Saving Country Music’s Best Live Performances of 2011

When I sat down to name the top 10 live performances of 2011 as seen through my eyes, I didn’t know what a mess I was making for myself, and it wasn’t until then that I realized what a power packed year for live music it has been. My 10 stretched to 15 fast, and I’m still leaving out acts like Hellbound Glory, Lucky Tubb, and Ray Wylie Hubbard.  I will be the first to tell you that is bullsh, but the line had to be drawn somewhere.

Unlike the Album of the Year and Song of the Year, with my inability to see every live performance, this is simply based on my own experience. However live performances always go into consideration for other awards, like the three solid Hellbound Glory shows I saw were considered when nominating them for album of the year.

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15. Ruby Jane & Graham Reynolds – The Continental Club Austin, TX

I really enjoyed the Sundays each month that Ruby Jane played historic Gruene Hall down in the heart of Texas, but it was a random night at Austin’s Continental Club that gave rise to her standout performance of the year with composer Graham Reynolds. Ruby’s stellar musicianship and passion on fiddle is hard to match. The flourish at the end of this song was something to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

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14. Austin Lucasninebullets.net SXSW Showcase

This is what South by Southwest is designed to do: take people who are involved in the music business, and put them in front of the artists in intimate setting to bypass all the press release and preview track bullshit so you can decide if an artist is worthy of your attention or not. The Revolution Bar in gentrifying east Austin was the perfect place to catch an intimate performance by Austin Lucas, joined only by his sister Chloe who supplied sublime harmonies and banjo. His simple, honest, and heartfelt performance proved to me this was an artist I needed to bring into the Saving Country Music fold.

They screw up in the middle of this, and it is still awesome. Listen to how quiet it gets in the room at the end.

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13. Charlie ParrThe Pickathon Festival, Portland, OR

Speaking of hushing rooms and heartfelt songwriting, by evoking character through his music like few others I’ve ever seen, Charlie Parr and his guitar suck you in with songs of heartache sung with immeasurable soul. Charlie doesn’t sing about subjects in third person, he becomes the subject of his songs in an uncanny channeling of character, and makes the story flesh and bone right before your eyes.

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12. Whitey Morgan & The 78’sBloodshot Records SXSW Showcase

Whitey Morgan played the Pickathon Festival as well and had two excellent sets, but the standout show for me happened back in Austin during Bloodshot Records’ annual showcase at the Red Eye Fly, where Whitey Morgan & The 78’s were booked as the headliners. The sound was positively awful that night. The Waco Brothers played their whole set with the only working speakers being their monitors on stage. Meanwhile Whitey and the boys were sitting in their van, passing a bottle and anticipating a train wreck by the time they took the stage.

Whitey climbed on stage and took no prisoners, cussing and swearing the stage hands straight before the even did anything wrong. Bloodshot owner Nan had her face in her hands, worried Whitey was about to make a scene when what he was really doing was making sure the ship was righted before they started, and trust me, after Whitey put the fear of God in everyone, it was. Then they delivered the best set I have seen them play, and playing the headliner spot of the Bloodshot Records showcase, that is when I knew Whitey Morgan & The 78’s had arrived.

Here they are sharing the stage with legendary Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers.

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11. Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage – ninebullets.net SXSW Showcase

Maybe not country, but nonetheless mind blowing was Micah Schnabel, who when PA issues kept his band Two Car Garage from plugging in, he grabbed his acoustic and did the solo thing like few others can. This guy is one of the most authentically-passionate performers on stage I’ve ever seen. As I like to say: if Possessed By Paul James gives birth on stage, Micah Schnabel commits suicide on stage.

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10. The Goddamn Gallows/Jayke Orvis/ James Hunicutt – Beerland, Austin, TX

I saw this same lineup, at the same place, two different times this year, and I still did not get my fill. The perfect traveling amalgam of music, it starts off with James Hunnicutt playing solo, then Jayke Orvis taking the stage with Hunnicutt, Fishgutz from The Gallows, and Joe Perreze on banjo making up the “Broken Band,” and then at some point they are all on stage as The Goddamn Gallows.

And then there’s fire.

Joined here on stage by Gary Lindsay.

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9. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – SXSW Showcase @ Spiderhouse

For years, the two best bands to see live have been Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers and Denver, CO’s Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. In support of their new album Unentitled they made their way down to SXSW and played a set mixing their new pop mocking songs in with their long-time favorites. This band is mind blowing every time. (video is not the best; only one I could find from the show)

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8. Hank3Revival Fest – Austin, TX

In the middle of a nearly year-long hiatus from the road, Hank3 drove out to Austin for a one-off show at The Revival Festival, and it was a good one. Not having to save anything for the next day and having nothing to recover from the night before, and dragging the badass chicken-picking half-blind maestro Johnny Hiland with him out from Nashville, Hank3 threw down the best live show I’ve seen from him in the post-Joe Buck era. It was one for the ages.

