Naming the best live performances of a given year is not the same exercise as naming the best songs, albums, or artists, because it is specifically dependent on the experiences of the individual making the list. Where most all of us have access to the inventory of albums and songs released in country music in a given year thanks to streaming, the live experience is how your specific itinerary happens to play out. So it goes without saying this list is simply one perspective, and there are plenty others out there. But due to streaming taking such a big bite out of artist’s revenue, and the live context of music becoming more important than ever, talking about live performances is still an exercise that is important to help curate the future experiences of concert goers in an increasingly crowded music space.
This recap was supposed to be compartmentalized to the top 10 live acts, but there was too much to contain, and it spilled over to 13. Even then, it seems criminal that other certain acts specifically experienced by Saving Country Music, let alone anyone else’s top yearly highlights, couldn’t be included. So Honorable Mention must be given to Courtney Marie Andrews, especially for holding her own at the Americana Music Awards held at the Ryman Auditorium in September, bluegrass supergroup I’m With Her consisting of Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, up-and-coming traditionalist Randall King, and western country throwback Colter Wall.
This is just Saving Country Music’s opinions, and 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 what we should make sure not to miss when it comes rolling through our town.
13. Charley Crockett
(Appearing at: Pickathon, West Coast Country Music Festival)
Put whatever concerns about a potential lisp you think you hear on his record aside, Charley Crockett is hot shit right now live and with a ringer band. As a performer, Crockett has a unique infectiousness that is able to cross taste boundaries while still staying grounded in country roots, and he endears himself to crowds with his folksy, Texas demeanor, saying the right things between songs with a true sincerity that makes each listener feel beloved.
12. Joshua Hedley
(Appearing at: Pickathon, Luck Reunion)
Joshua Hedley is arguably most pure and perfect reenactment of the Golden Era of country music you can hear or see on the planet, yet served through original songs to make it relevant in today’s context. Believe the hype with Joshua Hedley. As a performer for years at Robert’s Western World, he’s earned the label Mayor of Lower Broadway, and the hours upon hours of live performances have resulted in an artist refined and worthy of carrying country music’s classic legacy into the future.
Most important to note about the Joshua Hedley live show is the band he’s toting around with him at the moment, which he’s affectionately coined The Headliners. Misa Arriaga, who was the bandleader (and love interest) in Kacey Musgraves’ band for years is now playing bass and acting as bandleader and backup singer for Hedley, bringing his experience and acumen to making The Headliers one of the tightest backing bands out there. Misa started off Joshua’s set singing a song before Hedley emerged. Also in the band is Adam Meisterhaus who’s played with scores of east Nashville bands, Whit Wright on steel guitar, Spencer Martin on keyboards, and Tommy Perkins on drums.
11. Molly Tuttle
(Appearing at: Folk Alliance International, Sweet Beaver Showcase)
If you’re wondering where bluegrass is headed, and where it could go in a world where music is constantly being tasked to evolve and engage with younger people, following the career track of Molly Tuttle is a good place to start. Where we believed previously that with such incredible talent throughout the history of the subgenre, all the possibilities of bluegrass had been fleshed out, Molly Tuttle is helping to reshape that mindset, and is helping to instill a shot of youth and energy into the music.
Molly Tuttle did not release an album in 2018, but she did have a breakout year. She won Song of the Year at Folk Alliance International for “You Didn’t Call My Name” in February, won Guitar Player of the Year from the IBMA in September (2nd year in a row), as well as the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year. But beyond all of the accolades, Molly Tuttle just has an intangible cool factor that makes you want to root for her. She’s unique and vibrant, and not just technically proficient, but touched with that gift for making compelling music—an attribute often referred to as “soul.” (read more)
10. Turnpike Troubadours
(Appearing at: Mile 0 Fest, ACL Live)
The Turnpike Troubadours never started out to be some huge band. The best never do. This wasn’t a business venture for these boys. This was a bunch of corn fed Oklahomans from Tahlequah getting together to pick a few tunes for fun, eventually inviting their friends and family over to listen, then venturing out to play a few local bars. Even Felker wrote a couple of songs; one of them was called “Every Girl.” And now they can’t travel hundreds of miles to the capital of Texas without packing out a large capacity venue on consecutive nights, and when they start singing that song, every single voice in that venue sings along, and goosebumps are hard to fight back.
