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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.

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

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

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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