Country & Roots Music’s Best Live Performers of 2019

Naming the best live performances of a given year is not the same as naming the best songs, albums, or artists, because it is dependent on the experiences of the individual making the list. Where we all have access to the inventory of albums and songs released in country music in a given year thanks to streaming, the live experience is all about your own personal memories. So it goes without saying this list is simply one perspective, and there are plenty others out there. For example, yours truly did not get to see Cody Jinks perform this year. So he is not included on the list, not as a slight, but for logistical reasons.

Your opinions are more than likely to be different. So please, for the benefit of everyone, feel free to share your opinions below in the comments section and let the rest of us know who we should make sure not to miss when they come rolling through our town.

Honorable mentions are due to Bri Bagwell, Shane Smith and the Saints, The Brother Brothers, Logan Ledger, Charles Wesley Godwin, and Austin’s The Tender Things who played great sets this year. Also must mention Amanda Shires, and her performances of her song “Parking Lot Pirouette” this year, including at the Americana Music Awards, which shook rafters.

This was supposed to be a list of the top 10 performances. But due to such a crowded field, things boiled over. And yes, there are three #1 acts. All should be considered equals at the very top level of live performance. They were all so great, it seemed unfair to put one over the other.

11. Whitey Morgan

photo: Robert Millage

(Appearing at: Wild Hare Countryfest)

Whitey Morgan and the 78’s are always great live, but when they were scheduled to play one of the headlining sets at the Wild Hare Country Fest in Canby, Oregon this summer, they ended up playing two. Someone told Whitey there was no sound curfew, probably expecting him to play two or three songs over his set time. Instead the son-of-a-bitch started running through every classic country drinking song he knew until they had to wrestle the mic from him. Mammoth set.

10. Kaitlin Butts

photo: Robert Millage Photography

(Appearing at: Wild Hare Countryfest)

No hyperbole folks, Kaitlin Butts stole the show at Wild Hare Country Fest in Canby, Oregon this summer with a full band behind her. Her set was the one everybody was raving about for the rest of the weekend. Often seen singing with fiance Cleto Cordero of the band Flatland Cavalry, Kaitlin has proved she’s most certainly worthy of her own sets on big stages in front of capacity crowd. Such a great combination of poise and attitude. This is the future Queen of Texas/Red Dirt. “This next song’s about the time I dated a trucker who left me for a stripper. It’s called ‘Same Hell, Different Devil.’”

9. Courtney Marie Andrews

(Appearing at: Pickathon)

The mighty Douglas Firs of the Pacific Northwest shuddered in awe as Courtney Marie Andrews took the Pickathon stage, stirring some human emotions some had forgotten they could even feel. Her songcraft and fearlessness in delivering powerful stories with an even more powerful voice is something that inspires you to change yourself. She is a gift to the music universe we’re not making nearly enough of a fuss about.

8. Lukas Nelson

photo: Brad Coolidge

(Appearing at: Luck Reunion)

Hopefully Willie Nelson outlives us all. But if not, this man has proven that he’s more than capable of carrying on the Nelson legacy into the future. His 2019 record Turn Off The News (Build a Garden) received mixed reception (this set of ears enjoyed it), but his live show remains one of the marvels of roots music to behold.

7. Tyler Childers

photo: Brad Coolidge

(Appearing at: Mile 0 Fest & Pickathon)

Only a select few times every generation does the right mix of talent, skill, upbringing, influence, and opportunity conspire to create an artist like Tyler Childers. Whether singing to friends and family in a Kentucky holler, or to a capacity crowd in Key West FL, his songs reverberate beyond the present moment.

6. Jack Ingram

photo: Brad Coolidge

(Appearing at: Mile 0 Fest)

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more passionate musician willing to give himself so completely to the songs and the stories behind them than the incomparable Jack Ingram. He’s a walking one-man party who often feels a step away from landing in the local drunk tank, yet is always a full step into attaining the musical divine.

Jack Ingram flies criminally under-the-radar, even in his home environs in Texas these days. You may consider his records hit and miss. But when standing in front of a stage where Jack Ingram is holding court, there is now denying the power and infectiousness he brings to live performance.

