ome things are too good to last, and in Atlanta, that includes a rain-free weekend. The skies that were so clear and sunny on Shaky Boots' first day turned to rain on the second, but even that couldn't dampen the good mood of the attendees - or the good music.
John and Jacob, a new group from Alabama, won the award for best-dressed performers, coming out in matching eggplant-colored suits. While the combination of suits and hot Georgia weather might have caused other performers to drop, the band kept their energy up throughout their charming, eye-opening set. The two lead vocalists, John Davidson and Jacob Bryant, harmonize like brothers - they even covered The Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie" at one point - and the band blends their classic rock influences into country music with a retro coolness. Jacob also showed off his trumpet-playing abilities on a couple of songs. "Be My Girl" was a set highlight, and "With You With Me" was a new song that was as good as anything from their excellent 2014 album.
With songs like "Cowboy Side of You" and "Move On," new artist Clare Dunn showed off her powerful voice and her guitar-heavy, pop-country songs. Dunn has garnered recognition from several media sources, including Rolling Stone, and her songs have a muscular oomph to them that not many female country acts can manage. She closed her set with a straight-ahead cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," and there aren't many country artists of either gender that can match Robert Plant's vocals.
From here, there was quite a dichotomy that emerged, as well as a legitimate discussion of just what country music is. On the main stage, Cracker performed a fine set of old and new songs. What was Cracker doing there? The band recently released a double album, "From Berkley to Bakersfield," and the Bakersfield half explores the country side of the band. Cracker mainstays David Lowery and Johnny Hickman recruited some ace country musicians from Athens, Ga., and those players served as the backing band for this set.
Lowery introduced the band several times during the show, as if he was aware that a country audience may not recognize them. This iteration of Cracker included both fiddle and pedal steel, and their country songs were among the most traditional songs of the day. "California Country Boy" helped erase any question of whether the band belonged at the festival, and Hickman turned in some fine vocals and guitar solos on "San Bernardino Boy." A take on "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" elicited some grins from anyone old enough to have heard the song before (Ray Wylie Hubbard wrote it, of course). Naturally, Cracker also threw in some of their rock hits, including "Low" and "What the World Needs Now."
As the rain started to fall, The Cadillac Three started their set. They're from Nashville, which marks the only "country" thing about the band. "I'm Southern," to name one song, is hard rock bordering on heavy metal, especially when done live. The clouds really opened up after a few songs, and while some of the crowd made for shelter, an impressive number of fans braved the rain.
So, as far as the country music debate goes: Cracker is an alt.-rock band that, after many years and many rock albums, has released a country half of a double album project. The Cadillac Three is a country band that has charted singles in the Billboard country charts and picked up an ACM nomination this year. Yet literally every single song that Cracker performed was arguably closer to the accepted definition of country music than what The Cadillac Three played. That includes something like "Low," a rock hit that the band really didn't water down for the Shaky Boots audience.
Eli Young Band was next on the main stage, and as Mike Eli walked out and surveyed the sky, the rain slowed to a drizzle. That takes real stage presence. Eli, it must be said, is quite the showman, braving the few remaining raindrops to sing in the unsheltered part of the stage. The only problem was that the sound, which for two days had been pristine, suddenly became very muddy, and much of his vocals were buried under the band's guitars. The fans knew the words to "Ten Thousand Towns" and "Always the Love Songs" well enough to sing along without any help though. Their new single, "Turn It On," got a strong response as well.
As the rain tapered off, the temperature increased so quickly that steam started rising from the fields. It didn't matter to Sara Evans. Dressed all in white, she moved gracefully across the stage as if 90 degrees and 100 percent humidity didn't even phase her. Given that the last few acts were so heavy on guitar, her lighter arrangements of "Born to Fly" and "Perfect" were a welcome sound. Evans' new single, "Put My Heart Down," has a contemporary country feel, but it holds up well next to her hits from 10 or 15 years ago.
Justin Moore, early on in his set, asked the question, "We got any Motley Crüe fans out there?" Which is what happens when children of the 1980s become country stars of the 2010s. Even with his version of "Home Sweet Home" and silly songs like "Bait a Hook" (one of the most baffling hits of recent memory), Moore is also a talented singer with a knack for traditional songs. "'Til My Last Breath" and "If Heaven Weren't So Far Away" were perfect vehicles for his booming voice, and the Shaky Boots crowd responded in kind. Moore, to his credit, let his band rip through a fast-paced instrumental to let them show off their chops.
One might think that an Old Crow Medicine Show acoustic performance is a simple thing. The fact is, it's incredibly complicated and dizzying to watch. Factor in multiple instrument changes, multiple drummers, a tech running on stage to lower the mic whenever diminutive guitjo player Kevin Hayes sings lead vocals, everyone clearing out of the way when Cory Younts dances (or in one horrifying instance, twerks) his way across the stage... there is more choreography involved than a Katy Perry concert.
All the work that goes into the show pays off, as OCMS delivered one of the best performances at Shaky Boots. Kicking off with "Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer," the band crammed an incredible number of songs into a 75-minute set. They maintained a high level of energy throughout the show, racing through songs like "Bootlegger's Boy" and "Brave Boys" with wild abandon. Slowing it down for "Sweet Amarillo" gave Critter Fuqua a chance to show off his accordion skills. Ketch Secor noted that the band played both Shaky Boots and Shaky Knees festivals, stopping in Florida in the week between the shows. He said the band brought back a song from the Everglades before launching into John Anderson's "Seminole Wind."
Yes, the band played "Wagon Wheel," and yes, the response was huge. At one point, Secor told the crowd it was their turn to sing, but he needn't have bothered. They were singing along from the first line without being prompted.
Brad Paisley is one of the few people in country music who could follow up Blake Shelton's headlining show from the previous night. While his guitar pyrotechnics are headline worthy, Paisley also delivers a string of popular hits, wacky videos on giant screens and a tight backup band. And if all else fails, he can be the goofball who takes selfies on random people's cell phones.
The backdrop of the stage was a massive screen that played videos for each song. For "Celebrity," a giant Paisley dummy got into all manner of trouble, including imitating Miley Cyrus' naked "Wrecking Ball" swing - an image that will not soon be forgotten. "Waitin' on a Woman" replayed Andy Griffith's lines from the music video. The new single, "Crushin' It," featured a cartoon of country superstars turning into superheroes.
Paisley also took a break to play through a few songs, solo, on an acoustic guitar. He prefaced "Letter to Me" by calling BS on the myth that high school is the best years of your life. "Now, college..." he added with a smile.
At several times, he borrowed cell phones from fans on the stage and recorded videos or selfies, narrating a chat between the phone's owner and "Bob," who was spectacularly unimpressed by Paisley. Whether it was a scripted bit or ad-libbed, Paisley's reaction and response was hilarious. Later, on "I'm Still a Guy," Moore came out for a manly duet, stopping only to borrow another phone and take a manly selfie moment. The entire Kardashian family has nothing on Paisley when it comes to selfie mastery.
By the time Paisley finished off the show with "Alcohol" - using a beer bottle as a slide for his guitar, no less - Shaky Boots Music Festival had crammed in more than 30 hours of music over the course of the weekend. Thanks to the excellent lineup and top-tier organization, most of the festival-goers left feeling the same way: happy, exhausted and ready for Shaky Boots 2016.