Tucked away in the unassuming farmlands of Franklin, Tennessee, the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival is like no other. In the seven years since Pilgrimage began, concertgoers have been flocking to Harlinsdale Farm to see the likes of Willie Nelson, Steven Tyler, Dr. John, Hall & Oats, and many more world-class artists in the relative niche corner of middle Tennessee.
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This year’s fest boasted two days of sets from some of music’s biggest names with headliners Brandi Carlile and Chris Stapleton capping off Saturday (Sept. 24) and Sunday night (Sept. 25), respectively. American Songwriter was there for all the action and below are 8 moments we can’t stop thinking about.
1. Celisse Let Her Guitar Loose on the Main Stage
Though Celisse may not be a household name yet, odds are you’ve heard her a time or two. Armed with shredding guitar skills and soulful vocals, Celisse has played with the likes of Mariah Carey, Lizzo, Brandi Carlile, Jon Batiste, and Melissa Etheridge – and that’s just naming a few.
The bluesy rock maven took the main stage at Pilgrimage mid-afternoon on Saturday and blew the crowd away with sprawling guitar solos and impeccable vocal riffs. Playing a mix of covers (notably, a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”) and original work (check out her song “Freedom” on Spotify), it’s safe to say that Celisse made some new fans this weekend.
2. Better Than Ezra Were Back and Better Than Ever
Better Than Ezra is a staple at Pilgrimage. Frontman Kevin Griffin co-founded the fest back in 2015, imbuing it with an artist’s touch. The band took the Gold Record Road stage on Saturday and gave the eager crowd all that they had.
Jumping around from old cuts to new material, to a cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” the audience was kept on their toes. Grounding all of the excitement was a classic BTE charm that could be felt all around this laid-back, summer camp-esque festival.
3. Lennon Stella Had a Homecoming on the Gold Record Road Stage
Lennon Stella had a homecoming of sorts at Pilgrimage this weekend. Despite hailing from Canada, Stella made her name on the ABC series Nashville and has subsequently been wholeheartedly adopted by Music City. Stella was set to play Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in 2020 but the saw was ultimately canceled due to the pandemic. The crowd at Pilgrimage gave her a warm welcome back full of, as she coined it, “Tennessee energy” on Saturday.
Playing cuts from her debut album, Three. Two. One, with a tight band backing her up, it was clear the crowd was waiting with bated breath to scream these songs back to Stella. Elsewhere in the set, she gave honeyed covers of “Thank You” by Dido and “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane.
4. Jon Batiste Delivered a Soulful Performance
Despite taking the penultimate spot on Saturday night, Jon Batiste delivered an energetic performance as if the day had just begun. Shunning anything cookie-cutter, Batiste let things run loose and free while performing cuts from his latest album, We Are.
The set seemed almost impromptu with how much Batiste was letting things play out in their own way. Trading high-flying vocals with his background singers, jumping around the stage, and hammering down on the piano with a fierce spirit, Batiste could’ve been a headliner in his own right. Across his set he played a churched-up version of “FREEDOM” and a cover of Ray Charles’ “Night and Day.” It was something to behold.
5. Brandi Carlile Closed Out Night One With a Hit-Filled Set
As the sun started to come down over Franklin on Saturday night, the crowd made a rush towards the main stage to get cozied in for Brandi Carlile’s headlining slot. Her backing band came out first with dueling guitar solos that bled into the melody of Carlile’s 2018 hit, The Joke. Carlile then took the stage in a neon suit to belt out the opening lines of “Broken Horses.”
Across her set, Carlile flipped back and forth between the hits and some deep album cuts all of which showcased her awe-inducing vocals. Carlile has quickly shot up to the premiere spot in Americana and from her performance at Pilgrimage, it’s easy to see why.
6. Elle King Tapped Into Her Rock Roots on the Main Stage
Elle King is currently dominating in both the rock and country worlds. From her 2015 hit “Ex’s and Oh’s” to last year’s “Drunk (and I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” King has had a long reign over the charts. She showcased her rock roots and her country twang on Sunday afternoon with a set that washed an air of levity over the crowd.
Among her set were “Out Yonder,” “You’re the Reason I Drink” and the aforementioned “Ex’s and Oh’s.” King was slated to play Pilgrimage last year but was ultimately rained out. Her main stage performance this year more than made up for that.
7. The Avett Brothers Rocked Things Out in a Penultimate Night 2 Set
It’s hard to not have a smile creep up on your face while you’re watching The Avett Brothers. While Scott and Seth, along with the rest of their band, jump around on stage, fervently plucking on banjos and hammering down on guitars, you are prompted to keep that same energy—whether you want to or not.
Flopping back in forth between somber folk numbers like “Murder in the City” to more anthemic offerings like “Live and Die” the crowd was moved in more ways than one during The Avett Brothers’ appearance at Pilgrimage.
8. Chris Stapleton Closed Out the Fest With Career-Spanning Set
Closing out Sunday night was none other than Chris Stapleton. It was clear the Stapleton was going to be more than worth the wait by the over 2 hours long slot he was slated for. Sure enough, that idea rang true with a nearly 22 career-spanning setlist.
The first part of his set list was what we’ve come to know from Stapleton – that iconic voice, stunning harmonies from his wife Morgane, and Americana-flavored rockers. In the middle of his set, he “fired” his backing band briefly and played a few oldies-but-goodies solos, harkening back to the days before “Stapleton” was a world-renowned name. He of course closed out with “Tennessee Whiskey” giving the crowd exactly what they wanted.
All photos credited to American Songwriter/Harrison Haake