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20 Best Things We Saw at Americana Music Fest 2014

Rolling Stone Country singles out the best moments from music’s most authentic — and seemingly fastest growing — festival

Brothers Landreth Americana Fest

The Bros. Landreth play Americana Music Fest 2014.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

The Americana Music Festival, held this past week in Nashville, assembled some of the best roots-music acts in the nation — and, in some cases, from overseas. Rock, folk, soul and country were all represented at filled-to-fire-code showcases throughout town. Rolling Stone Country canvassed the clubs, taking in shows by everyone from country traditionalist Lee Ann Womack to spyjinks instrumental duo Steelism to come up with this list of the 20 Best Things We Saw at AmericanaFest.

Trigger Hippy

Nick Govrik and Joan Osborne of Trigger Hippy perform at The Cannery Ballroom on September 18, 2014 in Nashville.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Best Supergroup: Trigger Hippy

With Joan Osborne and mulit-instrumentalist Jackie Greene on vocals, Black Crowes skinsman Steve Gorman on drums, bassist Nick Govrik and session guitarist extraordinaire Tom Bukovac, there was no doubt this rock and soul group would be good. Turns out, they were damn good, providing one of the best sets of the entire festival. With Osborne's Aretha-like singing and slinky stage moves at the fore, Trigger Hippy fired a shot announcing them as a band with a smoking live show and, most importantly, the songs to back it up. Look for their debut album September 30th. —Joseph Hudak

Billy Joe Shaver Americana Fest

Billy Joe Shaver performs at Americana Music Fest 2014

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Best Living Legend: Billy Joe Shaver

Outlaw country cult legend Billy Joe Shaver’s 1993 classic "Live Forever" isn't just timeless; its red-dirt gospel only resounds with greater frequency as the 75-year-old singer inches closer and closer to octogenarianism. Inside Nashville's packed Mercy Lounge (where outside a plaid-clad crowd was queued up in a one-in-one-out line), the song inspired instant applause before Shaver even opened his mouth to sing the opening line, "I’m gonna live forever," which got an even greater reaction. Shaver continued keeping the capacity, cowboy-hat-sporting crowd enthralled with subtle interpretive hand gestures as he crooned the more recent gem, "Hard to Be an Outlaw" (a dirge-y two-step off his latest album, Long in the Tooth) — and one he dedicated "to my Lord and savior." —Adam Gold

Over the Rhine

Over the Rhine play the Musicians Corner show at Centennial Park during Americana Music Fest.

Musicians Corner Nashville

Best Matrimonial Moment: Over the Rhine

Since the extinction of the Civil Wars, Americana's been trying to find a replacement for the electric, push-pull dynamic that brought the "Barton Hollow" duo all the way to Grammy glory. Johnnyswim tried, but it's Over the Rhine — a husband-and-wife team of musical veterans performing together since 1989 — who really fill the hole. Playing Musician's Corner on Saturday, they managed to swoon a crowd comprising half sweaty-industry folk and half hyper toddlers into sweet submission (well, maybe not all the toddlers). Their time-earned tenure comes through in the expert maturity of their vocals, but there's no fatigue, either — and there's a spark there that proves they have an inkling, too, that this might just finally be their moment. —Marissa R. Moss

Shakey Graves

Shakey Graves plays during Americana Fest 2014.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Best Garden Party: Spotify’s Supper and Song

Slick, stovepipe denim isn’t exactly a rare sight at anything Americana-centric, which is why it was so appropriate that one of the best events of the festival took place in the whimsical backyard of local clothier Imogene + Willie. Tank-topped Texan Shakey Graves played an emotive solo set with all the swagger of a haunted cowboy, while Robert Ellis, the Devil Makes Three and Ben Miller band shook the barnyard-chic stage. A highlight at the Spotify-sponsored event was genre-darlings Hurray for the Riff Raff, who strummed as passionately to the twinkling string bulbs overhead as they did the stage lights of the Ryman the night before. —Marissa R. Moss

Mike Farris

Mike Farris performs at Grimey's New & Preloved Music in Nashville during Americana Fest.

