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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.

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. 

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