5. Sierra Ferrell

(Appearing at: AmericanaFest)

Recently signed to Rounder Records, Sierra Ferrell’s magical Appalachian country/ragtime swing/gypsy jazz style is something to behold live. There are such amazing layers and textures in her voice and style, and it’s all conveyed with such confidence and grace. She’s both an amalgam of American roots, yet distinctly all her own. Playing just by herself, a simple fiddle accompaniment, or a full band, it doesn’t matter. It’s all rendered mesmerizing by the raw, yet refined talent of this young woman.

There are artists to watch out for, and then there are artists who everything seems to align for on their way to making music the right way. Sierra Ferrell certainly fits in that second category, and roots fans should be paying rapt attention.

4. Yola

photo: Brad Coolidge

(Appearing at: Luck Reunion, AmericanaFest)

There’s country soul, and then there’s Yola. She has one of those voices where the goosebumps affirm you’re hearing something that’s one in a million. You can preach about diversity all you want, and attempt to instill it through nominations, awards, and fawning features on entertainment websites. But if diversity doesn’t come with undeniable talent that emphasizes why it can be so important, it will never do the important work of breaking down the hardened perspectives that keep prejudices alive.

At the 2019 Americana Music Awards in September, John Prine won for Album and Song of the Year, and Brandi Carlile won for Artist of the Year. But it was Yola who turned in the performance of the night with “Faraway Look.” Yola isn’t one of the most promising and inspiring talents in all of country and roots in 2019 because of who she is. It’s because of the incredible talent she possesses, and how she showcases it. Who she is just happens to make her ascent that much more important. In a word, “Incredible.”

3. Cedric Burnside

(Appearing at: Pickathon)

The son of blues legend R.L. Burnside has been well-known to the deep blues world for many years, but what he’s been doing over the last few is something other worldly. He begins on guitar and singing, he then converts to playing drums, which is his natural instrument. “Soul” is usually not a word reserved for drummers, but Cedric Burnside embodies it behind the skins like no other. If you see him touring through your town or on a festival lineup, do not pass up the opportunity to see him perform.

2. The Mavericks

(Appearing at: Mile 0 Fest)

Whether you’re a fan of The Mavericks from the days of old when they were winning CMAs and ACMs back in the mid 90’s and launching radio hits like “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down,” or their newer era with albums like their return record In Time from 2013 that won Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year, whenever they’re rolling through your town, The Mavericks are a sure bet for one hell of a show to see. Even if you’ve never heard a lick of their music whatsoever, don’t be afraid as a country music fan to mix your twang with a little Latin influence. Celebrating the 30th Anniversary on the road in 2019, The Mavericks still brought the party, and proved they continue to be one of the best live acts in all of music led by one of our generation’s most gifted singers and frontmen, Raul Malo.

1. Tami Neilson

(Appearing at: AmericanaFest)

The only people who believe you’re prone to hyperbole when you declare Tami Neilson as one of the greatest singers alive are people who have never seen her live themselves. She’s like a tornado—a force of nature you can’t help stand back and be awed by. “Mama’s got to play two shows, ‘cause they don’t play country on country radio,” she sang at AmericanaFest. Superlative in country, rockabilly and soul, she’s one of those artist’s worth labeling as “must see” before you leave this Earth.

New album CHICKABOOM! due out Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2020.

1. Mike and the Moonpies

(Appearing at: Mile 0 Fest, Wild Hare Countryfest, Pickathon, AmericanaFest)

Mike and the Moonpies not only have one of the most critically-acclaimed records in country music in 2019 with Cheap Silver & Solid Country Gold, for the second year in a row, it is fair to regard them as the greatest country act to see live. There’s just nobody else around that can match their energy and infectiusness. And it’s country to the core, with twang and steel guitar. They’re the desert island live country band. Combined with their recorded output, it’s not ridiculous to consider Mike and the Moonpies as the greatest band in all of country music at the moment.

1. Billy Strings

(Appearing at: AmericanaFest)

It’s like this asshole isn’t even from this planet. Billy Strings does things on the guitar that aren’t possible from a physical or theoretical standpoint. He’s like the psilocybin of music, taking you places you thought weren’t accessible in the conscious world, and all while making it look so effortless. Billy Strings is best musician you will witness live in our generation. All of this, and he stays true to his bluegrass roots. What a gift of life getting to watch him perform is.

Also much respect to his band members Billy Failing, Royal Masat, and Jarrod Walker, not just for keeping up with this maestro, but embellishing his music with their own, top-shelf bluegrass talents. You think everything’s been done in country and roots music? Then you’ve never seen Billy Strings.

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