The Shaky Boots Music Festival, a spin-off from its indie-rock big brother, the Shaky Knees festival, debuted this weekend, featuring acts from all aspects of the country music world. Mainstream and classic country were well represented, as was the Americana genre, bringing thousands of music fans to the Alabama suburbs.
Amanda Shires helped kick off Shaky Boots with an excellent opening set. Songs like "The Garden" and "Wasted and Rollin'" highlighted not only some gorgeous harmonies between Shires and her bass player, Stephanie Dickerson, but it also gave her guitar player a chance to shine with some hot solos. She introduced him as Jason Shires Isbell, who happens to be her husband. It wasn't the only time he was on stage that day.
Shires switched between rhythm guitar, ukulele and fiddle, the latter of which drew warm applause from her gathered fans. "Bulletproof" was a groovy, smoking set highlight (again punctuated by a hot guitar solo), as was "Mutineer," a beautiful duet with Isbell and Shires. Considering the couple is expecting, it could have been considered a trio.
The Railers delivered an upbeat, energetic set that mixed country elements in with some rock and bluegrass tinges. Even putting aside the bouncy songs, it's hard to not like a band that uses fiddle, mandolin and even a concertina so liberally. Featuring brothers Jordan and Jonathan Lawson, Cassandra Lawson (Jonathan's wife) and Tyler Oban, they did an excellent job of getting the crowd moving with fun songs like "Goodbye Goodbye Goodbye" and "These Hands." Their upcoming debut album should be one worth listening.
Sugarland got its start playing at Eddie's Attic in suburban Decatur, and Kristian Bush, one-half of the on-hiatus duo, has never forgotten his roots. He still comes back to Eddie's to play on occasion, so his solo set at Shaky Boots had a homecoming feel to it. After 10 years of being the mostly silent half of Sugarland, Bush seems ready to take on any critic who questions his singing abilities. He played many of the songs from his debut album, and not only did they sound good, but Bush sounded good singing them.
"Make Another Memory" is a crashing, rocking anthem and is unlike Sugarland as a song can get. "Love or Money," an earlier release, was catchy enough that the crowd sang along, though most were hearing it for the first time.
Bush also stepped into the role of front man effortlessly. "Sing so loud that the other stage realizes that you're having more fun," he exhorted at one point. "It's all about jealousy."
Later, he did a fine version of Sugarland's debut single, "Baby Girl," dedicating it to every parent who has had a child ask for a little money to help them chase their dream.
Backed by a deafening four-guitar attack, Jana Kramer bounced onto the main stage and basically kept moving for the rest of her set. With a gorgeous, clear voice and ridiculously photogenic looks, Kramer would be a major country music star in pretty much any other era save for this one, when it's virtually impossible for a female artist to gain steady airplay if her name isn't Miranda Lambert. Still, Kramer has released some excellent music and had a large and screaming fan base waiting for her.
"Good Time Comin' On" and "One of the Boys" had the crowd worked up in short order. Kramer joked about wishing she was one of the boys at the festival. Maybe if she were one of the boys, she might get played on the radio more often. She also debuted a new song from her upcoming album, "Pop Pop Pop." It went over well with the audience, but it seemed like Kramer is taking the "If you can beat 'em, join 'em" approach to keeping up with the bros of country music.
Georgia has, lately, been responsible for a large amount of mediocre country music. The Whiskey Gentry can go a long way toward balancing that out. Fronted by vocalist Lauren Staley and her husband, guitarist Jason Morrow, The Whiskey Gentry mixes some shop shelf bluegrass picking with punk-rock sonic fury to create a distinctive sound. Staley, with a voice similar to Alison Krauss or Dolly Parton, has more than enough power to be heard over all the noise. They were one of the few acts who were represented at both Shaky Knees and Shaky Boots.
Fleshed out by guests on pedal steel guitar and keyboard, the band tore through their best songs from the most recent album, including the honky-tonking "Dixie" and the stunning title track, "Holly Grove." The latter song is a toe-tapper, right up to the point that you realize that it's about a homicidal drifter and a couple of kids he sees in the grove. There is probably no other song that combines devastatingly tragic lyrics with such a catchy tune. Staley also shone on "Preacher's Daughter," and the entire band got to show their chops on the instrumental "Comrade."
