Summer music festivals are not quite over yet … a fact made clear in the parking lot (where many tailgated), and inside the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, MA (where many rocked), when the “Outlaw Music Festival” pulled into town on Friday, September 16.

Outlaw Country, a sub-genre of country music, was first referenced in the 1970s to describe the rebellious spirit of artists like Nelson and co-travelers Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe and others. The genre showcases the spirit of musicians who seek more artistic freedom in their work. Many who identify as outlaws interpret country music outside the lines of how it is defined at the moment. There’s even a channel dedicated to the genre on satellite radio.

Fans young and old, and (although I have no empirical data to support it,) fans from across the political spectrum, came together for a diverse lineup under the outlaw country umbrella. Many in the crowd were longtime Willie Nelson fans, while others would probably swear they don’t even listen to county music. Whatever their sentiments, all clearly enjoyed themselves on a late summer evening in the venue once known as Great Woods.

Openers Particle Kid, Brittany Spencer, and Larkin Poe got the party started for the early birds who were there for the 4PM start. We arrived at the end of the Larkin Poe set, with enough time to see the sister duo pounding out some great tunes in the blues-rock tradition.

Up next, Billy Strings … what a force in live music. His “newgrass” jam band approach to bluegrass re-invigorates the genre, (not that it really needed it). No doubt, he’s bringing an enthusiastic new audience to bluegrass music.

Strings and his band blasted through a set of covers and originals including the rousing opener “Fire in My Tongue” and the John Hartford cover “All Fall Down.” The energy was pure jam band, with each member of his crew taking solos throughout the set. He was joined by Nelson’s son Micah on the stunning closer, a cover of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” It’s been said before, but I really mean it, see Billy Strings when you get a chance!

Speaking of high-energy acts, the Americana Music Award-winning Avett Brothers are well known for hammering out the tunes at live shows. They were true to form last night, playing their hearts out on originals “Laundry Room,” “Murder in the City,” and “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” with its profound message “your life doesn’t change by the one who’s elected.” Of course, their music is personal, not political, brothers Scott and Seth write about family, growing up in North Carolina, and relationships they’ve been in and out of over the years.

An evening highlight came when Seth Avett was joined by bassist Bob Crawford for a stunning version of Jim Croce’s “Operator,” a song that has recently become part of the band’s setlist. The moment saw the audience, many of whom probably had not heard the song in years, joyfully singing along. Ditto the recommendation here, don’t miss the Avett’s when they return to town.

Willie Nelson is an original outlaw who is remarkably still out there making trouble – at age 89. He’s “On the Road Again,” with traditional feel-good country sounds. Nelson strummed away on Trigger, his legendary acoustic guitar, while singing favorites like the opener “Whiskey River,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” and “Bloody Mary Morning.”

With the support of his son Micah and band members on stage, Nelson’s spirited set featured reworked versions of his classics along with a few covers. Micah took lead on the lyrical “Die when I’m High,  Halfway to Heaven,” and Nelson was joined on stage by the ensemble for the closer “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”

A few more shows are scheduled for the Xfinity Center this season. Click here for details.

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Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music and more for What'sUpNewp, Providence Monthly, SO RI, and The Bay. He DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse" Tuesday nights, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM.