When it comes to working a crowd, no one has an easier time than Miranda Lambert.
Lambert brought that inherent level of comfort to the Saturday night lineup of ATLive, an annual festival that took place this year at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. During a roughly hour-long set, Lambert played all the hits, strutted like a chicken around the stage, and drank what she claimed was tequila from a sparkly tumbler.
Equal parts outlaw and princess, it’s clear just how easy performing comes to Lambert. She brought the house down with the raucous “Fastest Girl in Town” and “Little Red Wagon” – one of her most underrated, rockabilly numbers. But she was just as at ease slowing things down with “The House That Built Me,” a song that sits perfectly in her range, and one she sings with unfettered emotion.
With her country music veteran status, you’d think Lambert would close out the night. She fittingly ended her set with “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home), with her backup singer taking over the Elle King role. But Lambert didn’t headline ATLive’s country night – that honor went to Chris Stapleton.
Onstage, Stapleton is the opposite of Lambert. A prolific guitar player, singer, and songwriter, Stapleton worked in Nashville for years before he rose to prominence with his version of “Tennessee Whiskey,” a song first popularized by David Allan Coe. Where Lambert plays to the crowd, Stapleton feels more introspective. Where Lambert feels at ease, Stapleton feels a bit more uneasy, his eyes locked on his wife Morgane (who sings backup for him) seemingly as a way to steady himself.
The special thing about Stapleton is not his ability to rile up a crowd, but rather his ability to stun them into silence. During his more upbeat, southern rock songs, such as “Nobody to Blame,” or “The Devil Named Music,” he pours himself out through soulful guitar solos, but in an arena as large as Mercedes-Benz, his tendency to focus all that energy inward during rock ‘n’ roll numbers doesn’t always reach the back of the house. But when he strips down, and the rest of the band clears out, and a lone spotlight shines on him and his guitar, something shifts.
Stapleton played a few songs like this, notably “What Are You Listening To,” his very first single, a song about yearning and lost love. As much as the breadth of an arena can drown Stapleton out a bit when there are so many other things to focus on, he has a singular ability to make everyone stop and listen when it’s just him. His true tenor voice rings out like a bell, pure and raw, almost hypnotizing everyone into putting down their beer for a minute and just listening.
While modern-day hitmakers Stapleton and Lambert closed out the night, audiences got a little taste of old and new beforehand. Country legend Dwight Yoakam brought his signature, slurred twang to hits like “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” and “Fast as You.” Although he was decked out in denim and backed up by a band bedazzled like Elvis, Yoakam gave a fairly no frills performance, keeping to the music while fighting through a few sound issues.
One of the most special parts of the night, however, came from newcomer and Atlanta native Katie Pruitt. Pruitt’s unique blend of Americana, soul, and country pairs beautifully with her soaring vocals, and she holds back nothing in her lyrics. She closed out her set with “Loving Her,” a song she wrote for her girlfriend after a difficult conversation she had with her father, who struggled to deal with his daughter’s coming out as gay. The song is brutally honest about dealing with self loathing, but also unapologetically romantic. Pruitt didn’t play to nearly the size crowd of Lambert or Stapleton, but I certainly hope she’ll get there in time.