When highlighting some of the best live acts Saving Country Music witnessed in 2022, let’s take a little bit of a different approach this year. We all know about the big headliners like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan, and of course Billy Strings, who probably as long as he’s living, will be considered by many as the perennial greatest live performer to see. You also have acts that are notorious for bringing the good times live that always deserve to be in this conversation like the Hogslop String Band and Big Richard.
But here, let’s highlight some of the bands on the brink, that probably should be headlining festivals and big events themselves, and very well may be in the coming years. These are the artists and bands you better get out to see before like many of your favorite headliners, they end up only playing arenas for super expensive tickets, along with highlighting one band that came back from the brink, and did something spectacular in live music in 2022.
PLEASE NOTE: Because these are live performers, their inclusion here is dependent on having seen them live in the last year. Please feel free to leave your list of your favorite live performers in 2022 in the comments section below for the benefit of us all.
10. Charles Wesley Godwin
(as seen at Born & Raised Fest)
You could call West Virginia-native Charles Wesley Godwin the next great voice and songwriter to blow up out of Appalachia. But after touring lately with Zach Bryan, the blowup has already happened. Godwin was already the reigning Saving Country Music Album of the Year winner for 2021’s How The Mighty Fall. Now with his band The Allegheny High, he’s proving to be one of the best live performers out there in independent country as well.
The only problem in 2022 was that just like Zach Bryan before him, promoters were slow to catch on to just what an important performer Charles Wesley Godwin was, putting him in early slots at festivals, or ignoring him entirely. But some fests like Wild Hare outside of Portland saw where this performer was heading, and got in on the ground floor. As great as 2022 was for Charles Wesley Godwin, 2023 could be even better. See him in smaller venues while you can.
9. Sierra Hull
(as seen at Old Settler’s Fest and Under The Big Sky Fest)
A maestro of the mandolin and of million-watt blissful smiles, Sierra Hull is a living legend among us, stunning audiences with her amazing finger work and compositional vision. After being in the audience of Sierra and her band, you feel infinitely inspired and think you can do anything: colonize Mars, make cars run off of water, bring about World peace.
Those Sturgill Simpson bluegrass records would have been something less without Sierra’s involvement, so would Bela Fleck’s Grammy-winning My Bluegrass Heart, and so many other projects where she’s bolstered whatever the boys are doing. But her solo stuff is next level, showing off her songwriting side. She’s not to miss, and deserves to be in the conversation when we’re talking about the youthful resurgence in bluegrass right beside Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle.
8. Charley Crockett
(as seen at The Ryman Auditorium)
Charley Crockett started his career busking on street corners and lurking in back alleys. “The alley is just outside, but it’s a long way from here,” Crockett said while headlining the legendary Ryman Auditorium, referring to the famous alley between the Ryman and the legendary haunts of Lower Broadway like Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World. It’s where you can most feel the ghosts of country legends lurking.
Even if Crockett never makes it past venues like The Ryman, he’s accomplished something spectacular by getting there. Some like to criticize Charley Crockett as a show, or a shtick. Well, of course it is. But it’s a show better than most, which recalls all the goodness of classic country and American roots music, and makes it feel alive in the souls of a modern audience once again. (read review)
7. American Aquarium
(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest, KOKEFest)
It’s almost not fair. American Aquarium is known as one of the premier bands in all of roots/Americana music for turning devastating heartfelt/heartbreaking songs. If you’re one of those “Sad songs make me happy” gluttons, look no further than American Aquarium and frontman BJ Barham. That’s what you get in spades on their new album Chicamacomico released this year.
But usually a band like this would be resigned to listening rooms and perhaps peaceful theater performances with everyone listening intently and clapping politely after the expiration of a well-written song. Oh no sir. American Aquarium live is like watching a controlled explosion, with BJ Barham darting on stage like he was shot out of a cannon, and then roaming around like an wild animal just let out of his cage. American Aquarium fulfills all the senses in the live context.
6. Sierra Ferrell
(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest, Americanafest)
I’m not quite sure we can even confirm that Sierra Ferrell is a real person at this point, and not some demigod sent down from the Heavens to entertain us through these trying times. She’s as fantastic as some fictional character. Her talent is other-worldly. Her command of her music is incomparable. Her cranium sprouts a unique flower crown cornucopia each time she appears in public. And when she sings, you’re transported to an entirely different space and time.
Music this supposedly dated and fey should never find a wide audience in today’s automated world. But similar to Colter Wall and other revivalists, it’s the magic with which Sierra Ferrell delivers her interpretation of Appalachian mountain music that makes it feel so immediate and vital. The West Virginia native may come across more like an apparition than a mortal, but her music is steadfastly grounded in the roots, and palpably authentic.
