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Americana Music Fest 2014: 26 Must-See Acts

From legends Buddy Miller and Marty Stuart to next-generation’s Lindi Ortega and Sons of Bill, the ones to see at Americana’s biggest celebration

Buddy Miller

Buddy Miller performs in Austin, Texas

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Wednesday night's Americana Honors & Awards kicks off this year's Americana Music Festival in Nashville, a four-day celebration of roots music. Artists from Holly Williams and Sturgill Simpson to Buddy Miller and Marty Stuart will perform through Saturday at venues throughout Music City. But with so many acts on the lineup, there are inevitably decisions to be made. That's where this list comes in. Herewith, the 26 artists, bands and/or collectives you just can't miss during AmericanaFest 2014.

Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll performs at Americana Music Fest

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Hayes Carll

Before there was Sturgill Simpson there was Hayes Carll, a country singer whose syllables stick to the roof of his mouth like peanut butter, unafraid to mesh razor-sharp political skewering and clever references to literature or philosophy with a down home, chicken-fried-steak Texas background. His 2011 LP KMAG YOGO scathed through a post-Bush era steeped in endless wars, with a title track that follows the plight of the restless solider both worn out and worn thin. The charm, though, is that he can sing, a few tracks later on "Grateful for Christmas," "I wish I had a drink or maybe a dozen/Lord what I'd give for one good-looking cousin." — Marissa R. Moss

Lera Lynn

Lera Lynn

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Lera Lynn

Like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, Lera Lynn makes the sort of shimmering, swooning folk music that's more about texture than twang. A Nashville transplant who launched her career in Athens, Georgia, she creates her own geography on her newest release, Avenues, whose songs brew up images of lost highways, dusky landscapes and storms on the horizon. At the center of the map is her voice, which producer Joshua Grange — a member of Sheryl Crow's road band — wraps in layers of harmonies, strings and acoustic guitar.  — Andrew Leahey

Lake Street Drive

Lake Street Drive perform at Bonnaroo

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Lake Street Drive

Amalgamating jazz, blues, trad-country, rock and R&B, these fresh-faced indie-pop-looking (and sometimes sounding) kids who found each other as music conservatory students take a post-modern approach to cherry picking and reinterpreting their favorite slices of 20th century American music that leans more wide-eyed and fun loving than it does academic. Lead vocalist Rachael Price brings a precious millennial spark to the band’s raved-up jazz-soul revival, and appearances on Colbert, Conan, Ellen and Letterman have helped make LSD the buzzing-ist band with a trumpeter and upright bass
player in a good while. — Adam Gold

Todd Snider

Todd Snider performs in Austin

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Todd Snider

Given the dry-witted, weed-hazed humor he infuses into his soulful, sardonic folk-rock, Todd Snider is arguably the Seth Rogan of the alt. singer-songwriter world. The antidote to the Americana set's tendency towards stoic earnestness, Snider's clever story songs like "Play a Train Song," "D.B. Cooper," "Doublewide Blues" and the cult classic "Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" make him a heroic poet laureate for sarcastic slackers the world over.  While currently focusing on fronting his super-group Hard Working Americans, Snider makes a must-see solo appearance at AmericanaFest. — Adam Gold

Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher performs at Americana Music Fest

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Joe Fletcher

With a narrative writing style that eschews traditional structure in favor of twist-and-turn tales, Joe Fletcher's songs are like the musical version of Lombard Street: they wind and roll with steep changes, always ending with a birds-eye view that suddenly organizes it all into one delicate vision. The Rhode Islander-turned-Nashvillian's words flow more like folk poetry than verse-chorus status quo, picking on a honky-tonk spirit with a Tom Waits heart through his crowd-funded LP You've Got the Wrong Man. — Marissa R. Moss

Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega performs in Cambridge, England

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Lindi Ortega

The Great White North has a lot of southern soul, and this retro-styled spitfire is one of Canada's biggest claims to the nouveau-twang throne. A two-time nominee for the Polaris prize (including a nod for her 2013 Dave Cobb-produced record, Tin Star), Ortega's style is a pinup saloon-door-swingin' take on classic country, shifting through tales of relationship doom and emotional turmoil with moody grooves that pivot out of her wink-and-a-smile delivery, full of every kind of tear imaginable. — Marissa R. Moss

