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22 Best Things We Saw at Americana Music Fest 2015

From a hushed showcase by Jewel to raucous rave-ups by Los Lobos and JD McPherson, Rolling Stone Country singles out the most mesmerizing performances of the annual festival

JD McPherson

JD McPherson's rollicking performance was a highlight of the 2015 Americana Music Festival.

Erika Goldring/GettyImages

The 2015 Americana Music Festival and Conference further cemented itself as one of the country's preeminent festivals, with an expertly curated lineup of legacy acts (Loretta Lynn), famous names (Jewel) and promising upstarts (JD McPherson). Over the course of a week, fans gathered at venues both large and small around Nashville for sets that ranged from the wild and rollicking to the hushed and intimate. Here's the best things we saw at the satisfyingly diverse celebration of American roots music.

Lera Lynn AmericanaFest

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Best Dark Side: Lera Lynn

Lera Lynn scored big this year with HBO's crime series True Detective. Working with producer T Bone Burnett, Lynn composed and recorded four original songs and also earned screen time as the resident singer in a dingy dive bar, making her one of the critically reviled second season's few bright spots. During AmericanaFest, she kicked off her first tour since her new fame with a blast of fresh confidence and a mandate for darker soundscapes. She only played one of the True Detective tunes ("My Least Favorite Life"), but standouts from last year's The Avenues like "Out to Sea" and "Comin' Down" took on a more sinister tone. With a brand new album in the works, she also debuted two new songs. Atmospheric, haunting and recalling the best spy themes, they'd work brilliantly for some Bond movie set in the Deep South. C.P.

Shakey Graves

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 16: Shakey Graves performs at Mercy Lounge on September 16, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Erika Goldring/GettyImages

Best Surprise Garage Rocker: Shakey Graves

After winning Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Honors, Shakey Graves popped up at Mercy Lounge for a "surprise" midnight set. Still sporting a huge smile from the awards, his two-part performance was extra loose. Duet partner Esme Patterson joined him onstage for the first time in recent months, and the pair looked more than happy for it. Their gravel-and-silk vocal connection was as strong and intriguing as ever, with Patterson describing it as "just like riding a bike." "Big Time Nashville Star" took on a new meaning under the circumstances, while the string-busting, radio-friendly "Dearly Departed" drew hand-clapping crowd participation. The highlight though was Graves' second act, when he dropped into ass-kicking garage-rock mode. Fighting feedback from a distorted hollow-bodied guitar and leaping across the stage — all while building floor-shaking bass loops on the fly — it inspired more than a few looks of amazement. C.P.

Jewel

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Jewel performs an intimate show for The Starwood Preferred Guest Hear The Music, See The World Concert Series at US Grant, a Luxury Collection Hotel, San Diego on September 25, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Robert Benson/Getty Images for Starwood Preferred Guest)

Robert Benson/GettyImages

Best Take You to Church: Jewel

No one can silence a room quite like Jewel. Armed with only her voice, the Grammy-winning artist, who released the folky new album Picking Up the Pieces on September 11th, walked onstage at Nashville's City Winery and hushed an AmericanaFest crowd with a soaring rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." It was a master class in vocal technique, full of controlled runs, whispered phrasing and, when necessary, loud, lingering notes. While she may be best identified as a songwriter and poet, Jewel is a singer's singer, and she reminded fans of that fact when she picked up her guitar for the hits "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "Hands," as well as cuts from the latest LP. She's also refreshingly loose: two lines into the new album track "Plain Jane," she decided she didn't want to sing that song anymore. It was a shame, actually: the ballad is a standout from Picking Up the Pieces. J.H.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

NASHVILLE, TN - JULY 02: Jeff Hanna and John McEuen perform at The Big Gig: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Performs At The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in CMA Theater on July 2, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Best Timeless Performance: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

It may not have been an official AmericanaFest showcase, but there was no better way to prepare for a  celebration of American roots music than with a group that has expertly woven country, folk, pop, blues, and bluegrass together into a rich musical tapestry for 50 years: the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. During an evening dubbed "Circlin' Back: Celebrating 50 Years," the quartet ably ambled through its estimable history, from the jug-band roots of "Truthful Parson Brown" — with guest Jackson Browne — to Top 40 hits like "An American Dream" with buddy Rodney Crowell. Recorded for broadcast next March on PBS, the concert never lost its loose back-porch vibe, with singer Jeff Hanna and banjo player John McEuen welcoming a steady stream of old friends to celebrate the band's impending gold anniversary. Among the sublime highlights was John Prine reprising his contribution to the second volume of the classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums with a poignant "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," and the ever-gregarious Vince Gill offering a typically masterful take on "Tennessee Stud." Sarah Rodman

