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Americana Music Fest 2015: 27 Must-See Acts

From big names like Jewel and Lee Ann Womack to buzz acts JD McPherson and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, the can’t-miss artists at this year’s gathering

JD McPherson and Lee Ann Womack

JD McPherson and Lee Ann Womack are a couple of the 27 must-see acts at the 2015 Americana Music Fest in Nashville.

Jo Hale/Getty; Al Pereira/Getty

The lineup at this year's Americana Music Festival and Conference, kicking off tonight at venues throughout Nashville and running through the weekend, is especially eclectic, as country queens like Lee Ann Womack and Americana kingpins like Buddy Miller share space with Texas troubadours Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen, and scruffy garage yelpers Banditos. The diversity is what elevates the genre, a refuge for American music of all stripes. Anchored by the Americana Honors & Awards on Wednesday night, the festival features more than 200 artists. Here are 27 you just can't miss.

Wade Bowen Randy Rogers

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 24: L/R: Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen "Hold my Beer" Album Release Party at City Winery Nashville on March 24, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen

With Hold My Beer Vol. 1, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen have created the beginnings of a Highwaymen moment in Texas country. Like the fusion of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson before them, Rogers and Bowen are good friends, talented frontmen and leaders in their musical scene. They've taken their newly formed team on the road singing twangy, stranger-than-fiction tour stories, sad-sack tales of striking out with your woman and Saturday-night drinking tunes (set in a bar, not on a tailgate), while also providing a bunch of cheesy jokes and genuine camaraderie. Both are strong singers — with a similar warm but gravelly delivery — strong writers and strong performers to boot, so expect deep stories, stirring pure-country sounds and, above all, good times. (Thursday, September 17th, Cannery Ballroom, 11:00 p.m.) Chris Parton

Lee Ann Womack

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Lee Ann Womack performs at City Winery on April 20, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Al Pereira/WireImage)

Al Pereira/WireImage

Lee Ann Womack

With two key Americana Honors nominations behind her — Artist of the Year and Album of the Year, for her stellar The Way I'm Livin' — Lee Ann Womack is the grand dame of this year's festival, and her intimate performance on Friday night will feel like a celebration. Here is an artist making honest-to-goodness country music, unabashedly and joyously— there's a reason she's been captured smiling onstage in so many photos of late. And it's not just the keen Americana Music Association that has taken notice; Womack also scored a nod for Female Vocalist of the Year when the CMA nominations were announced last week. This showcase will be one worth waiting in line for. (Friday, September 18th, 3rd & Lindsley, 9:00 p.m.) Joseph Hudak

Banditos

David A. Smith/Getty Images

Banditos

Haphazard in appearance but tightly coiled in action, Banditos are one of the most promising new acts in roots rock. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, but now based in Nashville, theirs is a swampy fusion of country, garage rock and blues, accented by the one-two vocal punch of Corey Parsons and Mary Beth Richardson. Soulful rhythms swell, lending courage to songs about getting up to no good (and feeling fine about it), while a chicken-picked Telecaster and balls-to-the wall banjo instigate and reward all the bad behavior. With a weirder-is-better sense of style and a zen-like stage presence, Banditos might be the perfect soundtrack for lefty country fans hunting for a place to freak out. (Wednesday, September 16th, the Basement East, midnight) C.P.

Buddy Miller

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 10: Buddy Miller performs on stage during The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris: An All Star Concert Celebration at DAR Constitution Hall on January 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Blackbird Productions)

Paul Morigi/Getty

Buddy Miller and Marc Ribot

Between them, singer-songwriter Miller and guitarist-songwriter Ribot have played with the best of the best, from Robert Plant to Elvis Costello to John Mellencamp to Tom Waits to Miranda Lambert to the Black Keys. The pair have also collaborated with each other, including their superb 2011 album The Majestic Silver Strings with guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz. Miller, a true cornerstone of the country and Americana worlds for over 30 years, is also an in-demand songwriter, producer, backing vocalist and touring musician who has had both his own tunes and those written with wife Julie recorded by Lee Ann Womack ("Does My Ring Burn Your Finger"), Brooks & Dunn ("My Love Will Follow You") and others. (Thursday, September 17th, 3rd & Lindsley, 11:00 p.m.) Sarah Rodman

JD McPherson

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 16: JD McPherson performs on stage at KOKO on June 16, 2015 in London, United Kingdom (Photo by Jo Hale/Redferns via Getty Images)

Jo Hale/Redferns

JD McPherson

For better of worse, Americana has become a catch-all genre for music that doesn't quite fit inside the box. In the case of McPherson, it's definitely for the better. With a sound that mixes vintage rock & soul with a hint of Southern swing, the singer-songwriter is as anomalous as they come. There isn't a rule he's been afraid of breaking, which his probably why Eric Church recently bonded with McPherson during a writing session and recruited the greased-hair rebel to open some of his shows. Best of all, he has the musical goods to justify all those left turns: his latest album Let the Good Times Roll is a delicious must-hear. (Friday, September 18th, Cannery Ballroom, 9:30 p.m) J.H.