Cory Branan

Cory Branan performs in Indianapolis, Indiana

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Cory Branan

This North Mississippi-born all-star is a stunning lyricist, ferocious guitar player and gravelly voiced singer, all characteristics that add up to an Americana "must see." With a deliriously solid new album behind him in The No-Hit Wonder — featuring guest turns from Jason Isbell and the Hold Steady's Craig Finn — Branan brings a catalog of built-for-the-stage songs to his Friday night set at the intimate High Watt. For fans of heart-on-your-denim bands like the Gaslight Anthem and Lucero, who even name-check Branan in one of their own tunes. — Joseph Hudak

Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver performs in Los Angeles

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Billy Joe Shaver

To see this authentic outlaw — the 75-year-old once shot a dude in the face —perform live is to watch the cornerstones of country music come to life. Shaver sings about drinkin', gamblin' and carousin' with the exhausted experience of someone who has been there, done a little too much of that. He'll play his "hits," sure, those songs that Waylon Jennings famously recorded on Honky Tonk Heroes. But it's when Shaver dips into more personal, almost spiritual material — like "Star in My Heart," the eulogy to his late son Eddy — that the Saturday night AmericanaFest crowd at Mercy Lounge will realize they're witnessing something truly transcendent. — Joseph Hudak

Ethan Johns

Ethan Johns performs in London

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Ethan Johns

British-born Ethan Johns has been a key background player for years, as a producer, instrumentalist and songwriter to everyone from Kings of Leon to Crosby, Stills and Nash, and a valued creative partner to Ryan Adams. Now it's his turn in the spotlight with The Reckoning, his sophomore solo album produced by Adams himself. The results follow a particular protagonist through ten songs that evoke gloomy English countryside as much as finger-picked American roots, barreling through a brave book of narrative that proves just as worthy of the spotlight as his famous comrades. — Marissa R. Moss

Carlene Carter

Carlene Carter performs in Los Angeles

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Carlene Carter

One of many artists who was Americana to the bone before the genre even had a name, this daughter of June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, and Carter family descendent, has spent more than 30 years distinguishing herself as a singer-songwriter powerhouse in her own right. But on her latest, Carter
Girl, she pays tribute to her country royalty bloodline, offering up 10 beautifully recast Carter Family covers along with a new pair of touching homages — "Me and the Wildwood Rose," a tribute to grandparents Maybelle and Ezra; and "Lonesome Valley 2003," a show-stopping requiem for Johnny and June. — Adam Gold

Whiskey Myers

Whiskey Myers perform in Nashville

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Whiskey Myers

The inexplicable sound of this Tyler, Texas five-piece is, by all accounts, as big as the state they hail from. Whiskey Myers is a little bit hair of the dog, and part monster hangover. The band sounds like kicking back with a cold brew in a busted lounge chair at the center of a Texas tornado, swirling with grungy twin-lead guitars and pop-rock harmonies while Lynyrd Skynyrd spirals around them. Their unique intersection of Southern rock, psychedelia, and country is the melting pot that classifies them as American country. — Erin Manning

Otis Gibbs

Otis Gibbs performs in London

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Otis Gibbs

This Nashville singer-songwriter spent his formative years performing in a bar for his drunk uncle's buddies before working as a nurseryman planting trees for eight years. With a low tolerance for bullshit and a guiding principle of maintaining his artistic integrity no matter what, Gibbs' songwriting is deeply personal and profound, like a coarse cross of Bruce Springsteen and Guy Clark. Remaining obscure has unintentionally earned him a loyal cult following throughout Europe and parts of the U.S., but after hearing his acclaimed album Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth just released in August, it's plain to see Otis Gibbs is a man you should give a damn about. — Erin Manning

John Moreland

John Moreland

Michelle Crosby

John Moreland

Taking a page from Bruce Springsteen — particularly the stripped-down, imperfect acoustics of Nebraska — John Moreland chronicles the ups and downs of his home state, Oklahoma, with folk songs that focus on underdogs and wannabe heroes. Be prepared: the dude is a serious sad sack. You get the feeling that Moreland isn't creating characters for his down-in-the-dumps tunes; instead, he's just writing about himself. With 2013's In the Throes, though, Moreland makes heartbreak and depression sound pretty damn lovely. — Andrew Leahey

Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson performs in Century City, California.