Glen Hansard

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 18: Glen Hansard performs at The Cannery at on September 18, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Erika Goldring/GettyImages

Best Packed House: Pandora’s Showcase

Pandora's magic algorithm is all about understanding the music listener's psyche and, based on the at-capacity crowd at their Friday night Cannery Ballroom showcase, the streaming service had a line on the Nashville Americana audience. Lines snaked around the venue to see Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, Glen Hansard, JD McPherson and Josh Ritter. McPherson's sepia-toned rockabilly might not have much in common with the howling, intimate confessionals of Hansard (pictured), but the diverse lineup painted an intelligent picture of all the permutations that the genre can hit. Hansard isn't American — he's an Irishman, and he pulled out the stops for the night's grand finale, bringing his brass section, Ritter and even some of his crew onstage for a rousing rendition of the folk traditional "Passing Through." Hands down, it was one of the more emotionally stirring moments of the festival. M.M.

Legendary Shack Shakers

Duane Denison and J.D. Wilkes of Legendary Shack Shakers perform opening for Reverend Horton Heat at Stubb's Bar-B-Q on June 10, 2010 in Austin, Texas.

Jay West/WireImage

Best Frontman: Legendary Shack Shakers

It seems safe to say that no one at all of AmericanaFest gave a performance quite like the one delivered by the indefatigably animated Shack Shakers frontman J.D. Wilkes. The Kentucky firebrand led his rip-snorting quartet through a set that careened from rockabilly freak-outs to the Southern gothic swamp noir of their must-hear new album The Southern Surreal. Through it all, Wilkes was a man aflame, wriggling, mugging and rocking some serious mime moves — not the annoying kind but truly, bizarrely artful bits — and generally scorching the place with his intensity. S.R.

HoneyHoney

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 28: Ben Jaffe (L) and Suzanne Santo of HoneyHoney perform at the BMI Snowball at Sundance House on January 28, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Randall Michelson/Getty Images)

Randall Michelson/GettyImages

Best Versatility: HoneyHoney

Sandwiched between sets by Lera Lynn and Humming House, HoneyHoney kept things lean on Thursday night, sweating their way through 45 minutes of (mostly) newer material as a three-piece. Ben Jaffe covered bass parts and guitar solos on a single instrument, thanks to an octave pedal that widened the range of his electric guitar, while Suzanne Santo switched off between banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle, gluing everything together with a voice that's as smooth and murky as smoked glass. Looser, longer solos allowed the band to stretch their legs, but it was "Yours to Bear" — a longtime live staple that made its studio debut earlier this year on the album 3 — that delivered the strongest kick. A.L.

Rhiannon Giddens

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Best Power Trio: Patty Griffin, Rhiannon Giddens and Shakey Graves

NPR music critic Ann Powers convened a powerhouse trio at historic RCA Studio A — Patty Griffin, Rhiannon Giddens and Shakey Graves — to play some of their own tunes as well as pay tribute to their inspirations in a casual, conversation-cum-performance for a small audience. In addition to songs from her new album Servant of Love, Griffin gave a jaw-dropping piano and voice performance of the classic gospel sustainer "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." Former Carolina Chocolate Drop Giddens (pictured) gave a fierce read of Lydia Mendoza's scathing "Mal Hombre." And Shakey Graves, a.k.a. Alejandro Rose-Garcia, transformed the Cardigans' frothy "Lovefool" into a wistful acoustic pleader. The best news for those who weren't there to listen in person: the show will be broadcast on NPR later this month. S.R.

