Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival: The Best Things We Saw

On Saturday (Sept. 24) and Sunday (Sept. 25), the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival returned to Franklin, Tennessee’s 200-acre The Park at Harlinsdale Farm for an eighth year, welcoming country arena mainstay Chris Stapleton and Americana stalwart Brandi Carlile to lead two days of performances ranging from rock, country, soul, Americana, Tex-Mex and more.

Here, a few of the best performances we saw during Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival:

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Brandi Carlile: Just weeks after turning in stunning performances at the American Honors & Awards, Carlile made a triumphant headlining performance on Saturday evening at Pilgrimage. Donning a sleek yellow suit, she launched her set with a fierce rendering of “Broken Horses,” before telling the crowd, “What a whole vibe this day has been.” She later added, “This is a headlining festival slot. This is what you dream all summer for. It makes us feel cool.”

Carlile was equal parts tough rocker, searing balladeer and vulnerable storyteller. Backed by a band that included her longtime collaborators and band mates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, Carlile led the ample crowd through songs including “You and Me on the Rock,” and shared the story of some of her struggles early on as she and her wife Catherine were new parents. Before performing a heartening version of “Evangeline,” Carlile recalled a heart-wrenching moment as her older daughter, Evangeline, experienced a minor injury just as Carlile had to perform.

“My wife took over and it was fine,” Carlile assured the crowd, but she also recalled standing in the wings of the stage next to John Prine, preparing to go onstage, her heart and mind still centered on her daughter and filled with guilt over the incident. “He said, ‘It won’t be the last time.'” She also welcomed guitarist Celisse for a careening guitar showcase.

Lake Street Dive: On Saturday evening, the five-piece group offered their signature mix of adult contemporary pop, with elements of soul and country. Helmed by lead singer Rachael Price’s soothing lead vocals, the band offered their own songs “Seventeen” and “Good Kisser.” Demographically, the Pilgrimage audience skews slightly older than some other festivals, so when the group blended in a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s wisdom-imbued hit “Nick of Time” and Shania Twain’s 1998 country-pop smash “You’re Still the One” — both songs from Lake Street Dive’s recently-released covers EP Fun Machine: The Sequel — attendees gleefully sang along.

Marty Stuart: On Sunday, the temperatures reached into the high 80s, but Country Music Hall of Fame member Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives still took the Midnight Sun stage decked out in the band’s signature spiffy, spangly suits, ripping into their set with an easygoing showmanship and ace picking. They offered a mix of songs from the group’s decades of playing, including “Tear the Woodpile Down,” and Stuart’s 1991 hit “Tempted,” “You’re a Friend of Mine,” and a newer song, “Sitting Alone,” a track that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rosie Flores: Over at the Americana Triangle tent on Sunday afternoon, attendees enjoyed the shade of the tented venue and sat on pews to soak in the blues and rockabilly sounds of San Antonio native and singer-songwriter-guitarist Flores, who had been nominated for top new female vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 1986. Donning a red and black dress which accented her pale blue guitar, Flores had energy and charisma as she played the Pilgrimage stage, working through a range of songs such as “Who’s Looking for Me” and “Mercy Fell Like Rain,” from her 2019 album Simple Case of the Blues. She dedicated “Mercy” to one of the song’s writers, Paul Cowie.

Jon Batiste: Batiste earned five Grammy wins earlier this year, including the coveted album of the year honor, for his project We Are — and while his songs are founded in jazz, he fused that with soul, R&B, and more. During his Pilgrimage set on Saturday evening on the Gold Record Road stage, Batiste offered an extended version of “I Need You,” bolstered by lithe piano and scat singing, telling the crowd, “I believe in this, I believe in music,” and asking the crowd that gathered on the balmy Saturday evening to hold up the ASL sign for love. From there, he delved into the rapid-fire vocals of “WHATCHUTALKINBOUT,” followed by “Tell The Truth,” which he said was inspired by the words his father told him as he chased his dreams from New Orleans to New York City. His band mate Susan Carol offered stirring vocal acrobatics on “Cry” as Batiste implored the audience to recognize the struggle of immigrants and those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. This show also included lighter moments, such as a cover of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right.”