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Sturgill Simpson

A hippie honky-tonker who resurrects the outlaw spirit for the iPhone generation, Sturgill Simpson is either country music's long-lost savior or a sacrilegious pothead, depending on who you ask. (For the record, we think he's pretty great.) He's also quite the spokesperson for independent musicians of all stripes. When critics blasted Simpson for using the word "goddamn" during a recent late-night performance on Conan, he fought back on Facebook, where he wrote, "Since I'm self-funding/self-releasing my art instead of shooting for ACM awards and taking it up the ass from the Music Row man, I have the right to write and sing and say whatever I choose." Shit, we'll two-step to that. — Andrew Leahey

Joe Pug

Joe Pug performs at Americana Cross Country Lines

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Joe Pug

Joe Pug's been plagued with Bob Dylan comparisons for years — an acoustic guitar and a harmonica can do that to a man — but Pug's point of view centers on the Minnesota bard's more delicate, introspective moments, littered with literate illusions that never seem too precocious and introspective lyrics that never seem too cloying. The former aspiring playwright is known for often lingering after shows to share a beer with fans, approaching his music more as a vehicle for community and not adulation — though a little of that, or a Dylan comparison, certainly never hurts. — Marissa R. Moss

Sons of Bill

Sons of Bill

www.facebook.com/sonsofbill

Sons of Bill

With influences ranging from Michael Stipe to William Faulker, Sons of Bill pay tribute to a different sort of American South — a place whose legacy isn't commemorated by the Daisy Duke denim and beer-soaked boondocks that fill today's bro-country hits, but rather a combination of swooning harmonies, pedal steel guitars and references to Robert E. Lee. One-time Big Star lead singer Chris Bell even gets a shoutout on the band's newest album, Love and Logic, proof that these Virginians — who turned to Wilco co-founder Ken Coomer to produce the record — have taste as well as chops. — Andrew Leahey

Marty Stuart performs in Nashville

Marty Stuart performs in Nashville

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Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart has been one of country's most eclectic showmen during his nearly four decade career, and although he's ditched his Nudie suits, he's still one of the last remaining links to traditional country, roots music, and the generation of greats like George Jones and Hank Williams. He honors them on his forthcoming double-disc album, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, showcasing his Mississippi roots, gospel music influence, and stylish efforts to preserve traditional country. His ability to find so much common ground among varied styles and talents is a give-in, but given that he and his band the Fabulous Superlatives will be honoring the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rogers, at the AMAs ensures their performance will be a Marty party hit. — Erin Manning

Whiskey Shivers

Whiskey Shivers perform at Stagecoach 2014

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Whiskey Shivers

Robert Ellis handpicked these fellow Texas troubadours as one of his first production projects, and it's easy to see why: their "trashgrass" string-band sound chops away at traditional bluegrass constraints with a mischievous cleaver, mixing in shadows of Delta swamps and New Orleans basements, always favoring emotive experimentation over precision. The result, their self-titled LP (out September 23rd), drives hard with the fierce inertia of Old Crow Medicine Show, the ramshackle folk punch of Felice Brothers and the punk energy of a pre-sobriety Deer Tick. — Marissa R. Moss

Ian McLagan

Ian McLagan performs in Los Angeles

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Ian McLagan

McLagan might hail from Great Britain and have the cockney cackle to prove it, but as keyboardist for both the Small Faces and the Faces — a role for which he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 — his career has long been steeped in a fascination with American music. And he shows so signs of dialing it back on the aptly titled United States, the singer’s 2014 release with his backing Bump Band. The album continues McLagan’s career-long indulgence in timeless blues and R&B. His keyboard and organ chops are sharp as ever and his sets tend to feature choice classics from his back catalog. — Adam Gold

Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis performs in Spain

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Robert Ellis

Lone Star State singer turned Nashville transplant Robert Ellis is a rising star in the Americana world. Given the singer's fresh-face-betraying butter-voiced drawl, literate lyrics and prodigious finger-picking chops on acoustic guitar, it's no wonder his latest, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, has inspired rightful comparisons to legends like Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall, and contemporaries like Hayes Carll and Justin Townes Earle. — Adam Gold