Ryan Culwell

Josh Davis

Ryan Culwell

A Nashville transplant, West Texas native Ryan Culwell possesses a unique view of his dusty, barren homeland — that of an outsider who has lived there his whole life. As such, Culwell's stories are told with the insight of an eye witness and the curiosity of a complete stranger. On Flatlands, his latest album, Culwell dissects his native culture and lingering homesickness, teasing out each memory for better or worse and placing it in vivid context. A methodical performer, he places himself inside each tormented tale — sometimes toiling as a roughneck on the region's endless oil fields, sometimes letting loose in a beer-soaked roadhouse. These tunes beg to be listened to intently; scope out a spot near the front. (Thursday, September 17th, the Basement, 8:00 p.m.) C.P.

honeyhoney

Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Treats! Magazine

Honeyhoney

A pair of singing multi-instrumentalists with charm, chemistry and chutzpah for days, HoneyHoney have spent the better part of a decade mixing up their own brew of roots-rock firepower and slow-burning soul. Their debut for Rounder Records, 3, finds them in rough n' rowdy form, knocking out 12 songs with help from Americana's current studio king, producer Dave Cobb. Former Nashville residents who've since pulled up stakes and moved back to their hometown of Los Angeles, Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe return to middle Tennessee for a highly anticipated showcase. (Thursday, September 17th, Mercy Lounge, 11:00 p.m.) Andrew Leahey

Nathaniel Rateliff

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0306 -- Pictured: Musical guest Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats perform on August 5, 2015 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

NBC/NBCUniversal

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Say you saw them when. Following a triumphant appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, in which they performed the devilish "S.O.B.," Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats arrive at AmericanaFest on a wave of buzz. Led by the bellowing, bearded Rateliff, the soul and R&B Denver collective knows the power of a rhythmic handclap, a well-placed "whoa whoa" and a thick-as-molasses hum. They can also swear like that titular S.O.B. Not since Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog" has "son of a bitch" been used so effectively in a lyric. (Wednesday, September 16th, Mercy Lounge, 10:00 p.m.) J.H.

Hillbenders

Photo Courtesy of the HillBenders

The Hillbenders Perform ‘Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry’

The HillBenders are a bluegrass outfit from Missouri, but lately they've been sounding a bit more British. Taking the Who's seminal rock opera Tommy and transforming it into a "Bluegrass Opry," the project has been making waves with critics and fans alike — even Pete Townshend is a fan. Originally released in 1969, the HillBenders have tweaked the classic to suit their style, shortening some parts and replacing Townshend's intricately layered arrangements in favor of a downhome cacophony of banjo, mandolin and Dobro. But the epic story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy remains intact. It's been done as a ballet, a Broadway play and an orchestral arrangement in the past, but this is the first time a bunch of hillbillies have been crazy enough to tackle the whole piece live, start to finish. (Thursday, September 17th, 3rd & Lindsley, midnight) C.P.

Josh Rouse

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 10: Josh Rouse performs as part of the Wesley Stace's Cabinet of Wonders variety show at City Winery on April 10, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Al Pereira/WireImage)

Al Pereira/WireImage

Josh Rouse

It's been 10 years since Josh Rouse released Nashville, a landmark album that mixed the rootsy stomp of Music City with string arrangements, brass and other orchestral flourishes. Now based in Spain, he returns to his former hometown with a Saturday night show at Mercy Lounge, hitting the stage one hour before another folksinger who's unafraid to mix twang with timpani: Andrew Combs, another must-see. Of course, Rouse has been exploring different sounds since heading overseas a decade ago, touching on everything from bilingual Spanish folk to Paul Simon-worthy world music. Who knows what he'll dish up during his short homecoming. (Saturday, September 19th, Mercy Lounge, 9:00 p.m.) A.L.