"I gotta say, we're kind of a rock band. I hope you don't mind," said Isbell as he walked on stage for the second time that day. The crowd definitely did not mind, as Isbell and the 400 Unit (with Shires also making a second appearance) played some searing rock and roll. Isbell noted that he was in his old stomping grounds, so he broke out some older songs, like "Never Gonna Change" and "Decoration Day" for the occasion. Most of his set consisted of songs from his stellar album, "Southeastern." "Flying Over Water" was a highlight, as was "Cover Me Up," which was written for his wife. Isbell doesn't have the vocal chops compared to some of the mainstream country singers at the festival, but he wrings emotion out of nearly every single lyric.
If there were any disappointments in Isbell's performance, it was that he didn't play much from his upcoming new album, due this summer. He treated the crowd with "24 Frames" from that album, and if that song is any indication of the new album, Isbell has another hit on his hands.
The Band Perry has evolved from the quiet, subtle performances of "If I Die Young" to a full-blown main stage rock show. With a video screen, smoke effects, choreographed movements and a lead singer who used every available square inch of the stage, the trio are rock stars and delivered a main stage-worthy performance.
There wasn't a trick they didn't use. They did the "If you love country music, I wanna hear you scream" bit. They played the game of seeing which side of the stadium could scream louder." They even threw in a cover of "Uptown Funk." Unfortunately, some of the band's artistic triumphs have been when quiet and subtle, and there was just no room for subtlety. It was all about rocking out to the likes of "DONE" and "I Am a Keeper."
Following that, Dwight Yoakam ripping through "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" and "Please Please Baby" was a breath of fresh country air. He performed a few songs from his new album, "Second-Hand Heart," but this performance featured a string of classic hits and fan favorites. It's a testament to Yoakam's track record that he can break out something like "It Won't Hurt," a 30-year-old album cut from his first album, and even those who were in the crowd who weren't born when it was released can recognize and cheer for it within a few notes.
About halfway through his set, Yoakam and his band kicked it into overdrive, playing an almost uninterrupted string of songs that barely gave the audience time to cheer. From the chart-toppers like "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere" to a couple nuggets from his "If There Was a Way" album, Yoakam didn't let up for a second. If he ran over his time a little, who could complain, when he's singing "Fast as You"?
Blake Shelton was the headliner for the first day, and he showed just why he's deserved those Entertainer of the Year trophies he's picked up in his career. With nothing more than a string of hit songs and a wiseass sense of humor, Shelton had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the moment he stepped on stage to the time he finally walked off almost two hours later.
There could be no better ambassador for the Shaky Boots concept than Shelton. "There's gotta be a million people here," he said, looking out at the crowd. "Well, I'm bad at math, but it's a crapload." Along with gushing about the lineup, Shelton also planned out next year's headliners (Luke Bryan? Zac Brown? Why not?). Shelton interrupted his audience banter with hit after hit, including "All About Tonight" and the gorgeous "Mine Would Be You."
Shelton noted that he started his career playing in Kennesaw at a bar called Cowboys. With that in mind, he played a generous selection of his early hits, including "Some Beach" and "Austin." Even as Shelton has grown to be one of country's biggest names, it's nice to hear his early songs like "Ol' Red" still get a strong response.
Shelton talked about his work on The Voice ("All the judges have been great to work with. Well, Adam's kind of a douchebag, but the rest of the judges..."), throwing in a plug for his singer, Megan Lindsey, for the upcoming finale. He also brought out Gwen Sebastian, who has joined his band since her time on the show. Shelton and Sebastian dueted nicely on "Come a Little Closer," and Shelton joked that the one argument that he has with his wife, Miranda Lambert, is who gets custody of Sebastian on their tours.
Shelton has an excellent string of love songs to his name, and his drinking songs are fun and fan favorites. Compared to that track record, something like "Kiss My Country Ass" or "Boys 'Round Here" sound inconsequential and shallow by comparison, but Shelton has his finger on the pulse of what the audience wants. A country-rap song may be beneath his talents, but there's no denying the way the audience exploded into cheers when "Red red red red red red redneck" played. Shelton ended Shaky Boots' first day on a high note and threw down the gauntlet for the following night's headliner Brad Paisley.
For a festival being held for the first time in an untested location, everything on Day One seemed to go off without a hitch. It's a testament to the organizers, staff and volunteers that the sound and amenities were all operating flawlessly. Even the weather cooperated, as the May weather in Atlanta was merely warm, and not heat-stroke-causing hot.