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7. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers / Hillbilly CasinoMuddy Roots Festival

To see either of these bands alone is an opportunity you cannot pass up. But to put them together back to back was a music cream dream come true. These two bands and their dynamic frontmen were instrumental in the revival of lower Broadway in Nashville, and the same dynamic that gave rise to the abominable frontman of lower Broadway was on display Sunday night at Muddy Roots.

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6. Lukas Nelson & The Promise of the RealWillie’s 4th of July Picnic, Ft. Worth, TX

Just about every one of Willie Nelson’s kids plays music in one capacity or another. How many do it well is another story. But Lukas Nelson and his band The Promise of the Real is the real deal my friends. Far beyond riding coattails or his daddy’s name, 2011 in many ways was a coming out party for Lukas Nelson, and his performance at the 2011 Willie’s 4th of July Picnic / Country Throwdown picnic proved why. The man simply stole the show.

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5.Various Artists – Muddy Roots Festival Late Night Jam

This might be the biggest live music memory of 2011, but without any specific artist to attribute it to, or any other real way to quantify it, I’m just not sure where to put it on this list. What I do know is when you get a legend like Wayne “The Train” Hancock leading JB Beverley, Banjer Dan, all of Hellbound Glory, and who knows else, it’s hard to leave it off the list. It may have not been pretty, but it certainly was legendary.

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4. Marty Stuart – Gruene Hall, Gruene, TX

This was the performance that convinced me that Marty Stuart might be the one to save country music (read full review). This wasn’t a punk gone country show, or a neo-traditional swing back bit, it was simply pure, true country, yet dripping with energy, an engaging nature, attitude, and gospel soul. And his band The Fabulous Superlatives might be one of the best collections of country talent ever assembled. Simply put, this was the best set of straightforward country I’ve seen in years.

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3. Possessed by Paul James – Muddy Roots Festival

First off, the fact that this moment sits at #3 for the year tells you just what a power packed year for music experiences in underground roots music 2011 has been, because really, this moment sets itself apart in the musical experiences of a lifetime.

I saw Possessed by Paul James play live 6 times from late 2010 until now, and in that period, I watched a rebirth of one of the most dynamic live performers I’ve ever seen. Voice issues put him on hiatus for a bit, and when he started performing again, there was a slight timidness, a lack of confidence in his new vocal reality he was struggling with. But over that period, the confidence and abandon came back in full force, to where now I cannot think of another solo performer I would place above him in ability and consistency. Possessed by Paul James delivers every time, and I have come to think of him as a true headliner, and a true legend in the live and recorded context. They say that Possessed By Paul James gives birth to his songs on stage. In 2011 we also saw a PPJ resurrection.

By the end of his Muddy Roots set, some folks were in tears, and everyone was talking about the mysterious burst of wind on that blisteringly hot day that hit the tent right as he began to play. Call that mysterious wind burst a sign of the divine, or quantify it by explaining the dramatic atmospheric wind shift that preceded a change from the hot weather to a tropical disturbance ushered in by Tropical Storm Lee that moved over middle Tennessee. Either way, PPJ channeled that energy through his music, and changed people’s lives.

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2. Sunday Valley – The Pickathon Festival, Portland, OR

I really don’t know what to say here, except that Sunday Valley was the best live band I discovered in 2011, and very possibly might be the best live band right now in all of country music. I know that may come across as a platitude, but I believe it, and to try and use words to describe their live experience almost seems insulting; you just have to experience it yourself. Sturgill Simpson is country’s version of Jimmy Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Mark my words, 2012 might be the year of Sunday Valley and Sturgill Simpson. (read more in live review from Pickathon)

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1. Justin Townes Earle – The Parish, Austin, TX

I will start this off by saying I know some people will read this having also seen Justin Townes Earle at some point in 2011, and thinking I’m crazy for putting him here at the top spot. That is because JTE can be hit and miss live, because JTE has a drug and alcohol problem.

When I saw him live at SXSW in 2010, that is when I first recognized a sharp dropoff in the quality of his live show, and a few months later, called him out on it in connection with a rumored drug problem. Later that year in September, he got arrested in Indianapolis after tearing up a dressing room, and brawling with cops. Shortly therafter came a rehab stint, and by January of this year, he was back on tour. We know from subsequent stories that between now and January, JTE had another relapse with heroin, and a relapse while on tour in Australia, and I’ve heard mixed review of his live shows.

I am not omnipresent, so I can’t speak on all his performances, but in Austin, TX, Justin Townes Earle put on the performance of his lifetime. Nearly a year later, I still get chills as I sit here and write about it. Stone cold sober, having just been from hell and back, his own mortality and career hanging in the balance, Justin Townes Earle sang from the heart like nobody else I have ever seen, or possibly ever will see. Since the performance, I have had to come to grips with the fact that I may never be moved by another performance for the rest of my life, like the way I was moved that night. (read review)