At the stroke of 9 Sunday night at The Red Mile, with Railbird’s main event act about to commence, an announcement was made from the stage that June 3 was officially decreed by Mayor Linda Gorton as Tyler Childers Day.
A splendid honor, to be sure, one that sent the crowd gathered for the sold-out music festival estimated by VisitLEX to be around 40,000 into suitable hysteria. But if one was in the mind for a wager, it would be a safe bet that most days for this crowd, if not all of them, count as Tyler Childers Day.
The finale act of the two-day Railbird Music Festival, Childers’ performance did two things. It upheld his local — well, regional — hero status with a typically sterling two-hour performance of Americana-rooted country executed with scholarly confidence. But the Lawrence County native’s return to the festival (he played its inaugural edition in 2019) also capped off a trouble-free run for what has been a troubled event. A crippled venture after its sophomore outing at Keeneland in 2021, this year’s festival corrected previous missteps (entrance lines were shorter, water stations was considerably more plentiful) and built upon its successes — namely, two days of stellar music, rich sound mixes that seemed to reach for miles and startling punctuality in the running order of its performance schedule.
A fascinating example of the latter came Sunday afternoon. In one of the most stirring transitions of the festival, bluegrass patriarch Ricky Skaggs and his commanding Kentucky Thunder band ripped into the Stanley Brothers-popularized “Lost and I’ll Never the Way” just as the final notes of Sierra Ferrell’s “In Dreams” were concluding on a stage at the other end of the infield.
Ferrell is a young West Virginia renegade whose set was as arresting vocally, thanks to her remarkable range and inserts of giddy shrieks and yodels, as it was musically in her performance’s all acoustic setting. Skaggs remains a regional legend, another Lawrence County celebrity — one who cut his teeth in the bands of Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris and another Kentucky giant, J.D. Crowe. In honoring the latter, Skaggs let his scholarly banjoist Russell Carson loose for an especially devout tribute, a warp speed run through of the Crowe classic “Blackjack.”
The best visual take away from the reborn Railbird festival? Meaning, aside from the sight of roughly 40,000 fans cheering the music of 32 acts over two days from the infield of the Red Mile? It came Saturday evening as Rivers Cuomo wrapped up the final chorus of “Buddy Holly” during the concluding moments of Weezer’s tireless offering of jittery, jagged pop. No sooner did the set wind down than a magnificent, orange-hued full moon — the aptly dubbed Strawberry Moon — rose over Elkhorn, one of Railbird’s two mainstage areas.
One couldn’t help but think, no matter how fanciful it might seem, that the Strawberry Moon shining down served as a kind of grand nod of approval for the sights and sounds below. Even in more earthbound terms, though, there was plenty going on during the two-day music festival to earn approval.
Saturday headliner Zach Bryan capped off Day One of the festival after Weezer’s departure and the moon’s arrival with a good-natured set of efficient country/Americana tunes that came across as a streamlined version of Jason Isbell’s blue-collar sagas. While there were appealing musical quirks, like a banjo reading of the “Godfather” theme and a touch of trumpet sass to spruce up “Quittin’ Time,” this was an all-business presentation of introspective story-songs (“Fifth of May,” “Tishamingo” and “Dawns”) that painted a full artistic portrait of an artist who rose to stardom without the usual Nashville machinery.
Earlier that day, Lucius (the pop duo of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig) and Marcus Mumford (sans the Sons) sat in on each other’s sets. Mumford visited Lucius for an appropriately murky cover of The Kinks’ “Strangers.” A few hours later, Wolfe and Laessing popped up in an otherwise unaccompanied solo acoustic set by Mumford to add vocals to “Go in Light” and the New Basement Tapes gem “Kansas City.”
Saturday also marked the return of Sheryl Crow, who played Kroger Field just over a year ago as part of Chris Stapleton’s “A Concert for Kentucky” benefit. The Railbird artist with perhaps the deepest catalog of hit material, Crow shot her set immediately back a few decades for a quartet of her ‘90s singles highlighted by a lyrical adjustment for the day to “All I Wanna Do” (“This ain’t no disco. It ain’t no country club either. This is Railbird”).
But the biggest Saturday highlights came from two artists that keep considerably lower profiles — post-psychedelic song stylist Neal Francis, through his piano led jam at the center of “Sentimental Garbage,” and country roots journeyman Charley Crockett, who dialed the calendar back roughly 60 years for the dark, mysterious twang of “The Man from Waco.”
A comfortable ease early into Sunday’s schedule and — musically, at least — a brief respite from some of the weekend’s near record-setting heat utilized all three Railbird stages in succession. Brit Taylor served up an Appalachian-friendly sit down set on the smaller, intimate Burl stage while Austin, Tx. songsmith Calder Allen offered an unassuming and comfortable Americana session on the nearby Elkorn mainstage. That led up to a blazing set downfield on the Limestone stage by 49 Winchester and its hearty electric honky tonk shakedown between piano and pedal steel guitar during “Last Call.”
Other Sunday highlights included a reunion set by Nickel Creek (part of its first tour in nearly a decade) that employed bluegrass instrumentation as a springboard for a variety of acoustic folk/pop delicacies from years past (“Somebody More Like You,” “The Lighthouse’s Tale”) as well tunes from the group’s new “Celebrants” album.
Especially inviting was a modern day serving of old school soul early Sunday evening by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. The brassy grooves of his band served as an intriguing contrast to the understated tone of Rateliff’s vocals. The mood was nicely varied, to boot, shifting from the Sam Cooke-friendly cheer of “Howling at Nothing” to the slower, more openly pensive “Face Down in the Moment.”
Then, of course, there was Childers capping off the evening, as well as Railbird’s Red Mile debut, with the strongest lineup yet of his Food Stamps band — one now augmented by Wooks/NewTown guitarist C.J. Cain. Together with the expert, longstanding help of pedal steel guitarist James Barker and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Wells (another Wooks alum), the team nicely embellished Childers’ gospel growl during “The Old Country Church,” the playful rural reflection of “Country Squire” and the hard-living imagery of the set-opening “White House Road.”
What more could you have wanted from Tyler Childers Day? Or, more to the point, from a revitalized Railbird that has re-positioned itself to become a staple — a very large staple, mind you — of the Lexington summer concert season.
The only voice of dissent overheard came from a patron to a security officer as the former was about to embark on the long walk from the Red Mile grounds to busses gathered to return audience members to their cars parked at Kroger Field (navigating the festival took considerable hoofing from all attendees and workers). But even that was delivered more as light-hearted aside than an actual complaint.”
“Excuse me, but where is the shuttle to the shuttle?”