Christian Lopez

Best Newcomer: Christian Lopez

Christian Lopez didn't have much to work with — just a short slot on midday Friday at the United Artists showcase — but this 19-year-old West Virginian who sings like a pop-coated Cory Branan and looks like a spruced-up character from The Outsiders packed so much kinetic energy into his set, and sliced so many strings, that he had to finish on a borrowed guitar. While his debut LP, Onward, is a plucky and occasionally subdued showcase of his Appalachian roots, Lopez brings way more youthful twang to his live performances. There may be some serious influences in there (mountain bluegrass, old gospel) and a serious producer (Dave Cobb) but, at his best, he's a maker of smart and slick country that holds a whole lot of promise and age-appropriate fun without pandering to any radio trends. M.M. 

James McMurtry

NASHVILLE, TN - OCT 11: James McMurtry performs at the Hi-Watt club in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 11, 2012. (Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives

Best Cranky Genius: James McMurtry

America's most underrated songwriter and performer, James McMurtry will never win any awards for warmth. But that's part of what makes him so terrific. The cantankerous McMurtry, who released the magnificent Complicated Game this year, played the bulk of the album during a Wednesday night slot at Nashville's City Winery and did so without breaking a single smile. Instead, he let his novel-deep lyrics convey his emotions, whether it was the desperation of "Carlisle's Haul" or the subdued elation of exploring Florida's "Forgotten Coast." His show-closing "No More Buffalo," from 1997's It Had to Happen, however, was the high point. Full of heavy regret, the song was a eulogy to things that are no longer there — no matter how hard we want to believe they are. J.H.

 

Watkins Family Hour

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 16: (L-R) Fiona Apple and Sean Watkins of the Watkins Family Hour perform at Mercy Lounge on September 16, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Erika Goldring/GettyImages

Best Supergroup: Watkins Family Hour

It's downright unfair how much egoless talent comes together in the Watkins Family Hour. Here’s a rundown: Sara and Sean Watkins (the non-Chris Thile portion of Nickel Creek), Fiona Apple (Grammy-winning rock provocateur), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' founding keyboardist) and extraordinary session players Greg Leisz (steel guitar), Sebastian Steinberg (bass) and Don Heffington (drums). Combined, they link up like the Voltron of roots music, and on Wednesday night unleashed their arsenal of modern-throwback country, shape-shifting folk covers, Tin Pan Alley love, pissed-off rock and delicate singer-songwriter material, all served with a dollop of Apple edginess. Her frantic energy was in stark contrast to the rest of the band's composure — even on Dolly Parton's pleading "Jolene" — and you could cut the texture of her and Sara’s vocal harmony with a knife. C.P.

J.D. Souther

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Best Classic Song-Slinger: J.D. Souther

Singer-songwriter-actor J.D. Souther was in both great spirits and great voice as he echoed a common theme of AmericanaFest during his captivating set: loving the inclusivity of the genre. It meant that Souther could sing everything from the hits he's written for and with others — including a looser, jazzier take on the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight" and the melancholic "New Kid in Town," and Linda Ronstadt's cautionary "Prisoner in Disguise" — as well as covers, including the sizzling Fats Waller staple "Ain't Misbehavin'." John David Souther also dipped into his own catalog as an artist, slaying the room with the still aching ballad "You’re Only Lonely" and tracks from his new album Tenderness. Taking it all in from a corner were Souther's Nashville castmates, including Sam Palladio and Chris Carmack. S.R.

JD McPherson

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 18: JD McPherson (right) performs at The Cannery at on September 18, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Erika Goldring/GettyImages

Best Welcomed Trend: The Uptick in Rock Acts

You can toss a penny and hit a banjo at AmericanaFest, but plain old rock & roll guitar can often be hard to find. Which, if you think about it, is a little strange — there's nothing more American than an oozy, southern-steeped rock riff (just ask Tom Petty or the Allman Brothers). Plus, being plugged-in is what often gives the genre its distinctive punch. But this year, rock fought for its place among those banjos, as Jonathan Tyler brought serious swagger; the Blackfoot Gypsies favored Rolling Stones-esque vintage thrash over earnest folk; and Low Cut Connie and JD McPherson delivered hard-edged, distortion-riffed boogie blues. Even Daniel Romano — who often plays tearful trad-country — wielded his Fender Telecaster for a set with way more punk than twang. Rock & roll isn't dead: it's just being called "Americana." M.M.