Despite the respect Evan Felker and their contributors receive as songwriters, in the live setting, few rival what Turnpike does. This isn’t a corporate band. The Turnpike Troubadours aren’t radio stars. They’re guys from Oklahoma who caught something magical together almost if by accident, and they’re greatest appeal is they’re just like us.
The Turnpike Troubadours are like your brothers. Sometimes life gets sideways on them. It happens to the best of us. The fact that they can bleed and stumble sometimes is what fills their songs with truth, and makes them real, just like it often did for many of the past greats in country music. (read more)
9. Jesse Daniel
(Appearing at: West Coast Country Music Festival)
Every year Saving Country Music travels to the West Coast during the summer to scout for musical talent that is often overlooked in the Nashville and Texas music echo chambers. In 2018 the biggest discovery was singer, songwriter, and recovering punk musician Jesse Daniel of Santa Cruz, California. Part of a wider scene of Santa Cruz country music that also includes artists such as Miss Lonely Hearts and once gave birth to The Devil Makes Three, Jesse Daniel and his excellent band bring a striking energy and gritty edge to honky tonk music inspired by true to life struggles.
Jesse Daniel is definitely an act you’ll want to keep an eye out for in the future.
8. Jaime Wyatt
(Appearing at: AmericanaFest)
As one of the most promising performers out of the often-overlooked Southern California country scene, she’s not afraid to talk about her felonious past, which includes an eight month stint in a California penitentiary for robbing her drug dealer. This isn’t fiction or embellishment. You can hear all about in her 2017 autobiographical record Felony Blues.
With Wyatt, the demons are not well in the past and buried, they’re laying just beneath the surface, constantly pursuant, just like they were for all the old country greats. Yet she has a determination to keep them in check and prove her worth to society, to country music, and to herself. This emotional concoction and daily tightrope walk results in a fire behind her eyes, and instills her musical performance with passion and wicked appeal.
Beyond the words and twang the voice and music may carry, you just have a belief in what you’re seeing and hearing from Jaime Wyatt. This isn’t some delicate flower. This is a woman who’s lived through the worst to tell her tale, unafraid of shame or judgement, and hoping to spin her story toward one of redemption and victory. To break through the dearth of women in country, it’s going to take performers with guts and moxie who are unafraid to bear their souls. Jamie Wyatt fits the mold, while also comprising a completely original specimen all to herself.
While scanning the room for the next important artists in true country music in the coming years, it’s hard to not find your attention resting on Jaime Wyatt. (read more)
7. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
(Appearing at: Luck Reunion)
It’s time to start considering Lukas Nelson right up there with the top 2nd generation stars of music. This guy does it all: incredible songwriting, amazing voice, and a monster on the guitar. Lukas Nelson’s ability to both evoke the timeless magic of his dad’s tone and warble, yet renew it with an original delivery all his own—along with the sheer explosiveness and natural ease of his guitar playing—makes him an awe-inspiring specimen for the theory of pedigree.
It’s was this power of performance that first caught the eye of producer, director, and actor Bradley Cooper, who cast Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real as the backing band for the wildly-successful and critically-acclaimed remake of A Star Is Born, even working with Bradley Cooper as a musical coach, and writing and performing on many of the soundtrack’s songs. If 2018 wasn’t Lukas Nelson’s breakout year, it should have been.
6. Cody Jinks
(Appearing at: Loud and Heavy Fest, Mile 0 Fest)
The humility Cody Jinks shows, and the way he’s able to connect with his fans from the blue collar themes of his music is what has made him a bona fide country music phenomenon. He reinforces this every time he walks out on stage. But possibly the biggest contribution of Cody Jinks to live music in 2018 was the rousing success of his inaugural Loud and Heavy Fest.
To have one artist be able to personally curate a festival, and to see the turnout be so impressive speaks to the natural appeal of an artist such as Cody Jinks, and speaks to the swelling power and reach of independent country music. The inaugural Loud and Heavy Fest was one of those events when you look out over the crowd, and truly appreciate just how far independent country music has come.
5. Tyler Childers
(Appearing at: AmericanaFest)
If you’re looking for the future of true country music, you must look into the direction of Tyler Childers. No matter what someone may feel about any individual set of music that Tyler Childers played in 2018, he arguably had the most significant live moment in all of 2018 when he took the stage of the Ryman Auditorium during the Americana Music Awards in September.