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

Jewel

It makes sense, in a lot of ways, to see Jewel amongst the Americana crowd — she ruled the Nineties folk-pop scene with her breakthrough now-classic LP Pieces of You, and even dabbled in country after moving to Texas and marrying a cowboy. With her latest album, Picking Up the Pieces, she's returned to that explosive combination of breathy vocals, chilling yodel-howl and personal, story-driven lyrics (she's now divorced and that breakup informs the new record) that had been lost a little along the way. With songs like "Everything Breaks" and "The Shape of You," she doesn't just show that she can still do that heartbroken-strum thing well: she owns it. (Tuesday, September 15th, City Winery, 9:00 p.m.) Marissa Moss

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 14: (L-R) Ruth Ward and Madisen Ward of Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear perform on June 14, 2015 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/WireImage)

Erika Goldring/WireImage

AmericanaRama VIII

It's no badge required for this annual free outdoor blowout, curated by Grimey's New and Preloved Music. Last year boasted a wildly esoteric lineup, highlighted by the dearly departed Ian McLagan and his Bump Band, and this year is equally diverse, with Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear (pictured), Leigh Nash (of Sixpence None the Richer), Nashville instrumental heroes Steelism and the mesmerizing Blackfoot Gypsies among the performers. It's an all-day affair, outdoors in the elements, which can often mean a hot late-summer sun — but refuge is just steps away inside the endless aisles of one of Music City's best record shops. (Saturday, September 19th, Grimey's New and Preloved Music, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) J.H.

Mary Gauthier

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 21: Singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier performs during The Drop: Mary Gauthier at The GRAMMY Museum on April 21, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Sullivan/WireImage)

Mark Sullivan/WireImage

Mary Gauthier

The revered singer-songwriter has done a lot of living, from her native Louisiana to a long stint in Boston to her current home in Nashville. She brings a little bit of all of those places, and the people she knew there, to her songs, which cut to the bone with emotional rawness, unearthing emotional depths that can be both poignant and wryly comic, sometimes simultaneously. Her 2014 album Trouble & Love was a triumph of lived-in observation — it's no surprise then that she has plenty of famous yet disparate fans (Blake Shelton and Bettye LaVette, among them) who want to cut her songs. (Thursday, September 17th, Listening Room Café, 10:00 p.m.) S.R.

 

John Moreland

INDIO, CA - APRIL 25: Singer John Moreland performs in the Toyota tent during day 2 of the Stagecoach Music Festival at The Empire Polo Club on April 25, 2015 in Indio, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic)

Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic

John Moreland

Oklahoma's John Moreland doesn't just put on concerts: he creates shared, intimate experiences where the crowd gathers around him, stoic and still, treading on the tightrope of his raw and fragile folk songs. "I'm just a lonely star, trying to burn my way through heaven's door" he sings on "White Flag," off his second LP, High on Tulsa Heat, that plays more on Americana as Bruce Springsteen might define it than Mumford & Sons, where the words do the wailing, not the fiddles. Moreland translates emotion without turning his music into self-contained confessionals; it's their ability to vibrate on a communal wavelength that makes each note and lyric so unforgettable, and so impossible to shake. (Friday, September 18th, Mercy Lounge, 10:00 p.m.) M.M.

Lori McKenna

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07: Singer-songwriter Lori McKenna performs at Joe's Pub on December 7, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Noam Galai/Getty Images

Creative Nation Presents: A Benefit for Preston Taylor Ministries

This may not be an official AmericanaFest event but it is a can't-miss night with some of Nashville's biggest hitmakers combining forces for a good cause. With dozens of hit songs between them this will be a songwriters' round for the ages: the line-up includes ACM Songwriter of the Year Luke Laird (Kenny Chesney' "American Kids," Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown"), Barry Dean (LBT's "Pontoon" and "Day Drinking"), Natalie Hemby (Miranda Lambert's "Automatic" and "Baggage Claim") and "Girl Crush" author Lori McKenna (pictured). The group of songwriters, many of whom have written together, will also doubtlessly share the stories behind the songs and promise a "special guest" will be taking the stage with them. (Tuesday, September 15th, Listening Room Café, 6:00 p.m.) S.R.

Lewis and Leigh

Photo Courtesy of Lewis and Leigh

Lewis & Leigh

It took a move to the U.K. for Alva Leigh, a Mississippi native who lived in Nashville for several years, to finally find her golden Americana match — a Welshman by the name of Al Lewis, who scored his first hit with a song in his native tongue. While Lewis & Leigh sing in English (and live in England), their joint language is a blend of Nashville country and British countryside, plucking from London pop and Motown swing and turning it into sweet, tightly-composed folk. It's easy to see their male-female duo and only think of the Civil Wars, but Lewis & Leigh have much more levity than the now defunct pairing ever expressed. They're allies, not opponents. (Friday, September 18th, Mercy Lounge, 8:00 p.m.) M.M.

