Celebrating 29 years of welcoming music fans to the campus of Somerset Community College in South Central Kentucky, the Master Musicians Festival has long carried the banner of being one of the longest established and most well run music festivals in the state. Its 2022 gathering on July 15 and 16 was no exception with its first ever female headliner in Grace Potter along with performances from Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, The Wood Brothers, S.G. Goodman and others.
For its nearly three decade run the festival has had the mission of featuring "master musicians" like John Prine, Guy Clark and Willie Nelson alongside future stars like Billy Strings, Tyler Childers and Kelsey Waldon. The hard work of Executive Director Tiffany Finley, MMF President and Media Director Julie Harris and the rest of the festival board in searching year-round for the stars of tomorrow to pair with the stars of now for their annual gathering is second to none and is a huge key to the festival's recipe for success.
From current household names to future ones, here's our ten favorite performances from the 29th annual Master Musicians Festival.
Celebrating one month since the release of her A Lot Like You EP, Corbin, Ky.'s Sydney Adams kicked off MMF's Somersessions tent stage with a mesmerizing performance that included an ode to her Eastern Kentucky roots ("Always Home To Me"), a murder ballad and a countrified cover of Lorde's "Royals." Even performing solo, Adams powerhouse voice was more than enough to command the stage during her rousing 40 minute set.
I'd seen Leah Blevins solo before, but her full band set on Friday afternoon at MMF elevated her songs to another level. The Nashville by way of Sandy Hook, Ky. native's country twang took on an added rock'n roll flavor on tunes like "Little Birds," "Magnolias," "Walk Home" and "First Time Feeling" thanks to the help of guitarist Ricky Dover Jr. and her other bandmates. With dynamic vocals featuring a warble similar to rising West Virginia born star Sierra Ferrell, Blevins easily has one of the most recognizable and intoxicating voices in country music today, which she put on full display during her hour-long set.
Considered an adopted Kentuckian by many within the Commonwealth due to retreating to Thunder Sound in Franklin to record 2018's Wide Awake, Rayland Baxter lit up MMF's Horse Soldier Bourbon main stage on Friday night with a barrage of songs from the aforementioned album like "Strange American Dream," "Angeline" and "Hey Larocco." Also making an appearance were older fan favorites like "Bad Things" and "Mr. Rodriguez," each of which drew spontaneous singing along from the jubilant crowd.
Hailing from Louisville, Bendigo Fletcher's easygoing rock sound draws many similarities to Baxter, albeit with more of a country flavor. This was apparent from the get-go as frontman Ryan Anderson wielded a banjo for a show opening rendition of "Astro Pup" from last summer's Fits Of Laughter. Following was an array of songs from the band's catalog that showcased the range of Anderson's voice as he moved from soft croons ("Sleeping Pad") to eye-popping screams ("Evergreen"), leading to one of the weekend's most animated sets.
Young Songwriter Showcase
As Pete Townshend once said, "the kids are alright." Although the famed Who frontman wasn't at MMF, Appalachia's best young songwriters were, and they gathered on the main stage on Saturday afternoon to open day two of the festival with a captivating songwriter round. Participants included Greenup County, Ky.'s Jayce Turley; Hart County, Ky.'s Kara Wilder; Lexington, Ky's Vivian Leigh; Somerset, Ky.'s Logan Purcell; South Central Kentucky's Cara Bishop, and Middletown, Virginia's Jake Kohn (pictured). Each possessed fine songwriting skills for their youth and vastly different voices, and all have very, very bright futures.
Short & Company
With an all-star band comprised of multi-instrumentalist J. Tom Hnatow, bassist Chris Justice, mandolinist John Looney and drummer John Clay of John R. Miller's backing band along with Ashland, Ky. native and top 10 finalist from season 2021 of NBC's The Voice Holly Forbes, Jeremy Short's Short & Company was firing on all cylinders during their blues, soul and jam infused set on Saturday afternoon. The Jackson, Ky. native paired his high-pitched Appalachian holler with rugged blues guitar that has earned him trips to perform at the International Blues Challenge on originals like "Marvin Gaye," "(Falling Into A) Trance" and "Midnight Train to Glasgow" along with an exhilarating cover of Elton John's "Rocket Man" with Forbes taking the lead.
Longtime Lexingtonian Justin Wells brought a fiery blend of country soul rock'n roll to MMF's main stage on Saturday afternoon with his feel good songs of love and perseverance. With a voice singing soft whispers one second and roaring the next, Wells provided one of the weekend's most entertaining sets as the former Fifth On The Floor frontman ran through songs like "The Dogs," "The Highway Less Taken" and "The Screaming Song."
Referred to by Wells as "the badass Kentucky rock'n roll ethereal siren Queen of the Commonwealth," Murray native S.G. Goodman lived up to the hype (and then some) during her Saturday evening performance. Opening with the angsty rock of "Work Until I Die," Goodman ran through several songs from her new album Teeth Marks like "You Were Someone I Loved" and the title track itself. Also included were cuts from her highly regarded debut Old Time Feeling including "Space And Time," a track further thrust into the spotlight recently after being covered on several occasions by another Kentuckian, Tyler Childers.
The Wood Brothers
Making a rare Kentucky appearance, thrilling trio The Wood Brothers honored their favorite brown liquor and Kentucky's signature spirit ("I Got Loaded") and then some that left not just the brothers themselves, but the entire crowd dancing to the beat during their Saturday evening performance. The chemistry between drummer Jano Rix and brothers Oliver and Chris Wood is unparalleled, leading to an incredibly loud and well-rounded sound for the trio as they breezed through hits like "Alabaster," "River Takes The Town" and other hits from their roots, rock and jazz inspired library of songs.
John R. Miller
Closing out the festival's Citizens National Bank stage was West Virginian John R. Miller. Dubbed during his introduction as "one of the best songwriters around"--to which I'd agree--Miller proceeded to back that statement up with a set of vivid storytelling about the highs and lows of life in Appalachia that included ditties like "Red Eyes," "Shenandoah Shakedown" and "Lookin' Over My Shoulder."
READ MORE: The 10 Best Acts We Saw At Laurel Cove Music Festival 2022: Sierra Ferrell, Kelsey Waldon + More
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