson as an artist who understood the genre’s long history as well as its future direction (without relying on Pop hybridization). It is Simpson’s just-released sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, that has reviewers and fans leaping around as if they’d pissed on the electric fence. Exuding an effective blend of ’70s Outlaw Country and new traditionalism with a contemporary edge as sharp as a factory-fresh scalpel, Simpson burns with the blistering intensity and psychedelicized cosmic passion of a peyote-laced Merle Haggard. If you only dip your toe into the unknown once during Buckle Up, let it be Sturgill Simpson; before the end of his set, you’ll be doing the full baptismal plunge.
Ashley Monroe (River Stage; July 18 @ 6:45 p.m.) When Ashley Monroe offered up Satisfied, her 2009 full-length debut, it wasn’t difficult to hear Dolly Parton in Monroe’s dulcet warble and earthy delivery. At the same time, Monroe’s unique personality and modern approach were clearly evident with her scalding take on Lucinda Williams’ “Can’t Let Go,” while her collaborative skills were highlighted by the Honky Tonk bliss of “That’s Why We Call Each Other Baby” with Dwight Yoakam and “I Don’t Want To” with Ronnie Dunn. Why Columbia shelved the three-year-old album and then dropped her is a complete mystery, but Monroe has flourished since signing with Warner Brothers: Last year’s Like a Rose featured the rollicking “Weed Instead of Roses” and the wonderfully cheeky duet with Blake Shelton, “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter);” she’s done a pair of well-regarded albums with Pistol Annies, her girl group with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley; and her session resume features names like Jack White, Wanda Jackson, Chris Isaak, Josh Kelly and Vince Gill, among others.
Marty Stuart (Bud Light Stage; July 18 @ 8:15 p.m.) From teenaged mandolin apprentice with the legendary Lester Flatt to young guitar player for the iconic Johnny Cash (who became both friend and, for a time, father-in-law) to acclaimed solo artist, Marty Stuart zealously pursued commercial success virtually from the start.
His eventual success proved to be a hollow victory so Stuart embarked on a series of creative reinventions that found him following his heart and muse rather than his ambitions; the critical and commercial acceptance of 1999’s The Pilgrim more than validated his decision. Since then, Stuart has shown that his most rewarding projects have been the ones that steer closest to his heart, from the “church house trilogy” of 2005’s Souls’ Chapel and Badlands and 2006’s Live at the Ryman to his 2008 tribute to Country/Folk traditions, Cool Country Favorites. Stuart continues his exploration of classic Country with the upcoming release this fall of the double disc set Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, with each disc representing one of the title days. But it’s in the live arena that Stuart best displays his momentous history, unmatched technical precision and boundless love for the craft of making real Country music.
Houndmouth (Main Stage; July 19 @ 4:15 p.m.) With roots in Indiana and a studio in Louisville, Ky., Houndmouth could certainly be considered a regional band, amassing a solid fan base in the area with a handful of local appearances that have generated exponential word of mouth excitement after each successive visit. The quartet has notched some impressive accomplishments since their 2011 formation, particularly a killer set at 2012’s South by Southwest for a small but potent audience of industry high hats that included Rough Trade head Geoff Travis, who signed Houndmouth weeks after their SXSW appearance. Last year, the band’s debut full-length, From the Hills Below the City, earned them a truckload of great press, slots on the most prestigious festival bills, TV exposure with performances on the late night shows and major radio juice through David Dye’s World Cafe. But as Duke Ellington noted, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing, and Houndmouth swings with twangy abandon, like a Midwest mash-up of Alabama Shakes (who they’ve opened for) and The Band.
Emmylou Harris (River Stage; July 19 @ 5:45 p.m.) OK, maybe Emmylou seems like an obvious pick to her hardcore fan base; while talent certainly doesn’t get much bigger than hers, she’s the kind of relatively non-commercial name that could easily get overlooked in a well-stocked festival. From her early brilliance with Gram Parsons to her 40-plus year solo career — which has run the gamut from traditional Country to atmospheric Americana and everything between and beyond over the course of 22 studio albums, five collaborations (with the likes of Mark Knopfler, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Rodney Crowell and more), a trio of live sets, an astonishing 10 best-of compilations and uncountable guest appearances, all of which have earned her an amazing and yet unsurprising 13 Grammy Awards — Emmylou Harris is more than just a gifted singer, songwriter, collaborator and interpreter, she is a national freaking treasure. Considering she doesn’t come through Cincinnati all that often, this should be one of Buckle Up’s most anticipated slots.
