Railbird Recap Roundtable!

Did you attend Railbird festival this summer? Did you skip out on purpose? I’ve opted for a “roundtable” approach for this article, in an attempt to recap our collective experience as Lexington locals, and to feature some stellar new contributors here at We Saw Music! Read below what nine Lexingtonians thought about Railbird, and share your own thoughts/responses in the comments section!


When my husband and I saw that a musical festival would be happening 10 minutes down the road from us, we knew we had to buy tickets and bring the whole family. Being a first year event, we didn’t know what to expect, but we were very pleased. The event staff were so friendly and had planned everything very well from water stations to a great line-up of food choices. The weekend went so smoothly, aside from some traffic issues on the first day.

Tyler Childers was the best act of the weekend and seeing him receive a key to our city was incredibly cool. His last song was “Shake the Frost,” which starts with the lyrics “You remind me of a Sunday back home in Old Kentucky,” which was such a perfect end to his set. Johnny Conqueroo was another favorite of mine, getting the crowd dancing even in the hottest hour of the day with some groovy rock ‘n roll. Another act I loved was with was Grace Vanderwaal. She’s only 15 (I think) but she killed it on stage and had such a professional aura about her. She covered the song Vienna by Billy Joel which thrilled me.

Overall my experience at Railbird was incredibly positive and I’m excited to see it continue next year and what artists will be playing in 2020.


I had a really great experience at Railbird. I am not a usual festival attendee and while the heat during the days was a little overwhelming, it was a very good time. Once the sun went down, it seemed like everything came alive. Unfortunately, only the headliners got to enjoy the energy of having the sun down.
Brandi Carlile at golden hour on the Limestone stage.  Photo by Elizabeth Varnado.

Brandi Carlile at golden hour on the Limestone stage. Photo by Elizabeth Varnado.


Overall, I really enjoyed Railbird. We had the weekend passes, and we popped in and out for different artists. Getting in and out of the festival was a breeze— parking was quick and easy, and I loved the wristbands. I was really impressed with the quality of the sound and some of the thoughtful touches, like how soothing and lovely the cool-off areas were and the ways they tied the festival to Keeneland. Brandi Carlile and Hozier were big favorites for me! The Raconteurs put on a great show, but it was almost mind-numbingly loud. Old Crow Medicine Show also seemed to be popular; the highlight of their show was Brandi Carlile for me, though!

However, there were a few things that irked me, but I'm sure many of these apply to most music festivals. Firstly, I think we can all cool it with the millennial buzzwords—"experience" and "curated" are overplayed. This isn't unique to Railbird, but it became a running joke every time we would see their marketing. The setup for the chef demonstrations was also really poor. The space was just too loud and it wasn't easy to see what was going on. They need to rethink the non-musical entertainment available; we would have spent more time there between acts if there had been other options for us. I also found it galling how high food and beverage prices were, plus the options were pretty mediocre.


The announcement of the Railbird Festival many months ago was a cultural moment for our city—something familiar but something unique because it was for us. It was an invitation to experience an impressive lineup of music, but perhaps more, to experience the beauty of Kentucky's landscape and culture. Railbird's pitch was not simply an event, but a personality. The expectations were set, and I admit some hesitation regarding my expectations being met. I was proven wrong as my wife, my seven year old son, my four year old daughter and I walked through the horse racing starting gates into the expanse of stages and vendors. My kids were off to the races like untrained, eager ponies, but I wanted to take my time. I wanted to see it all. It did not take long to notice the care in which the festival organizers took in providing an experience that would reduce clutter and enhance celebration. I don't love the chaos (as joyful as it can be) of crowds, and the layout of the stages contributed to a sense of relaxation for those who did not want to be front and center. At the Limestone stage, we stood with friends, soaking in the steady vibes of Mandolin Orange and the palpable earnestness of Brandi Carlile while our kids ran around in the neighboring field, sometimes dancing but mostly using their pool-noodle-horses as weapons against one another [These were available as a craft in the Kids’ Arena!]. After many hours in the sun, we shuffled, content and exhausted, to the car, thankful for the experience as a family. It was a joy to watch my kids soak it in. Needless to say, Railbird exceeded our expectations. Hopefully, 2020 will find our family yet again running through the gates of Railbird with eager hearts and the memory of this year as a solid precedent.



I really enjoyed Railbird. Despite some very high temps in the afternoon on both days, miraculously, a lack of humidity made for an extremely pleasant time, once the sun went down, or if you could find some shade. Typically, you’ll see me running around and catching half sets so that I don’t miss any musician I’m interested in, but this year I took a much more calm and easy-going approach. I loved running into friends throughout the festival grounds, and on Saturday afternoon, I ended up spending a couple hours hanging outside of the festival grounds in the tailgating area. Brandi Carlile on Saturday night was probably my favorite set of the weekend, with the sun setting over her and her band on a perfectly clear night, while a cooling breeze picked up. I missed most of Old Crow Medicine Show because I was talking with friends and finding the folks I came with. I missed a lot of sets because I was talking with people, actually! But that was really okay. Railbird was nicely laid out, clean, and friendly, although I do think that the set times were a bit cramped. The stages were all pretty far apart, which made for a great listening experience, but it was hard to jump between sets, and you had to traverse some hot, hot blacktop. Overall, Keeneland provided one of the most beautiful festival venues I’ve ever seen, with great natural inclines surrounding the stages. Not really a bad spot in the house! My favorite sets were: Devon Gillfillian, Brandi Carlile, Raconteurs, I’m With Her, Drew Holcomb, Lucinda Williams, Blackfoot Gypsies, and Tyler Childers. Hozier was weird to me (No offense!), are we sure his accent is real, Rail-bardt? 


