Some of the best country musicians and singer-songwriters from Appalachia and beyond gathered this past weekend for the third annual Laurel Cove Music Festival in the picturesque mountains of southeastern Kentucky, just north of the Cumberland Gap.
Held in Pineville, Ky. at the Laurel Cove Amphitheater inside Pine Mountain State Resort Park, the festival has quickly garnered appreciation from artists and fans alike for its gorgeous Appalachian Mountain scenery and focus on highlighting some of the best regional and up-and-coming songwriters in the business. Known best as the home of one of the state's oldest traditions—the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival—for over 90 years, the venue is steadily building a new one with music that stands to last for years to come.
Produced by Bell County Tourism and Director Jon Grace (who officially became the newest Kentucky Colonel over the weekend), this year's gathering was no exception when it came to pulling in top talent from all corners of the continent. With performances from Alberta, Canada's Bella White, Alabama's Drayton Farley, North Carolina's Caleb Caudle and Texas' Vincent Neil Emerson alongside Kentucky and West Virginia natives like Kelsey Waldon, Sierra Ferrell, Charles Wesley Godwin and Abby Hamilton every set was truly can't miss action.
As a result, it was like pulling teeth trying to cut the list of top festival moments down to just 10. Just about every single band had swaths of the audience singing along and every single artist I had the pleasure of seeing drew a standing ovation. In terms of festival crowds it's one of the most respectable I've seen, focusing intently on the songcrafters in front of them from the first note of opening act Cody Lee Meece & The Poor Excuses on Friday to the last of Vintage Pistol early Sunday morning.
Here are my top 10 moments from the 2022 Laurel Cove Music Festival.
Nicholas Jamerson & The Morning Jays
After performing at Laurel Cove last year with Sundy Best—the duo he founded with Kristofer Bentley over a decade ago—Nicholas Jamerson returned to the festival this year to play with The Morning Jays, the upstart band he started a few years ago as another outlet for showcasing his sincere and philosophical songwriting. Jamerson's set included everything from an homage to his native Eastern Kentucky ("Hindman") to musings ripe with biblical imagery ("Leviathan"), a humorous tale about gluttony ("Brother Rabbit") and more, each showing a different side of himself and reinforcing why so many within the Commonwealth consider him the best recent artist out of Eastern Kentucky aside from Tyler Childers or Sturgill Simpson.
West Virginia nomad Sierra Ferrell sprung onto the main stage at Laurel Cove looking like a mountain fairy during her whimsical Friday night set that lit up the night sky. Whether it was cuts from her acclaimed album Long Time Coming like "Bells Of Every Chapel", "In Dreams" and "Lost At Sea" or new songs like "Lighthouse" and a fiddle tune titled "Fox Hunt" that she named after a band formerly fronted by fellow Mountain State native John R. Miller of the same name, Ferrell had the crowd of around 1,000 hanging on every word. In a set full of highlights, the best came during a performance of "At The End Of The Rainbow" where the crowd illuminated the secluded mountainside amphitheater with the waving lights emanating from their cell phones.
Performing as a duo with her brother Zachary on electric guitar while she wielded an acoustic, Abby Hamilton's old-timey warble and modern day sass combined for an epic colliding of past and present Friday night on Laurel Cove's creekside stage. Performing songs like "Whatever Helps You Sleep At Night" and "Trailer Park Queen," Hamilton carried a voice dwarfing her petite frame that was so powerful and ethereal that it could literally will the mountains around the park to move if it wanted.
With a southern croon featuring a subtle hint of fellow Alabamian Jason Isbell in it, Drayton Farley kicked off day two on the festival's pondside main stage with a mix of originals touching on everything from the myth of the American Dream ("American Dream (Hard Up)") and struggling to get by on manual labor ("Blue Collar") along with a good ole fashioned murder ballad ("Lucinda"). He even teased a few new songs from a new project he's recording with Isbell's guitarist Sadler Vaden as producer and the 400 Unit as his backing band before closing with an emphatic cover of The Lumineers' "Morning Song."
In addition to Farley, my favorite new discovery of the weekend was Alberta's Bella White. The red-headed siren brought a burst of bluegrass and folk bliss to Laurel Cove's main stage right after Farley early Saturday afternoon and quickly captivated the crowd with personal vignettes like "Broke (When I Realized)" and "The Hand Of Your Raising." In addition to teasing a few tunes from her next full-length project she also found time for a reinterpretation of Guy Clark's iconic "Dublin Blues" that made the old feel new again.
Eighteen-year-old West Virginia native Logan Halstead became a viral hit overnight throughout Appalachia a year and a half ago with a video of his original "Dark Black Coal" that looks at the damage the coal industry has left behind. He performed that song and more during a rowdy solo set on the main stage Saturday afternoon that showcased his undeniable, budding talent with originals like "Angel On My Shoulder" in addition to a cover of The Wood Brothers' "River Takes The Town" and "Uneven Ground", a recent co-write he has with Laurel Cove alum Arlo McKinley.
Formerly of Fifth On The Floor, Lexington based artist Justin Wells has continued to thrive in the years since the band's breakup, releasing two albums that have drawn widespread praise. Wells performed a collection of choice cuts from both with his all-star band that included members of both Brother Smith and John R. Miller's crews. Top moments from the action packed set were an opening "Can't Break My Heart" that ended with Wells stepping from the mic and hollering the last lyric into the mountain holler with no amplification, much to the crowd's delight along with a heartfelt love letter to his wife ("Another Night Lonely") and a break-down of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon Of Kentucky."
On the heels of a European tour with her Oh Boy Records labelmates, Western Kentucky native Kelsey Waldon swung through Saturday evening for an hour-long set of songs both old and new that included hits like "Kentucky, 1988" and "High On Heels" alongside cuts from her forthcoming album out in August like "No Regular Dog", "Simple As Love" and "Sweet Little Girl." For good measure she also threw in a nod to her musical companion John Prine with a cover of "Paradise," fitting given the musical paradise everyone attending Laurel Cove found themselves in throughout the weekend.
Cole Chaney with Wolfpen Branch
One of Kentucky's fastest-rising songwriters over the past year has been Cole Chaney. The Lexington by way of Ashland based artist's debut Mercy has racked up over 3,000,000 streams on Spotify during that time and propelled him to stages with 49 Winchester, Zach Bryan and now Laurel Cove with the backing help of Central Kentucky bluegrass supergroup Wolfpen Branch. The partnership brought a jolt of vibrancy to Chaney's already vivid storytelling on songs like "Charlene," "Another Day In The Life," "Coal Shooter" and "Ill Will Creek" as his career potential continues to shoot for the stars.
Vincent Neil Emerson
Closing out the festival's creekside stage on Saturday night was a solo performance from tactful and tenacious Texas songwriter Vincent Neil Emerson. With every song Emerson evoked a new emotion from the audience it seemed whether it be anger ("Son Of A Bitch"), humility ("Letters On The Marquee''), sadness ("The Ballad Of The Choctaw-Apache") and a myriad of others. However, the highlight of his set was a performance of old-time tune "Wabash Cannonball" that, like Abby Hamilton the night before, bridged the gap to past and present in a profound way.
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