Grant-Lee Phillips

Grant-Lee Phillips performs in London

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Grant-Lee Phillips

Given how Eighties and Nineties-hailing alt-country journeyman like Old 97's and Uncle Tupelo were building the rusty, rootsy Americana brand before it even had a name, it's somewhat surprising AmericanaFest hasn’t drafted more troubadours of the Jeff Tweedy generation to take Nashville club stages. Hopefully this year's inclusion of former Grant Lee Buffalo frontman Grant-Lee Phillips — whose power-pop leanings add a nice, sunny contrast to his alt-country contemporaries' earth tones — will start a trend. — Adam Gold
Holly Williams

Holly Williams performs in Birmingham, Alabama

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Holly Williams

Last year, Holly Williams took the stage at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and opened the Americana Honors and Awards show with a theater-silencing version of grandfather Hank Williams' classic "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." But it's the yearning, emotionally understated musical confessionals on the singer's smoky-voiced country-royalty third album The Highway, produced by Charlie Peacock, that make Williams a modern country entity who can stand outside her grandfather's (and her father's) long shadow. — Adam Gold
Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock performs in East Sussex

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Robyn Hitchcock

 

In recent years, AmericanaFest has hosted and honored relentlessly British singer-songwriter luminaries the likes of Richard Thompson and Billy Bragg. Not like that counter intuitiveness is anything to complain about, especially when post-punk statesman turned underground-rock troubadour and long-dedicated Syd Barrett super-fan Robyn Hitchcock makes the bill. Clever wit and even craftier hooks have been a hallmark throughout Hitchcock's career, from his formative years fronting post-punk oddballs the Soft Boys, to his solo days as a left-of-dial college rock contemporary of R.E.M. and the Replacements. In recent years, he's cut a twilight set of stellar pysch-rockin' jangle-pop records with the Venus 3, culminating in his latest solo effort, The Man Upstairs. The album offers a killer grab bag of new originals and seemingly random covers of songs by artists ranging from fellow AmericanaFest performer Grant-Lee Phillips, to the Doors and the Psychedelic Furs. The high chance of hearing him bust out the album-opening, tenderly plucked, piano-punctuated take on the latter "The Ghost in You," along with a likely guest appearance from Phillips, should be motivation enough to catch this AmericanaFest appearance. — Adam Gold

Marah

Marah perform at Bonnaroo

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Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy

From 1998 to their all but disintegration 10 years later, Philadelphia's Marah, led by brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, consistently turned in some of the most attitude-driven bar-band rock, gaining fans like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, and earning the moniker of "The Last Rock & Roll Band." These days, however, the group is made up primarily of Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith, who successfully adapted old-timey Pennsylvania folk lyrics for their latest album, Mountain Minstrelsy. Performing the LP's raucous back-porch stompers and sad and weary laments, Marah's showcase may be the most "Americana" thing you'll see all festival. Plus, they boast the youngest member of the fest's lineup: nine-year-old fiddle prodigy Gus Tritsch. — Joseph Hudak

Promised Land Sound

Promised Land Sound

www.facebook.com/PromisedLandSound

Promised Land Sound

Imagine if the Band or the Flying Burrito Brothers were a group of scruffy rockers born out of Nashville's currently burgeoning garage-punk scene and you've got Promised Land Sound. Relatively unknown underdogs in comparison to established Americana fare like the Avett Brothers, with a penchant for ripping guitar solos and punch-drunk campfire harmonies sprawling across an arsenal of golden-tinted, Instagram-filtered folk-rock gems, catching the band's showcase in the Blue Room at Jack White's Third Man Records should be a top priority for any AmericanaFest attendee. - Adam Gold

Buddy Miller

Buddy Miller performs in San Francisco

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Buddy Miller

You could call Buddy Miller The Patron Saint of the Americana Movement. Whether as a multiple Americana Music Association award winner as a solo artist, longtime bandleader at the association's annual Honors and Awards show, music producer for the likes of Solomon Burke and the Nashville TV
show, songwriter for the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack, or sideman instrumentalist for Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Robert Plant, Steve Earle and others, Miller is a ubiquitous presence in Americana circles, and rightfully so. — Adam Gold