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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.