His acoustic performance dressed in a Col. Sanders suit was compelling in its own right. But when he took the podium to receive his trophy for Emerging Artist of the Year, he had the moment of the year, standing up for the integrity of country music, saying, “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers. It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory.’ “
Though Americana does great things for true country artists who may otherwise not receive any bigger support, standing up for the integrity of the term “country” immediately made the stock of Tyler Childers rise in the estimation of many.
4. Brandi Carlile
(Appearing at: AmericanaFest)
The only shame about Brandi Carlile recently receiving an incredible six Grammy nominations, including three in the major all-genre categories, is that it feels like the world is just now waking up to a phenomenon that true country and Americana fans have been experiencing for years. Brandi Carlile is one of the truly gifted performers of our era, and as much as her recorded music astounds, it’s underscored even deeper when she takes that same magic, and performs it live and in person as you stand mouth agape.
When Brandi Carlile performed her Grammy-nominated song “The Joke” on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium during the Americana Music Awards, and hit the song’s signature top note, it was if the Earth stopped rotating for a split second, and every living thing was concentrated on her magnanimous musical powers. Brandi Carlile is someone the roots community should be humbled and proud to share with the rest of the world.
3. Whitey Morgan and the 78’s
(Appearing at: Loud and Heavy Fest)
You want to save country music? Put it on the back of the Buick City Badass Whitey Morgan along with his backing band The 78’s, and let them carry the whole damn genre.
Whitey Morgan is like the embodiment of all the rage and frustration of true country music fans channeled into one hairy human vessel. Whitey’s “Fuck Pop Country” shirts are just as famous as some of his songs, and no quarter is given when he walks out on stage to whip crowds into a honky tonk frenzy, and feed them a steady dose of hard country shit kickers. Don’t take that to mean this music is rough and reckless; quite the contrary. Along with his snarl and bark, Whitey Morgan and the 78’s put on one of the most tight shows in all of country music. It’s truly a sight to behold.
2. Billy Strings
(Appearing at: SXSW, Old Settler’s Music Festival)
We’re living in a moment where a young, up-and-coming former bluegrass prodigy might be the very best thing going in all of country and roots music. Many won’t give this the proper due because they believe bluegrass is too niche, and the ceiling is so low in the genre compared to country proper. But if you’re looking for the singer, songwriter, and player that could parallel what we witnessed Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell do over the last few years, Billy Strings very well may be your answer.
Billy Strings’ 2017 record Turmoil & Tinfoil is excellent, but he’s found an entirely new level presently, and his band is perfect. The only way to describe the Billy Strings live experience is like tripping without acid. The compositional fortitude is so soaring, it opens up recess in your mind that are otherwise inaccessible. In a word, Billy Strings is a modern-day musical virtuoso.
1. Mike and the Moonpies
(Appearing at: Mile 0 Fest, AmericanaFest)
Unfortunately a discrepancy often exists between the quality of music and the popularity of it, the substance music contains, and the support it receives. This permeates throughout the country genre, not just in the mainstream. Even in the independent realm and Americana, often it is who you know, how you’re slotted, and where the hype is focused that chooses who receives the sweet blessing of popular attention, while some of the most potent music remains obfuscated and hard to find.
Perhaps Mike and the Moonpies are the greatest true country band out there right now. They at least deserve to be in that discussion. But what is hard to argue is that Mike and the Moonpies are the band out there right now where the quality of their music, the infectiousness of the vibe, and the enthusiasm, attitude, and heart they expend in their music is woefully out-of-whack with how many people know about them.
As good as their new record Steak Night at the Prairie Rose is, the harmonic melodies between the steel guitar, lead guitar, and keyboard, Mike’s scrappy attitude and funny quips on the mic, along with the attack and upbeat passion they bring to their music is nearly unparalleled live. The recent addition of bass player Omar Oyoque to the band has put them in an entirely new stratosphere. No, they’re not a songwriter’s “cry in your beer” band that will give you “feels” on every song. But as an authentic Texas honky tonk beer joint band, they bring entertainment value pound for pound right up there with anybody in true country, and can rival arena acts. They are the best live country music band at the moment. (read more)