Lots of intriguing covers popped up across Zilker Park during day two of the Austin City Limits Music Festival's second weekend, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" (Briston Maroney), the Beatles' "Revolution" (Gary Clark Jr.) and Don McLean's "Vincent" (James Blake). But probably the only one on the grounds Saturday who could've credibly pulled off Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" was Chris Shiflett, who gave the song full twang treatment on the BMI Stage.
That's no stretch if you're familiar with the country-rock records Shiflett has been making in recent years, but it might surprise those who know Shiflett only from his role the past wo decades as a guitarist in the Foo Fighters. Indeed, Shiflett played this festival's biggest stage with Dave Grohl's band just four years ago. But the California native, who played in Bay Area punk band No Use for a Name in the 1990s before joining the Foos, has made two solo records in the last three years with Nashville ace Dave Cobb, producer of choice for Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and others.
He played songs from both of those records and more in an hourlong set just before Billie Eilish hit the neighboring Honda Stage. Midway through, he joked that because his songs tend toward the short side, he suddenly found himself in the rare position of not needing to cut his set short for a festival slot, but to add a song or two. An ideal choice when he did so was "Marfa on My Mind" from this year's album "Hard Lessons." "We can't be in Texas," he noted, "and not play the one song I wrote about Texas!"
Another highlight later in the set was the title track to his 2017 album "West Coast Town," which followed two releases under the band name Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants. Shiflett also has become known in recent years as a prolific podcast host with "Walking the Floor," which has featured nearly 150 episodes since 2013 including intirevews with Austin mainstays such as Ray Benson, Shakey Graves and Sunny Sweeney.
A key component to his backing band at the fest was pedal steel guitarist James Shelton, who'd actually never played with Shelton before this gig. You'd never have known that from his note-perfect runs that colored the music with just the right amount of country flair while still allowing his core crew to keep the songs grounded in the rock & roll bedrock that has long been Shiflett's touchstone before he steered more toward country and Americana sounds.
Perhaps most telling about Shiflett's visit to the fest: While other ACL acts headed to Red River Cultural District hot spots such as the Mohawk and Stubb's for official late-night shows, Shiflett packed up his gear Saturday evening and headed over to classic South Congress venue the Continental Club, one of the world's best outlets for bands whose music is based on traditional American music. His next time through, he might be back fighting foo again, but by now it seems clear that Shiflett — who also appeared at South by Southwest earlier this year — has a foot firmly planted in Austin's deep country-rock history. Expect to see him back here again before long.