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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.

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

Ben miller band

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

Marah

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