Country & Roots Music’s Best Live Performers of 2021

Live music in 2021 saw its return after the worst moments of the pandemic, but only in fits and starts, with multiple postponements and cancellations wrecking many plans, yet a few important moments still going off in the windows when they could.

Choosing the best live performances of a given year is not like songs or albums. It’s primarily dependent on the experiences of whomever is making the list. It was even more limited this year since live plans were plagued by cancellations, and in an abundance of caution, only outdoor events were attended by Saving Country Music in an official capacity.

But the live context is so critical in music—and even more so now that everything has been reshuffled by COVID-19—it’s worth taking the time to honor some of the noteworthy performances witnessed in 2021.

This is just one person’s list. Feel free to share your own list below in the comments.

16. Jade Bird

(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest, Old Settler’s Fest)

It still remains a bit perplexing why the mostly acoustic stylings of Jade Bird have been slotted into the “Americana” realm to the point where they also interface with country. It’s not that the sheer talent isn’t obvious, or that the songs aren’t of a superior quality. It’s just that sonically, it’s a strange fit.

But simply being in the audience of Jade Bird—who was forced to play a quarter hundred songs to fulfill her 75-minute headlining set at Old Settler’s Fest—it’s near impossible to not be incredibly endeared with her. The songs are the enviable combination of easy melody and infectious pentameter, while still remaining surprisingly earthy and involved. Meanwhile, her vocal control and range are incredible. Simply, put, she’s a powerhouse live.

15. Zach Bryan

(as seen at Born & Raised Fest)

It’s not just about the performances Zach Bryan and his band are turning in. As anyone who has attended a Zach Bryan show in 2021 will attest, what’s happening right now with this songwriter is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. You will not hear a sound any louder made by human beings than the roar when Zach Bryan comes out on stage. You will never see an artist where the crowd sings every word to every song with the same dedication. It’s like a country songwriter version of Beatlemania, and I’m not sure any of us understand it or where it will lead, but in the here and now, it’s quite the phenomenon to behold. (read a full review)

14. Dwight Yoakam

(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest)

Even at 64-years-old now, Dwight Yoakam is still squeezing into tight jeans, and moving around on stage like he’s 17, swinging his hips, thrusting his haunches behind his guitar, and spinning around on his boot heels. Dwight doesn’t play music, he makes sweet love to it, and his voice is still as caramel as ever, with all the whoops and yodels still at his beck and call like it’s still 1986.

A Dwight Yoakam set is always an action-packed and fast-paced affair, usually with a few tributes to legends like Merle Haggard, and finishing up with his biggest hits at the end. He’s always worth seeing. (read a full review)

13. Cody Jinks

(as seen at Born & Raised Fest)

When the inaugural Born and Raised Fest was first announced in early 2020, the headliners were Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson. Obviously with COVID, everything got shaken up. But few if anyone felt it was in any way a downgrade when Cody Jinks capped off the festival Sunday night. He is the headliner of our time, and for truly independent music emanating from the Texoma region. It was only appropriate he closed out a festival that symbolized just how far Texas and Red Dirt music have come, especially in just the last few years.

12. Tyler Childers

(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest)

As an independent country music fan, you have to stop viewing the world with an underdog’s mentality. Tyler Childers isn’t just a superstar in the country musical realm that exists wholly separate from mainstream country radio play and major award shows. Tyler Childers is a superstar, period, competing and often beating many of his mainstream brethren when it comes to streaming numbers and other metrics on a weekly basis.

When Childers rolled up to the Under The Big Sky Fest in Whitefish, Montana to play his first show in some 16 months, it wasn’t to warm the stage up for the big mainstream band that had blown in from Nashville in Brothers Osborne, it was vice versa. And that’s the way it should have been. And after three days of affirming the power, importance, and rising popularity of independent country music at Under The Big Sky Fest, it was just about the perfect encapsulation and ending. (read a full review)

11. Steve Poltz

(as seen at Old Settler’s Fest)

Steve Poltz is much more than just a spitting image for Jimmie Dale Gilmore these days. He’s a modern day troubadour/soothsayer that will have you finding a new appreciation for life.

There’s an untethered, whimsical, 3rd eye perspective to Steve Poltz’s music. But to get the full breadth of the Steve Poltz experience, it’s one of those things you have to experience live. There’s just no other way to fall beneath its full spell. Whether it’s a festival or a local show, whatever rigors it involves to get there, it’s worth the effort.

Because in life, like in music, you can miss a lot, including stuff that passes right under your nose, like how that guy from the Jewel video morphed into one of the most entertaining musical storytellers of our time. So make sure you take the time stop down, and really pay attention. Otherwise, you might miss some of the greatest gifts of life, like the music and stories of Steve Poltz. (read a full review)

10. James McMurtry

(as seen at Old Settler’s Fest)

James McMurtry very well just might be the greatest living songwriter at the moment. He can evoke the dimension of location in a song like few others, rattling off meticulous observational details of specific towns and cities as good as Google. But you don’t traditionally think of him as some exceptional live performer.

However, his set at the Old Settler’s Fest outside of Austin wasn’t like one of his polite acoustic matinees at the city’s Continental Club. Similar to his latest album The Horses and the Hounds, it was a full tilt rock show with all the crunch and attitude indicative of his early career, with the songs still packing as much of an emotional wallop as possible. It truly felt like one for the ages.

9. Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs

(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest)

Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs absolutely stole the show at Under The Big Sky Fest. It’s so hard to honor the time-tested traditions of bluegrass while bringing the exuberance these folks do. From heartfelt ballads to blazing jig’s, this Montana-based outfit does it all. If they come rolling through your town and you’re at home watching Matlock reruns, get ready to wear the dunce cap.