The Avett Brothers: A few classic country covers popped up throughout the festival’s performances. Over at the Golden Record Road stage on Sunday, The Avett Brothers led fans through “The Race is On,” or as they called it, “a George Jones song we learned from the Grateful Dead.” The majority of the set centered on uplifting, socially-conscious material, such as “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.” The line “Your life doesn’t change with the man who’s elected… decide what to be and go be it” elicited an especially loud response, as did “Ain’t No Man,” which previously earned a Grammy nomination for best American roots performance. The crowd packed the expansive field at The Park at Harlinsdale Farm and stayed strong throughout the majority of their set, though many left early to catch Sunday night’s closer, Stapleton.

Santiago Jiménez Jr.: Jiménez Jr.’s musical lineage is steeped in the history of conjunto music, and he was honored with a National Medal of Arts in 2016 after earning a National Heritage Fellowship in 2000 for his success in Tex-Mex and folk music. At the Pilgrimage Festival’s Americana Music Triangle Experience tent, Jiménez Jr. wielded his accordion and sang, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, as he offered a performance that highlighted his intense vocals, extended accordion solos, and decades in music. His recent album, Still Kicking!, offers traditional Tex-Mex conjunto.

Black Opry Revue: The Black Opry launched as an online space celebrating the music of Black country and Americana artists, and has grown to include the Black Opry Revue series of concerts that has made its way across the country. On Saturday at Pilgrimage Festival, the lineup included Lori Rayne, Ruby Amanfu, LAYNA, Nicky Diamonds, and more. Highlights included the bluesy guitar work of Yasmin Williams and Mississippi native Aaron Vance’s ’80s and ’90s country-influenced songs such as “Cabin Fever.”

Elle King: Blues-rocker King easily commanded the Midnight Sun stage at Pilgrimage on Sunday afternoon, decked out in green sunglasses and with a microphone stand that spelled out “Elle.” Shout-outs to drinking and having a good time peppered the between-song conversation, as she sailed through songs such as “You’re the Reason I Drink,” “Chain Smokin,’ Hard Drinkin’ Woman,” and her Grammy-nominated “Ex’s and Oh’s.” Prior to ripping into a smokier version of “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home)” (sans her duet partner Miranda Lambert, who was in Las Vegas launching her Velvet Rodeo residency), King performed “Good to Be a Man.” At the end of the final chorus, she added, “Or, whoever you choose to be. Whoever you identify as, I’m with you. Be the best you can be and f–k everybody else.” Keeping in that same defiant mode, she also offered a rendition of the 1975 Charlie Daniels classic, “Long-Haired Country Boy.”

Chris Stapleton: Closing out this year’s Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival was a two-hour set from eight-time Grammy winner Stapleton, who said relatively little throughout his set, instead letting his ace guitar work, poetic songs and unmistakable burly voice lead the evening. He roared through songs like “Nobody to Blame” and “Parachute” dropping into a more subdued rendering, alongside wife and band mate Morgane, of “Starting Over.”

A round lantern, footlights, and curtains overhead swathed the massive stage in an intimate feel, even as the crowd stretched the farthest reaches of the massive field. While momentarily “firing the band — don’t worry, we’re going to hire them back in a few minutes,” Stapleton offered a brief acoustic set that included his 2013 single “What Are You Listening To.” Stapleton recalled that the song was not a hit and dropped off the radio charts close to the same time his father passed away. He took a drive with his wife to reckon with the pain, and that cross-country trip resulted in “Traveller,” the title track to his now RIAA-certified 4x Platinum album. He also offered “You Should Probably Leave,” a scorching vocal rendition of “Cold” and later closed the festival with his signature version of “Tennessee Whiskey,” an appropriate closer given the festival’s location in the Volunteer stage.

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