J.D. Souther

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 23: Musician J.D. Souther performs at "A Song Is Born" 16th Annual GRAMMY Foundation Legacy Concert at The Wilshire Ebell Theatre on January 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic)

Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic

J.D. Souther

You may not know the name but you certainly know the songs. In addition to his own superb solo career, which spawned the hit "You're Only Lonely," veteran singer-songwriter J.D. Souther has written or co-written a passel of unforgettable tunes. Most associated with the Eagles — Souther co-wrote "Best of My Love," "Heartache Tonight" and "New Kid in Town" — he also penned the Dixie Chicks' wistful "I'll Take Care of You" and collaborated with James Taylor on "Her Town Too" and with old pal Don Henley on "The Heart of the Matter." Souther will likely be playing his versions of a few of those tunes as well as tracks from his terrific recent album Tenderness. Keen-eyed fans of the ABC drama Nashville will also recognize him as country songwriter-producer Watty White. (Tuesday, September 15th, City Winery, 10:00 p.m.) S.R.

Spirit Family Reunion

American old-time country music band Spirit Family Reunion opens the first night of the 30th anniversary season of Central Park SummerStage, New York, New York, May 18, 2015. Pictured are Nick Panken on guitar and vocals, Maggie Carson on 5-string banjo and vocals, and Ken Woodward on upright acoustic bass. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Jack Vartoogian/Getty

Spirit Family Reunion

Opening for artists as diverse as the jammy Tedeschi Trucks Band and the more bluegrass-minded Tramped by Turtles, this band of strummers and thumpers is the epitome of versatile. They fit in seemingly everywhere, and have an impressively varied roster of festival appearances under their belt to prove it, culminating with Austin City Limits Festival next month. Chalk it up to an undeniable onstage energy, which infuses barnburners like "Put Your Hands Together When You Spin the Wheel" and "Wake Up Rounder" with a ramshackle charm. It's addictive stuff — and will make even the most flat-footed bust a move. (Friday, September 18th, the High Watt, 11:00 p.m.) J.H.

Legendary Shack Shakers

J.D. Wilkes of Legendary Shack Shakers performs opening for Reverend Horton Heat at Stubb's Bar-B-Q on June 10, 2010 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jay West/WireImage)

Jay West/WireImage

The Legendary Shack Shakers

Part country-punk show, part exorcism, a concert by the Shack Shakers is hypnotic, and all kinds of dangerous. But that's the allure, as hyperkinetic frontman J.D. Wilkes engages the audience by inhabiting various characters onstage: the shuffling old man, the snot-blowing hooligan, the mime with an invisible fishhook in his lip. Which one is the real Wilkes? It's hard to say, but each is equally commanding. Promoting their spooky new album The Southern Surreal, the Kentucky four-piece should be especially supercharged for AmericanaFest. You've been warned. (Thursday, September 17th, the High Watt, 8:00 p.m.) J.H.

Session Americana

Gastwirt

Session Americana

It's right there in the name for this ultra-gifted, rotating collective of singers and multi-instrumentalists. And sprawl is a good word when it comes to the Boston-based group's raucous live shows, which were initially built around the community concept of traditional Irish seisiúns. The group, whose members have played with a variety of acts including Patty Griffin, Josh Ritter and the J. Geils Band, expertly blends vintage American roots music styles — from country to jazz to rock — in a rowdy but deft fashion. (Friday, September 18th, Listening Room Café, 10:00 p.m.) S.R.

Erin Rae

Laura Partain

Erin Rae & the Meanwhiles

With a voice that swoons and soothes, Erin Rae makes smooth-edged music for Sunday afternoons. Her arrangements — anchored by pedal-steel guitar and the steady strum of an acoustic guitar — may be rooted in modern-day indie folk, but the songs themselves rustle up comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, two likeminded singers whose music packs a punch without breaking a sweat. Armed with tracks from a new record, Soon Enough, she'll play the intimate 5 Spot with her backup band, the Meanwhiles. (Saturday, September 19th, the 5 Spot, 10:00 p.m.) A.L.

