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AmericanaFest 2016: 20 Best Things We Saw

From Bob Weir’s cowboy songs to Aubrie Sellers’ lively set

Bob Weir, AmericanaFest

Aubrie Sellers' lively set and Bob Weir's preview of his new album 'Blue Mountain' were highlights of AmericanaFest 2016.

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With nearly 300 artists playing venues around Nashville, this year's Americana Music Festival & Conference was bursting at the seams with talent – not to mention an entire Western-wear shop of hats and boots. Icons like Bob Weir and John Prine and heirs to the throne Jason Isbell and Margo Price captivated with rousing sets, both official and underground, while upstarts like Courtney Granger and Marlon Williams proved the genre is skewing younger. Here are the 20 best things we saw at AmericanaFest 2016.

Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell

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Best Americana Superhero: Amanda Shires

Americana kingpin Jason Isbell may have joined his fiddle-sawing wife Amanda Shires for her set at the Station Inn, but it was Shires who kept the audience rapt, breathing life into poetic tunes from her new album My Piece of Land. When the pair performs together, Isbell is normally the one out front, but he clearly enjoyed the role reversal, rightfully deferring to his talented spouse's warbling voice and vivid writing. Delicate but not fragile, songs like "You Are My Home" felt mysterious and almost threatening, while "When You're Gone" featured a highway-rock feel and "Slippin'" revealed the inner monologue of a rock & roller's wife. All the while, Shires looked like an Americana superhero in a black body suit and see-through skirt. "I think Americana is doing what you want to do," she quipped about her wardrobe, "and playing your own instrument."

Beth Gwinn

Best Brit: Robert Vincent

Call it a rootsy British Invasion. Sponsored by the Americana Music Association U.K. and British Underground, a group of acts from across the pond performed behind the Groove record store in East Nashville, including event headliners Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones (although Jones is a Yank). Liverpool native Robert Vincent, who opened the show, stood out for his gritty, introspective country songs including the sweet, captivating "Burns (Like Cotton in the Fields)." Vincent, whose voice has a nice Paul Thorn-ish quality to it, should become the first U.K. Americana act to break through in the genre stateside when his new album bows in early 2017. 

Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Best Swagger: Aubrie Sellers

With a "stop what you are doing right now and pay attention" kind of voice full of equal servings of sugar and grit, and a swagger that most rappers would sell their most cherished bling for, Sellers tore up Mercy Lounge on Wednesday with a searing set of tunes that connected the dots between hard rock, hard country and hard luck. With a confidence and power that belies her age, Sellers — daughter of country chanteuse Lee Ann Womack— ripped through tunes from her genre-defying debut New City Blues and her gutsy, giddy delight in owning the stage was as impressive as it was infectious.

Wanda Jackson

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Best Rockabilly Riot: Wanda Jackson

Fans knew the Queen of Rockabilly's show would be good; Wanda Jackson is royalty, after all. But they likely didn't expect her 45-minute set as part of the Studio Oklahoma Showcase to have that much fire and fury. The 78-year-old Jackson, still recovering from a knee injury, ambled to the stage with the aid of both a walker and a granddaughter, causing some audience murmurs about her condition. But when she opened her mouth to sing "Riot in Cellblock 9," those concerns turned to cheers. With a voice still stronger than most, Jackson treated the crowd to classics like "My Big Iron Skillet" and "Fujiyama Mama." The Oklahoma native spent the week in Nashville writing songs for her new album, being produced by Joan Jett, who brought Jackson onstage during a recent Music City tour stop. "My songs haven't changed over the years," Jackson said of the response she gets today to her take-no-prisoners attitude and sound, "but the ears that hear it have."                                      

Matt King/Getty Images for the AOC

Best Americana With Attitude: Kasey Chambers

The Australian singer-songwriter has been a star Down Under and a cult favorite on these shores since the early '00s, boosted by prime placement for her song "The Captain" on The Sopranos. The cult was out in full force at 3rd & Lindsley Thursday night, packing the club to hear her girlish-yet-steely vocals wrap around her richly detailed lyrics, which range from fiery to poignant, both of which were encapsulated in the bluesy new track "Ain't No Little Girl." Chambers closed her set with the scorching and hilarious "Talkin' Baby Blues", a sort of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" quasi-rap that chronicled her journey from the hard-scrabble desert plains of Australia to award-winning performer. Referencing everything from her baby daddies to the titles of her hit songs, the spunky track found her asking, "Am I not pretty enough? Who gives a fuck!"

Bill and the Belles

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Best Roaring Twenties: Bill and the Belles

"We like to play pop hits – of the 1920s and 1930s," teased Bill and the Belles, a quartet of pomade-favoring throwbacks from Johnson City, Tennessee. With an approach reminiscent of the Secret Sisters, the group had a post-midnight crowd toe-tapping and dancing to sweet, poignant numbers like "Work Don't Bother Me" and "Old Lonesome Blues." Helmed by Radio Bristol producer Kris Truelsen, a man with a literal master's degree in Appalachian Studies (from East Tennessee State University), the group is committed to helping early country music remain appreciated – not just replicated. 

Dan Layus

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Best Reintroduction: Dan Layus

Hours before hopping a red-eye flight to rejoin the Dixie Chicks' tour, songwriter Dan Layus – the former frontman of Augustana, now traveling the globe with Natalie Maines and company as a folksy opening act – introduced songs from this October's Dangerous Things. The guy's got a killer voice, armed with a Jeff Buckley-sized vibrato that both fills a room and packs a punch, and he delivers Dangerous Things' stories of first encounters and second chances with conviction. Tapping into the roots-rock vein that's always pumped blood into Augustana's best material, Layus' new direction feels more like natural progression than some rootsy reinvention. 

High Plains Jamboree

Helene Fischman

Best Good Ole Days : High Plains Jamboree

Like many of their Americana peers, country-grass quartet High Plains Jamboree celebrate days of old. In the song "Analog," a smart but sweet tune calling out "advertisements on my telephone" and GMOs, mandolin player Brennen Leigh croons, "I'm not down on it just because its new." But few do it with as much verve as this Austin, Texas, foursome. During a performance at East Nashville's Family Wash, the group wooed their audience with a sound that evokes Old Crow Medicine Show and Carolina Chocolate Drops, delivering string-based rave-ups and even a stray murder ballad – the haunting "Rozene" – all from behind a giant 1940s-style microphone.

Courtney Granger

Jenny Lyons Simon

Best George Jones Disciple: Courtney Granger

In Louisiana's Cajun territory, country music has long mixed with more traditional French music for social functions where dancing is involved. Fiddler Courtney Granger comes out of that tradition but brings a George Jones-like authority to the proceedings with his finely-tuned voice. At a packed performance in East Nashville's Crying Wolf, Granger didn't shy from the Possum comparisons, confidently delivering a faithful rendition of "She Thinks I Still Care," along with selections from his forthcoming album Beneath Still Waters. Remarkably, all the songs on the record are also covers, but Granger's clear sense of who he is and how to employ his voice renders them entirely new.

Michaela Anne

Amanda Bjorn Photography

Best Hank Williams Comeback: Michaela Anne

"Who here knows the Hank Williams song 'Rambling Man?'" Michaela Anne asked the crowd before kicking into "Bright Lights and the Fame," the title track from her latest release. Written from the perspective of a woman whose music-playing beau can't stay away from the road, "Bright Lights" offered a response to the narrator in Williams' song, whose half-assed excuse for ditching town is, "When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin' man." Anne's five-piece band kicked up plenty of honky-tonk dust in the background, while the singer called bullshit on one of country music's oldest motifs. Brassy and ballsy.