The Lone Bellow (River Stage; July 19 @ 5 p.m.) It sounds like the set up for a weird joke: What do get when you cross a pastry chef, a waiter and a church music director? In this case, you get The Lone Bellow, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based trio of supernaturally gifted vocalists and instrumentalists who blend Alternative Country, Folk, Soul and Indie Rock in a gorgeous and powerful musical gumbo that bubbles with the same visceral intensity as The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons but with a distinct Southern influence. Many of the songs that comprise The Lone Bellow’s self-titled 2013 debut album began life in the journal of guitarist/vocalist Zach Williams, who used the entries as a device to sort out his emotions after his wife was temporarily paralyzed after a fall from a horse. During his wife’s recovery, the Georgia native learned to play guitar and turned his writings into songs on advice from a friend, ultimately recruiting old college pal Brian Elmquist and fellow scene singer Kanene Pipkin to flesh out the material he’d been doing solo. An opening opportunity for The Civil Wars led to a meeting with the duo’s producer Charlie Peacock and the recording of their acclaimed debut, which sounds less like the work of a band and more like the closeness of a family.
Arlo McKinley & the Lonesome Sound (Lawn Stage; July 19 @ 5:45 p.m.)We can rest assured that greater Cincinnati residents are well aware of the immense talent of Arlo McKinley and the band of Country purveyors he’s dubbed the Lonesome Sound, and that local fans will turn up in a flashless mob to witness the aggregation’s quiet (and not so quiet) brilliance. But let’s assume, for a moment, that out-of-towners might be perusing this guide for, well, guidance, and may be blissfully unaware that McKinley represents a zeal related more to music than the pursuit of success. They will also be similarly uninformed about the band’s recent self-titled album, and how said collection of Neil Young-channeling-Hank Williams songs is one of the best Country albums of this year and perhaps one of the best albums of any genre in 2014. We gently suggest the uninitiated should take in McKinley’s set and experience what area fans have been learning for the last year and a half — Arlo McKinley & the Lonesome Sound make the realest music around.
David Nail (Main Stage; July 20 @ 7 p.m.) Considering David Nail’s current stratospheric success, it seems hard to imagine that his first label read the middle-of-the-Billboard-chart showing of his first single “Memphis” as a failure and never released his self-titled debut album, which had already been promotionally advanced. MCA signed Nail five years later, releasing I’m About to Come Alive, which featured a duet with Miranda Lambert and co-writes with Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox; the title track was a cover of the Train song and showed Nail’s impressive musical range. In 2012, Nail dropped The Sound of a Million Dreams, which yielded “Let It Rain,” his first No. 1 single, and followed that up earlier this year with his third official album, I’m a Fire, featuring “Whatever She’s Got,” which hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart while the album itself hit No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on its Country Albums ranking. Nail’s powerful vocal style and ability to completely inhabit a song was clearly evident on his first two albums, but I’m a Fire displayed a confident and diverse Country/Rock artist with a solid foundation and the prospects for a long, successful run.
Thompson Square (River Stage; July 20 @ 8 p.m.) Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton may be Country’s current reigning married couple but Keifer and Shawna Thompson are the ones putting their relationship and their careers on the line by living and working together. As Thompson Square, the professional and personal pair have won every conceivable duo award that Country has to offer (CMA, CMT, ACM and ACA) over the past three years, and their self-titled 2011 debut album and sophomore follow-up, 2013’s Just Feels Good, have racked up impressive sales figures, notably their double-platinum, No. 1 single “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” and their Top 10 track “If I Didn’t Have You.” And like all great successes, the Thompsons have a great origin story; nearly a decade and a half ago, Keifer and Shawna arrived in Nashville just days apart — he from Oklahoma, she from Alabama — and shortly thereafter met at a singing competition where fate took its course. When their solo ambitions proved less than fruitful, they formed Thompson Square, signed with Stoney Creek Records and began their quest to become one of Country’s greatest twosomes. ©