Photo by Doyle Davis, Grimey's New & Preloved Music

Best Go to Church Moment: Mike Farris

Early in his set at the Basement, Mike Farris hollered, "Are there any Pentecostals in the house?" That's not a question you'd ordinarily hear at an AmericanaFest show, but it made sense coming from Farris, who also performed at Grimey's record shop's annual Americanarama party. When his nine-piece racially blended band, the Roseland Rhythm Revue, really got cooking on a sinewy, gospel-funk groove, everybody in the group would improvise with a cross between the crowd-stirring dynamism of a charismatic church band and the syncopated endurance of a New Orleans jam outfit. And Farris, a raw-throated soul shouter whose Rage Against the Machine t-shirt pointed to his rock roots, was the freest one up there. — Jewly Hight

Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan performs at Grimey's Americanarama on September 20, 2014 in Nashville.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Best British Invasion: Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan, who helped make Rod Stewart cool in the Faces, played one of AmericanaFest's biggest venues on Friday night, but it was his intimate noontime performance the next day that felt truly special. Performing in the parking lot of Grimey's record store, as part of their seventh annual Americanarama party, the 69-year-old keyboard legend and his Bump Band delivered a ringing set for a handful of fans willing to shake off their hangovers and stand in the hot sun. The tunes, like "Been a Long Time," were of the highest order, elevated by McLagan's slippery keys work and, especially, his infectious ever-positive attitude. —Joseph Hudak

Gregory Allen Isakov

Gregory Allen Isakov

Gary Miller/Getty Images

Best Subtle Storm: Gregory Alan Isakov

The periwinkle glow of Third Man Records' Blue Room is enough to make anyone feel like they're stuck in a Violet Beauregardian state of consciousness, but Isakov, a South Africa-born, Philadelphia-raised songwriter turned the place into an intimate living room serenade (even with Jack White's beloved taxidermy hanging overhead). Isakov's songs, wistful and often-string chugged, could blend into the landscape if they were a hair less sincere or a hair more weepy, but the balance here is just right. Crowded around a mic with his dynamite band, Isakov's presence was delicately hypnotic, proving folk music can be electric and impassioned without that virulent Mumford strum. —Marissa R. Moss

Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack performs at American Music Fest 2014.

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Best Comeback: Lee Ann Womack

At her first standalone Americana Fest showcase, Lee Ann Womack threw a couple instantly recognizable bones to her longtime fans, her hit ballad "I May Hate Myself in the Morning" for one. Mostly, though, she didn't revisit past chart triumphs so much as introduce the soul-searching material on her new album The Way I'm Livin'. Womack seemed to relish being backed by a supple, markedly stripped-down band almost as much as she did singing new-to-her-repertoire songs by Chris Knight, Bruce Robison and Hayes Carll. Before an intoxicating rendition of Carll's "Chances Are," she quipped, "When I heard this song, I 'bout shit. They just don’t write 'em like this anymore — country country." Country singers who channel heartache that eloquently are pretty damn difficult to find, too. —Jewly Hight
 

Sammy Brue

Sammy Brue

Clayton Chase/Getty Images

Best Youngster: Sammy Brue

When Justin Townes Earle selected 13-year-old folk- blues bruiser Brue as his mini-doppelgänger for the cover of his new LP, Single Mothers, it seemed like a move intent on evoking not only his escaped past but Americana's future: and with lead fingers, forlorn songs ("I Don't Wanna Die") and a pale pallor, he's a perfect candidate for the throne. This week, Brue worked for it — playing everywhere from late night club sets to industry gatherings to outdoor stages, slaying through numbers with both an uncanny confidence and a fragility of youth often lost in old-timey resurrections. He may or may not have hit puberty yet, but here's betting this is a voice that won't change any time soon. —Marissa R. Moss