Luke Laird

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 07: Songwriter Luke Laird performs at The Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum Presents Songwriter Session: Luke Laird & Barry Dean at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on June 7, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)

Jason Davis/Getty Images

Best Good Deed: Benefit for Preston Taylor Ministries

Some of Nashville's most successful songwriters convened for a comic, moving and revealing night of song and story swapping at a Benefit for Preston Taylor Ministries, presented by Luke Laird's Creative Nation. Among the choice cuts were Laird's take on "American Kids" (the giddy ditty he co-wrote for Kenny Chesney), Natalie Hemby leaning into Kacey Musgraves's incisive inside-Nashville song "Good Ol' Boys Club" (written with Laird and Musgraves) and Lori McKenna stunning with the evocative images of "The Rifle and the Bird." The night served a dual purpose, as both a reminder of the wellspring of talent that feeds the country music community and a benefit for an organization that helps underserved youth find their voice. And find it they did in the night's most joyful and poignant performance, as seven young girls, all engaged with programs at the ministry, joined Hemby for the triumphant ballad "Emerald City." S.R.

John Moreland

INDIO, CA - APRIL 25: Musician John Moreland performs onstage during day two of 2015 Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival, at The Empire Polo Club on April 25, 2015 in Indio, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Best Americana Sprawl: East Nashville Clubs

On any given night in Nashville, a bulk of the young and burgeoning Americana community can be found east of the Cumberland River, on the opposite side of town from AmericanaFest's Hutton Hotel headquarters. But, with the exception of a few unofficial barbecues here and there, it's never been a truly integrated part of the festival before. This year, thanks to official showcases at East Nashville's the 5 Spot, the Basement East and AMA-ordained events at record stores the Groove and Fond Object (who hosted a killer Sunday bash with JP Harris, Steelism, Clear Plastic Masks and more), the music actually happened in its natural habitat. Attendees could catch buzzy acts like Kelsey Waldon, Oh Pep! and even the outstanding John Moreland, who played the backyard of Fond Object on Saturday, the day after earning an encore at his Mercy Lounge set. M.M.

HillBenders

Best Pete Townshend Moment: The HillBenders

One of the most bizarre-yet-satisfying showcases of AmericanaFest was the HillBenders' string-band opus Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, a remix of the iconic rock opera. Onstage this week, the Missouri-based quintet unleashed their grassy revisions of the Who's songs on a late-night crowd, pulling off the ambitious experiment with impressive precision. Full of windmilling arms, intricate harmonies and creatively composed layering, the production was theatric, odd and intriguing in a most excellent way. The band took turns narrating the tragic life story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy, hitting a high-water mark for excitement with the furious banjo roll of "Pinball Wizard." It was a surreal moment for lots of reasons, including watching English folk hero Richard Thompson pumping his fists and howling at the foot of the stage like he was still 20 years old. C.P.

Corb Lund

Shoot in the Dirt Photography

Best Canadian: Corb Lund

With his red-checked flannel shirt and tight n' polite Canadian accent, you could mistake Alberta's Corb Lund for a beard-free lumberjack — until, that is, he starts spinning his grooving, witty take on classic country. Friday night at Mercy Lounge, he showcased tracks from his upcoming Dave Cobb-produced LP, Things That Can't Be Undone, like the romping "Run This Town" and Stax Records-steeped "Weight of the Gun," weaving in Johnny Cash riffs and Hayes Carll ticks with a deft hand. Despite his provenance, there's a level of believability in his north-of-the-border honky-tonk that even those who grew up five miles from Nashville can't often hit. Maybe it's that syrupy delivery, or maybe it's the way he smiles when singing about heartbreak, death and depression that's plenty Hank Williams, despite the foreign passport. M.M.

Bros. Landreth

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

Best Victory Lap: Bros. Landreth

When the Bros. Landreth played last year's AmericanaFest, the guys were measured and controlled, delivering a version of the electric blues that was more about nuance than bluster. This year's set was a louder story. Kicking things off, as always, with a cover of Wings' "Let 'Em In," Winnipeg's newest guitar heroes kept the amps turned high, adding new muscle to a catalog of songs whose four-part harmonies and slide solos occupied the middle ground between the Doobie Brothers and Bonnie Raitt. The Bros. Landreth have become Juno Award-winners since their previous AmericanaFest set, which may have been why this year's appearance felt like a victory lap, closing out the long chapter of the band's debut album, Let It Lie, and paving the way for whatever's next. A.L.

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