Watkins Family Hour

Sibling American musicians Sara and Sean Watkins perform with their Watkins Family Hour Band during a performance in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited' album at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors AmericanaFest NYC at Damrosch Park Bandshell, New York, New York, August 8, 2015. The concert featured a song-by-song performance of Dylan's album in its entirety. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Jack Vartoogian/Getty

Watkins Family Hour

This supergroup combines the prodigious talents of Nickel Creek siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, Fiona Apple, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, journeyman bassist Sebastian Steinberg (the Dixie Chicks, Soul Coughing), veteran steel guitarist Greg Leisz (Sheryl Crow, Robert Plant), and in demand drummer Don Heffington (Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams). Born out of their ongoing residency at the L.A. club Largo, the group absolutely slayed at the Newport Folk Festival in July with tracks from their eponymous debut album. And best of all the session players each get a chance to shine. (Wednesday, September 16th, Mercy Lounge, 11:00 p.m.) S.R.

Darlingside

GREENFIELD, MA - JULY 13: (L-R) David Senft, Don Mitchell, Auyon Kukhaji and Harris Paseltner of Darlingside perform during the 2014 Green River Festival at Greenfield Community College on July 13, 2014 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. (Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

Douglas Mason/Getty Images

Darlingside

There's certainly no shortage of choral harmonies at AmericanaFest, but Darlingside, a quartet out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, transform theirs into locomotive folk-pop confections so richly executed it's hard to tell if it's one voice or 12. Singing entirely in unison on their new LP, Birds Say (out Friday), they evoke both the likes of Guster and Crosby, Stills & Nash with a diehard earnestness, mixed with the symphonic chug of a string band. But it's their use of both electric bass and tinny banjo that keeps it modern. (Wednesday, September 16th, the Basement, 11:00 p.m.) M.M.

Christopher Paul Stelling

Jenn Sweeney

Christopher Paul Stelling

Brooklyn's Christopher Paul Stelling may have made headlines by proposing to his girlfriend onstage during this summer's Newport Folk Festival (she said yes), but his music is as equally show-stopping as that grand gesture. Armed with fast-picking fingers, Stelling released an excellent third album, Labor Against Waste, this summer that fits nicely in the Damien Rice/Tallest Man on Earth category of folk music with a fiery, nearly punk soul. But it's live where the music best translates, as he cuts into a beat-down '64 acoustic guitar with his eyes popping out, appearing possessed but clearly doing all the possessing. (Wednesday, September 16th, Station Inn, 10:00 p.m.) M.M.

Sarah Borges

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 08: Sarah Borges performs as part of Wesley Stace's Cabinet of Wonders at City Winery on May 8, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Al Pereira/WireImage)

Al Pereira/WireImage

Sarah Borges

This alt-country spitfire can break your heart one moment and shank you with her raw honesty the next, thanks to her X-meets-Lucinda sonic mash-ups. The singer-songwriter from Boston has drawn high praise from high places over the years from people who know about splitting the difference between rock, pop, country and punk, including Blaster Dave Alvin and producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (Steve Earle, Joan Jett), who worked on her upcoming, promisingly titled, album Good and Dirty. (Saturday, September 19th, the Basement, 9:00 p.m.) S.R.

Whitney Rose

Jen Squires

Whitney Rose

It's a pretty strong seal of approval to get a nod from the Mavericks' Raul Malo — and it's another thing entirely to impress him so much that he offers to produce your album (and bring along a few bandmates for the ride). Such is the case with Whitney Rose, who hails from the remote Canadian outpost of Prince Edward Island but sounds like someone who discovered classic country crooners like Patsy Cline and George Jones with enough years and miles in between to mold an original yet suitably vintage spin. Malo brought glints of his Tejano touch to her newest release, Heartbreaker of the Year, which playfully croons through tales of love and mischief with girlish breath and devilish twang. (Saturday, September 19th, the High Watt, 8:00 p.m.) M.M.

Pony Boy

Elaine Reid

Pony Boy

AmericanaFest doesn't always have to mean only mandolins and steel guitar, and Pony Boy's interpretation of the genre is subtle on the debut LP Blue Gold. As the moniker of Nashville's Marchelle Bradanini, Pony Boy has an edgy swing on tracks like "Nothin's Gonna Save You Now" that could have been a Lou Reed-Nico collaboration if they went through a Nashville phase, pumped up on Hank Williams heartbreak instead of heroin. Melding the dreamy world of Beach House or Mazzy Star with Nikki Lane's quirky cowgirl, Blue Gold is a tale of California in the rear view, exposing the fading artifice and shallow promises held deeply in the City of Angels. And Pony Boy flees that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught. (Wednesday, September 16th, the Basement, midnight) M.M.