Madisen Ward & Mama Bear

Madisen Ward & Mama Bear

Chad Davis/Billy Reid Shindig

Best Family Affair: Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear

Watching mother-and-son duo Ruth and Madisen Ward bring a-hundred-or-so tastemakers and industry insiders to collective awe-struck silence with a stunning set of soulful coffeehouse folk at an invite-only showcase in the Blue Room at Third Man Records, it was hard to believe this was one of the virtually unknown group's first gigs outside its native Kansas City. Drawing on influences ranging from Tom Waits to Tracy Chapman for fully realized, stellar songs marked by tranquil acoustic guitar interplay and singer Madisen Ward's otherworldly tenor — a sundry palette of colors with which the 26-year-old painted character-driven scenes of small-town Midwestern life, emoting like a young, falsetto-capable Paul Robeson — the duo's raw, inscrutable chemistry was in full effect as they handily made a case as an inevitable force to be reckoned with in the days to come. —Adam Gold

Sons of Bill

Rich Tarbell

Best Family Band: Sons of Bill

Sam, Abe and James Wilson are all the offspring of a dad named — you guessed it — Bill. But their old man could just as easily have been Roger McGuinn or Brian Wilson, given the guys' jangle pop, harmony-heavy sound. During a sweaty, elbow-to-elbow set at the Basement on Saturday night, they proved why heavy hitters like Cracker's David Lowery and Wilco's Ken Coomer want to work with them. Coomer produced the band's latest album, Love and Logic, songs from which highlighted their stirring AmericanaFest performance. Pops would be proud. —Joseph Hudak

Sturgill Simpson Americana Fest

Sturgill Simpson performs at City Winery during Americana Music Fest 2014 in Nashville.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Best Standing Room Only: Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson didn't give much of an acceptance speech when he won the Emerging Artist plaque at the Americana Awards. But he insisted, during a late-night filled-to-capacity set at the still-under-construction City Winery, that the reason he'd keept his thank you's to a minimum wasn't that he didn't care. Clearly, showbiz ceremony isn't his favorite thing. Leading his dynamite band through gnarled, searching, occasionally postmodern songs from his two albums ranks a hell of a lot higher on his list. Ditto covering hardcore, traditional bluegrass. Sure, Simpson's gotten the most press for making psychedelic references; that night he also sang Carter Stanley and Osborne Brothers tunes with the weather-beaten sensitivity of a profoundly deep, down-home dude. —Jewly Hight

Jonny Fritz

Jonny Fritz

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Best Leatherman: Jonny Fritz

If there's one fashion item to signal inclusion into the Americana "it" crowd, it's the custom guitar straps made by the quirky country singer Jonny Fritz. The embossed, personalized pieces could be seen everywhere from the Ryman stage (Robert Ellis) to venues across town (on newbies Kelsey Waldon and Andrew Combs). Fritz makes the straps by hand under the umbrella of Dad Country Leather LLC – they're the same combination of tradition and playfulness that makes the "Down on the Bikini Line" singer's songs stand out, and a surefire signal that you're looking at one of Nashville's best emerging voices. Fritz knows how to pick 'em. —Marissa R. Moss

Whiskey Myers

Whiskey Myers' lead singer Cody Cannon

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Best 100 Proof: Whiskey Myers

Rest assured, there was a lot of brown liquor downed during AmericanaFest, but none had as much burn as Whiskey Myers. The Texas quintet walloped fans with a fiery set that called to mind the best parts of Skynyrd and the Black Crowes. Highlighted by the title track from their latest album, Early Morning Shakes, the performance showcased singer Cody Cannon's soul-searching wail as well as the dual guitar attack of Cody Tate and John Jeffers. Mesmerizing to experience, by song's end, both band and audience were joyously spent. —Joseph Hudak

Caroline Rose

Caroline Rose performs at Americana Music Fest 2014.