An afternoon crowd at the Elkhorn Stage.  Photo by Elizabeth Varnado.

An afternoon crowd at the Elkhorn Stage. Photo by Elizabeth Varnado.

The Railbird festival was a great way to activate the Keeneland space with creativity. There was a decent variety of genre, but I hope they approach booking with even more inclusivity and breadth next year, and that in turn attracts a more diverse crowd to the festival.

Railbird, to me, was a very impressive experience all around – especially considering the market. They took a lot of care in curating a lineup that was cohesive and talent-rich who also had enough notoriety with fans of the general genre that they were able to attract a large, dedicated crowd. Especially for a first year festival, everything seemed to run relatively smoothly. Set times stayed on schedule, production – with some exceptions – was generally good, and communication was done well. They did a good job of identifying local vendors to participate in the festival, which helped make the festival feel specific to the city and state where it was located. Given this was year one, I’m excited to see how they progress in the future – and I hope they maintain the same path and avoid deviating too much from the experience they provided.



Railbird was my first major music festival. I had previously only been to a day of a Christian music festival as a teen. I didn't know many of the acts before but I'm glad I was able to experience so many of the performers. The grounds and amenities were also great. My favorite moment of the entire weekend was when Brandi Carlile and OCMS teamed up for Jolene. It's already one of my favorite Dolly Parton songs.

What was also noteworthy, but not necessarily surprising, was the demographic of the patrons was nearly all people that would be identified as white. The family-friendly atmosphere was also a welcome change from what I anticipated. Overall I'd like to see an acoustic stage if they do the event again and more cross-artist performances.



Lexington just wrapped up its first (of what will hopefully be many) Railbird music festival at Keeneland. While I haven’t heard what the talking heads are saying, I think it’s fair to call the event a resounding success from the average public attendee’s perspective. The acts were solid, the vendors plentiful, and the logistics / public necessities well thought-out. The festival’s smaller stages presented a more intimate vibe, but still had a distinctly unique Railbird feel. Fruit Bats midday-Sunday set was almost surreal—I don’t have to leave Lexington to see this? Is this allowed?

Brandi Carlile was incredible, as my wife and I have grown accustomed to. We’ve been spoiled by her vivacity, her sometimes defiant but always positive demeanor, and her honest music that feels instantly familiar. Jack White and the Raconteurs had the big headline spot for Day One, and while it was entertaining and naturally a bit left-of-center, it’s worth pointing out that they didn’t complete their allotted time, finishing seven minutes early. I can understand bands not performing encores during the hustle and bustle of maintaining festival schedules, but the last act of the day is the exception and probably the expectation. So to not finish even the initial time slot? I wasn’t the only one who found it off-putting; I heard at least three comments on the early end from audience members as the curtain fell and the night ended.

I had high expectations for Gary Clark, Jr.’s live set, and he delivered with a virtuosic performance that never wavered in energy or sheer power. His backing band truly seemed to be enjoying themselves. When your audience can see that you’re happy, they tend to respond in kind.

Overall, my wife and I were very pleased with the format and execution of the festival and hope that next year’s is in a similar vein. Until then, we’ll be eager to see what next year’s lineup looks like.


Sun setting over fest-goers at the end of Day 2.  Photo by Elizabeth Varnado.

Sun setting over fest-goers at the end of Day 2. Photo by Elizabeth Varnado.

Railbird was a complete success! I’m so excited to have something like this right here in Lexington. Being the first year, I was impressed to see how many “big names” were there, but it also made me very proud to see such a huge amount of involvement of local Kentucky bands and musicians. There was a great variety of genre, all of which represented Kentucky roots very well. I think Railbird provides a lot of opportunity for artists and musicians, as well as community connection and growth. I look forward to seeing this festival continue to grow, and I can’t wait to attend again next year!
From the cover: Crowds in the late afternoon sun.  Photo by Elizabeth Varnado, with Holga digital camera.

From the cover: Crowds in the late afternoon sun. Photo by Elizabeth Varnado, with Holga digital camera.


So: What did you think about Railbird? Do you hope that it continues annually? Let us know in the comments!

Elizabeth Varnado is a musician and writer living in Lexington, KY. She is a member of Lylak, the indie rock four-piece, and occasionally adds violin and vocals with other musical outfits in town. She is currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of Kentucky, with research focusing on live music and music festivals.