5. Them Dirty Roses
(as seen at Born & Raised Fest)
As if the the Gods of Southern rock themselves came down from the Heavens to smite a new band out of the hard Alabama iron, Them Dirty Roses is one of those bands that can grow hair on your chest just from listening to them. This is a band you listen to while overdosing in a tour bus lavatory at 27. Them Dirty Roses can deflower virgins simply by them being in the audience.
Led by James Ford on lead vocals and guitar, brother Frank Ford on drums, guitarist Andrew Davis, and bass player Ben Crain, the group left their hometown of Gadsden, AL in an RV and all moved into the same house in Nashville, TN Monkees style to try and make it. Anyone who has seen them live will attest, The Dirty Roses are one of the hottest bands in live music, and promise to hold that title well into the future.
4. The Vandoliers
(as seen at Cain’s Ballroom)
The Vandoliers from Texas are the first to admit that they’re not really country, not exactly punk, but some amalgam in-between that defies categorization and doesn’t care to fit neatly in any box. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a hell of a good time live, which they’ve been proving all across the country during 2022, opening big shows for Flogging Molly and the Turnpike Troubadours, touring with another stellar live band in Mike and the Moonpies, and showcasing songs from their new self-titled album.
Deadly tight and full of piss and vinegar, The Vandoliers are one of the few bands that anyone would have the audacity to book on the Cain’s Ballroom stage to open for the Turnpike Troubadours’ first show back. And when the shirts come off, you know it’s on.
3. Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway
(as seen at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival)
So often when it comes to highly-anticipated albums, our expectations outpace even the possibilities of reality. But this was not the case with Crooked Tree and Molly Tuttle. It was everything we wanted and hoped for from Molly Tuttle’s long-anticipated romp into bluegrass.
But what’s happening now with Molly Tuttle live takes it to even another level. The demure and reserved girl with otherwise blazing fingers has let it all loose with her band Golden Highway, having more fun than she should be allowed to, and allowing few inhibitions to get in her way.
Molly Tuttle was never restrained as a picker. She could articulate whatever she envisioned, only restricted by the physical laws of how fast the human fingers can articulate. But now she’s unafraid as a human, and it’s resulted in some of the best music being made at the moment within any genre. The enthusiasm she has rekindled for bluegrass is conferred to the crowd, and has helped light a spark under the entire genre.
Golden Highway is Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Shelby Means (bass), and Kyle Tuttle (banjo).
2. Mike and the Moonpies
(as seen at Born & Raised Fest)
Yes we know. The Turnpike Troubadours are back, and with the emotional connection many have with that band, it results in some of the most memorable experiences possible in music. When it comes to bluegrass, Billy Strings is on fire, and doing things future generations will still be raving over. But if there is one band everybody should be seeing live right now, without hesitation the answer is Mike and the Moonpies.
After Zach Bryan played a set for the ages in front of a hometown crowd in Oklahoma at Born & Raised Fest in September, Mike and the Moonpies had the impossible task of playing afterwards on a side stage as everyone in Oklahoma was filing out into the parking lot. Only one band could pull this off, and that’s exactly what Mike and the Moonpies did, winning over a crowd that included a lot of folks that had never heard of them before, but stumbled onto their next favorite band.
Things are finally starting to click for these guys, and it couldn’t be more deserving for the best band in country music.
1. Turnpike Troubadours
(as seen at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Under The Big Sky Festival, KOKEFest, and most importantly, Cain’s Ballroom)
With the benefit of hindsight here in late December, it may be easy to look back on 2022 and say, “Well of course the Turnpike Troubadours were going to blow up, become one of the biggest live acts in country music, start headlining festivals, and selling out arenas.” But there was certainly no guarantee that was going to be the case when this year started. Of course long-time fans always knew that the Turnpike Troubadours were something special, and if just given the right opportunities, they could explode.
But let’s just appreciate that at the start of 2022, this band was coming off a hiatus where they almost broke up entirely, had a sordid history of cancelling shows last minute, and very much could have stumbled on their way out of the gate, or seen the wheels fall off somewhere on the road. What happened was the exact opposite of that. They continued to gain momentum, until at the end of 2022, they played to a sold-out Paycom Center Arena in Oklahoma City.
But if there was one musical moment that defined 2022 in country music, it wasn’t in an arena, but at the legendary and iconic Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, only 2nd to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in regards to the country music history that has transpired between its walls. During Turnpike’s very first show back, large swaths of the sold-out crowd were visibly weeping. The emotion in the room was something most will never experience in music. It was church. It was bliss. The performance was just fine, but it was all the emotion in the room that made it something beyond memorable. It was the stuff of musical legend.
On a personal level, witnessing the return of the Turnpike Troubadours was not just the biggest music experience in 2022, but in a career of covering music. And it comes with the appreciative, but also somewhat bittersweet realization that I may never experience something that impactful in music ever again.
The moment the Turnpike Troubadours took the stage at Cain’s Ballroom, officially ending their hiatus. pic.twitter.com/bCeZmOyYFu— Saving Country Music (@KyleCoroneos) April 9, 2022