They also released a new album in 2021 called Through The Smoke.

8. Hogslop String Band

(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest, Old Settler’s Fest)

As those who have seen this Nashville-based band live will attest, nobody brings the party harder than the Hogslop String Band. With songs and shtick that get the crowd swaying, laughing, singing, and dancing, they’re all about packing as much entertainment value into a set of music as humanly possible.

The Hogslop String Band is a kids band for adults. The only dilemma is they actually attract a lot of kids, but their set isn’t exactly kid friendly. Regardless, wherever they set up shop, they immediately become the life of the party, and a good time is had by all.

7. Blackberry Smoke

(as seen at Mile 0 Fest, Born & Raised Fest)

Blackberry Smoke isn’t just saving country music, Blackberry Smoke is saving ALL of American music one killer show, song, and album at a time. Real humans playing real instruments, with all the blood, guts, soul, and heart behind them that is missing from so much of modern music.

Worried about who will carry America’s rich musical heritage into the future? Throw on a Blackberry Smoke record. Need revival? Go see them live. In Blackberry Smoke We Trust.

6. Jamie Lin Wilson / Courtney Patton / Mike Harmeier / Drew Kennedy – Mile 0 Fest Duets Night

(as seen at Mile 0 Fest)

This was more of a moment than a performance, but it was so memorable, it must be given credit here. It happened during a “duets” afterparty hosted by Jamie Lin Wilson at Mile 0 Fest that paired festival performers together for classic country and pop duets. An event like that would normally be held in a local bar, but was done at the big Key West amphitheater in 2021 so it could happen outside due to COVID.

The finale occurred when songwriters Courtney Patton and Drew Kennedy came out to sing “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” and Mike Harmeier of Mike & the Moonpies recreated the ending scene to Dirty Dancing, with Patton and Drew Kennedy singing and Mike Moonpie coming in at the perfect time to recreate the “lift” scene, with Kennedy filling in for Patrick Swayze. It was definitely one of those “you had to be there” moments. But if you were there, it’s one of those moments that will be burned in your memory forever in the best of ways.

Jamie Lin Wilson also deserves credit for curating a star-filled VIP stage at Born & Raised Fest in September that saw both up-and-comers, and headliners like Wade Bowen and Cody Jinks all take the stage for intimate and collaborative performances.

5. Shane Smith and the Saints

(as seen at Mile 0 Fest and Born & Raised Fest)

Shane Smith and the Saints had a breakout year in 2021, and it was mostly born from inspiring live performances featuring incredible energy and their signature four-part harmonies. In late April they were afforded a huge opportunity at Mile 0 Fest after multiple headliners on the evening cancelled. They stepped up to prove they don’t need to play second fiddle to anybody, and should be considered headliners all on their own.

Then in November, the band saw a bit of a different kind of boost when their music was featured prominently on the hit TV series Yellowstone, including with characters talking about the band in the show’s dialogue. This gave the band a jolt in both name recognition and sales, and they followed by releasing an album called Live from the Desert featuring some of their signature songs recorded in the live setting where they shine.

4. Sierra Ferrell

(as seen at Old Settler’s Fest)

Sierra Ferrell live seems almost more myth than material being, melding her ragtime jazz and mountain music into an alluring and intoxicating concoction that leaves lifted spirits and broken hearts in her wake. Her billowy vocals beam you to a world of Chantilly lace and sea foam, spiriting you away from everyday mundanity to a colorful place of enchantment. She is not of this time, or of this world.

Ferrell’s 2021 album Long Time Coming is an inspiring work as well. But live is where Sierra Ferrell is most in her element.

3. Cedric Burnside

(as seen at Old Settler’s Fest)

Cedric Burnside is one of the best live acts in all of country and roots music at the moment, period. Laying down in that north Mississippi Hill Country groove, playing bass with his thumb, and bringing the serious get down vibes that get the limbs to twitchin’ uncontrollably. R.L. Burnside is looking down with some serious pride that his grandson is keeping the authentic Mississippi country blues alive.

In 2021, the National Endowment for the Arts also awarded Cedric Burnside the National Heritage Fellowship, which is the United States government’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. This guy is a national treasure, and is worth seeking out live whether you’re a country or blues fan.

2. Mike and the Moonpies

(as seen at Mile 0 Fest)

Mike Harmeier, Omar Oyoque, Catlin Rutherford, Kyle Ponder, and Zachary Moulton, known collectively as Mike and the Moonpies, aka the greatest country band on this planet or any other at the moment. Mike and the Moonpies are all the gifts and graces of country music aggregated into one kick ass unit.

2021 was a great year for Mike and the Moonpies, releasing a tribute album to their mentor Gary Stewart, a major career-defining original record in One To Grow On, and winning Saving Country Music’s Single of the Year for their song “Hour On The Hour.”

But live is still where this band’s greatest powers are on display, and they remain the greatest live act in true country, which they’ve been now for the last many years and counting.

1. Billy Strings

(as seen at Under The Big Sky Fest)

Billy Strings doesn’t play music. Music plays Billy Strings. Some transcendental or extraterrestrial portal is opened up whenever he takes the stage, and a communion occurs between Billy Strings and the Unknown, resulting in some of the most mind-altering moments life can afford chemical free, yet he always makes the conscious effort to remain tethered to the roots of bluegrass, and make it all accessible to the audience.

And you can’t mention Billy Strings without also mentioning the band behind him, specifically banjoist Billy Failing, bassist Royal Masat, and Jarrod Walker on mandolin who deserve incredible credit for being able to follow Billy Strings on his musical exploration with such adroitness.

There may be more popular or critically-acclaimed artists, but nobody can do what Billy Strings can do live. We are living in the Billy Strings era.

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