Amos Perrine

Best Writers’ Room: Caroline Rose, Angaleena Presley & Friends

Nashville songwriters' rounds often showcase pro writers singing songs they've had (or hope to have) cut by recording artists. Three of the four songwriters in the Americana Fest kickoff round at the Basement — Angaleena Presley, Phil Madeira and Will Kimbrough — have been there and done that. But it was their distinct, creative personalities more than their commercial track records that got them this gig. Newbie Caroline Rose was a welcome surprise. Her first turn at the mic, she ratcheted up tension with an extended, vigorously strummed intro, before launching into a tart, quick-witted folk tune. "This is what homeless looks like for a middle-class, white girl," she deadpanned before playing another. Flanking her were Kimbrough and Madeira, who brought sharp, power-pop self-deprecation and cool, worldly-wise jazz leanings to the proceedings, respectively. And Presley was over on the end, injecting her working-class testimonies with survivor's savvy. —Jewly Hight

Chelsea Bell and Cory Chisel

Chelsea Bell and Cory Chisel perform at City Winery during Americana Fest 2014

Photo Courtesy of City Winery

Best Unscripted Moment: Cory Chisel & Chelsea Bell

Every artist who's trekked to Nashville to play an Americana showcase dreams about snagging breakout stardom, but the one who actually accomplished this didn’t even have credentials in fact, Chelsea Bell was working the back door at City Winery when Cory Chisel struck up a casual conversation with her about their mutual love of Toni Braxton. He had an inkling she might be able to sing, so he called her up on stage to perform Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" with his new Soul Obscura project, and bring it home she did — blazing her classic, booming soul pipes alongside Chisel's earnest, guttural groove. Here's betting she goes from staff to talent by next year's festivities. (See a photo of Chisel and Bell below.) —Marissa R. Moss

Brothers Landreth Americana Fest

The Brothers Landreth play Americana Music Fest 2014.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Best Blues From the North Country: Bros. Landreth

Leave it to a group of Canadians to dish up some of the best Southern-style blues we wolfed down all weekend. Twenty hours away from their Winnipeg home, the Bros. Landreth closed out the Mercy Lounge's Friday night showcase with a quiet storm of slide guitar solos, blue notes, three-part harmonies and a spot-on cover of Wings' "Let Me Roll It." This wasn't really a set that made you sweat. Instead, it was a set that made you sway, delivered by four Manitobans who understand that in blues music, it's all about the swagger, not the speed. —Andrew Leahey

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Best Instrumentation: Ben Miller Band

It took more than a shared beard enthusiasm for a built-for-busking trio like the Ben Miller Band to go over as a tour opener for ZZ Top, though it probably didn’t hurt. During a midnight slot at the High Watt, Ben Miller and his band mates Doug Dicharry and Scott Leeper proved it was their strapping musicality and pop sensibilities (charismatic vocal interplay, red-blooded arrangements etc.) applied to their eccentrically old-timey instrumentation (spoons through distortion pedal, amplified washboard, washtub bass, rotary phone receiver mic and such) that won over fans of hooky blues-rock. It works pretty much the same way when they get in front of any crowd in search of a great, sweaty show.
—Jewly Hight

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Best You Can’t Believe Your Eyes: Marah

When Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith's rocking folk collective Marah added 8-year-old musical prodigy Gus Tritsch to their lineup, the move had a hint of novelty. But watching the now 11-year-old Tritsch play stonefaced aggressive fiddle during Marah's Saturday night set at the Basement dispelled any notions that this was a sideshow act. Whether breathing fresh life into the long-lost Civil War-era folk songs of the band's new album Mountain Minstrelsy, or reinventing Marah staples like "Limb," Tritsch brought a new dimension to the group. The true jaw-drop moment, however, came when the musical prodigy abandoned his fiddle for a cigar-box guitar, playing nasty slide on Marah's "The Catfisherman" — a song played countless times by the group before young Gus was even born. —Joseph Hudak

Steelism

Courtesy of Steelism

Best Party Hosts: Steelism

It didn't take even half a tank of gas to follow Steelism around on their latest tour. The duo spent the release day for new album, 615 to Fame shuttling between indie record stores in Nashville, playing three free shows in all and giving away local beer or pizza or popsicles at each one. Even without such edible incentives, the music would've been a swingin' Sixies' party all on its own; vintage instrumental pop with Booker T & the M.G.s, surf rock, film scores and more in its DNA. Pedal steel guitarist Spencer Cullum, Jr., a wry showman with a thick cockney accent, did all the talking, but he and Telecaster slinger Jeremy Fetzer split the soloing spotlight right down the danceable middle. —Jewly Hight

In This Article: Americana, Lee Ann Womack

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