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.
The Luck Reunion and Third Man Records showcase at the Nashville Palace, one of Music City's last bona fide honky-tonks, sold out before its lineup was even announced. In fact, few of the fans gathered knew who'd be performing until Margo Price and her band, and later Shovels & Rope, sauntered onstage. Both turned in rollicking sets, but it was the collaboration between Price and husband Jeremy Ivey and Shovels' own married duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent that tipped the scales. With Price on drums, the quartet launched into a most unexpected cover: Concrete Blonde's 1990 hit "Joey." Channeling the tortured spirit of Johnette Napolitano's original vocal, Price and Hearst traded lines – and proved that the Americana genre knows its way around Nineties angst.
John Prine carried a packed-to-the-gills Station Inn back in time to 1971, performing the entirety of his kooky yet concise self-titled debut album in honor of its 45th anniversary. That he threw in an equally engaging second set just for fun spoke to his tireless spirit. With his 70th birthday approaching, Prine was full of rebellious energy, joking about pissing off Big Coal with his strip-mining indictment "Paradise" and, since it's an election year, adding "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore" back into the setlist. "Spanish Pipedream" and "Illegal Smile" blasted the rat race and the absurdity of marijuana laws, while "Sam Stone" served as a reminder that there are more veterans in need today than ever before. While it's no surprise that those country-folk high-water marks haven't faded with time, that they're still so relevant now is telling.
Texas treasure Sunny Sweeney is one of the rare entertainers who can hold her own at CMA Fest as well as AmericanaFest, having had a couple brushes with the big time during her major label days. For her brief set at the High Watt, Sweeney fired up selections from her album Provoked, including "Backhanded Compliment" and the deliciously frank "Bad Girl Phase," as well as some tunes from a forthcoming album. Among them was "Pills," which somehow sensitively addressed mental health and pharmaceuticals with Sweeney's trademark sense of humor.
Less than two hours after winning a pair of trophies at the Americana Honors & Awards show, Jason Isbell was onstage at the Nashville honky-tonk Robert's Western World, duetting with Amanda Shires on George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey" and Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home." Steve Earle, Charlie Worsham, Sam Outlaw, Patrick Sweany and Shovels & Rope's Cary Ann Hearst all took turns at the mic, too, while musicians like Micah Hulscher (Margo Price's keyboardist) and Jerry Pentecost (Amanda Shires' drummer) banged out country shuffles by Willie, Waylon and Little Jimmy Dickens.
It should be no surprise that veteran tunesmiths Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier, Jeff Black and Verlon Thompson all turned in strong performances during an early evening in-the-round guitar pull. But it was former mainstream country star and current New York resident Chely Wright, making a rare Music City appearance to debut material from her just-released I Am the Rain album, who had the lion's share to win or lose – and win she did. The startling production (by Joe Henry) and lyrical heft to the material on Wright's exceptional LP (think Interiors-era Rosanne Cash) is tailor-made for Nashville's preeminent listening room. Highlights of Wright's turns in the spotlight included "Mexico," the wistful tale of a truck-stop waitress, and the delicate, gorgeous ballad "Inside."
"I think Americana is what you think it is," declared Garry W. Tallent near the start of what turned out to be a delightfully jaunty set at the Family Wash on Wednesday. For the man who has been holding down the bass parts for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for over 40 years—a job that scored him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Americana meant a bright, swinging mix of Cajun, pop, and rockabilly sounds replete with accordion, saxophone, and fiddle all topped by Tallent's — who knew? — pleasantly gruff vocals. Switching to a six string for the evening, Tallent and his all-star big band of Nashville cats, including favorite Kristi Rose, dug into original tunes from his, recent, first ever solo album "Break Time" and covers like "Book of Love." We're pretty sure his Boss would've been proud.
"Look at all these gals up here," marveled Emily Saliers taking in the distaff crew, several recruited just for the Fest appearance, at Cannery Ballroom Thursday night. Even with Saliers' partner in rhyme Amy Ray fighting what looked and sounded like a painful sore throat, the duo soldiered on for a set that included newer tracks and fan favorites with a passion that carried the set to special heights. Among the guests were Sierra Hull, Alison Brown and producer-guitarist Jordan Brooke Hamlin who brought infusions of warm mandolin, banjo, and stinging electric guitar respectively. The Indigo Girls were also held aloft by a crowd singing along loud and proud to tunes like "Get Out the Map" and "Shame on You." The night's emotional peak came with Ray's rendition of the heart-rending and all too relevant "The Rise of the Black Messiah," a blistering track about race relations and criminal miscarriages of justice.
With a new solo album of what he calls "cowboy songs" due September 30th, Bob Weir rode into AmericanaFest high in the saddle, collecting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Americana Honors and honoring Merle Haggard with a moving take on "Mama Tried." But it was during an intimate preview of his upcoming LP Blue Mountain at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that the Grateful Dead co-founder seemed most at home. Whether he was discussing guitar techniques with host Buddy Miller or delivering a haunting performance of the album standout "Ghost Towns," Weir reveled in the role of raconteur. Especially when it came to country music. "Paul McCartney can play a Bakersfield shuffle better they anyone in this town today," he boldly stated, before fondly recalling the Sixties jug band he formed with Jerry Garcia and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. "I was 16 and I had groupies!"
AmericanaFest's coolest off-site event took place at a literal mansion on the hill in East Nashville's Cleveland Park neighborhood, where the folks behind Luck Reunion and Third Man Records paired up Americana's finest for inspired cover songs. Among them: Joshua Hedley, perhaps Nashville's most underrated musician, and songbird Erin Rae, who dared to bust out some Bocephus. Together, they delivered a touching reading of Hank Williams Jr.'s heartbreaking ballad "Old Habits." Best of all: the collaborations were all captured on video.
With a voice that's as dramatic as Roy Orbison and an obsession with the doomed teenage romances of early Fifties rock & roll, New Zealand native Marlon Williams was kind of an oddball even among the all-embracing Americana crowd. Through originals from his self-titled 2016 album and covers of forgotten pop heroes like Billy Fury, Williams let his wondrous vocal instrument glide over his band the Yarra Benders in ways both thrilling and uncomfortable. AmericanaFest can be a talkative, schmoozy crowd but during Williams' solo rendition of the traditional song "When I Was a Young Girl" – where a lady prone to drink and promiscuity dies before she ever really lives – no one at Mercy Lounge dared breathe.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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!"
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.