The 18th annual Americana Music Festival & Conference wrapped up in Nashville this weekend, drawing fans of American roots music from all over the world. The highlights were as plentiful as the vintage denim, with artists from veteran Lee Ann Womack to Countrypolitan revivalist Joshua Hedley performing showcases in the backyards of record stores, inside Jack White’s Third Man Records and in clubs all over Music City. Here’s the 20 best things we witnessed at AmericanaFest.
Amanda Shires may have bowed to Americana giving her a musical home during Wednesday night’s Americana Honors, where she was named Emerging Artist of the Year, but she didn’t need anyone’s help to star during the festival. Even when she showed up to someone else’s show, like she did during Lee Ann Womack’s Thursday set, the night before her own scheduled appearance at the Station Inn. Playing a haunting pair of solo songs on electric guitar, Shires was a mix of goofy and charming in her between-song banter, relaying how Womack inspired her to study music at South Plains College. J.G.
The Texas Gentlemen were riding a hot hand when they closed out Mercy Lounge, having officially released their first LP, TX Jelly, the day before. Paying homage to some of the world’s greatest backing groups with covers of the Band’s “Ophelia” and the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” the Gents’ energy really revolved around its chief singers and songwriters, guitarist Nik Lee and keyboardist Daniel Creamer, who each took the lead on their own originals. But pretty well everyone got a piece of the action on a wild, set-closing vamp of garage-rock standard “Shakin’ All Over.” Best of all: they did it all over again on Sunday night at Fond Object in East Nashville. J.G.
A late addition to the showcase lineup after Americana mainstay Buddy Miller had to bow out with illness, husband-and-wife duo the War & Treaty did not disappoint. With an introduction by Emmylou Harris and support from Miller’s all-star backing band, Michigan-based Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter nearly leveled the Cannery Ballroom on Thursday evening. Mixing primitive blues, R&B and gospel-style shouting, War & Treaty’s songs like “Hi Ho” and “Down to the River” were tense and hypnotic, shrouded in darkness but punching their way to the light. Even the ailing Miller couldn’t be kept away, grabbing his guitar to sit in with the band for one song. J.F.
Courtney Marie Andrews said she flew straight into Nashville from a gig in the Netherlands, and she sounded glad to be home when she hit the stage at City Winery. Home, i.e. Nashville, was a topic of her performance, thanks to the new song “Buffalo,” which Andrews said was inspired by the changes taking place in the city. A sleepy, thoughtful set, that energy had more to do with the singer’s ruminations than with jet lag, as she matched the quivering vocal inflections of Joni Mitchell and dressed them up with a sweet, sun-kissed drawl. J.G.
“I don’t know how many of you have been called crazy, but I sure have,” Lilly Hiatt quipped halfway through her set at Third Man Records on Thursday night. The Nashville singer was in a playful mood, rattling through a lean, rocking set and delivering it all with a smile — no matter what the characters in the songs called her. None were more fun than the wailing title track of her recently released Trinity Lane, but most touching were a pair of tributes, “The Night David Bowie Died” and “Imposter,” a song she dedicated to her father, John Hiatt. J.G.
Running from the Americana Honors & Awards stage to acoustic afternoons to label parties, Aaron Lee Tasjan emerged as one of the festival’s omnipresent MVPs, capping things off with a raging set Friday night at the Basement East. And if his varying performances were proof of his versatility, this particular one served as evidence of his emerging role as one of the genre’s most dynamic live acts – except whatever genre that is could easily be up for debate. Tasjan, in a black-and-white checkered suit that conjured up the sartorial style of a Seventies-era Mick Jagger, took his smart, often witty songwriting and turned the amps up a few notches, comfortably marrying his rock & roll past with his Nashville present: ending up with results that are loud, powerful and completely unique. M.M.
Beavis and Butt-head would certainly never fit in at AmericanaFest, but the heavy-metal heroes’ creator Mike Judge sure did. The writer, producer and brains behind such gems as Silicon Valley, Office Space and the prescient Idiocracy, is turning his attention to country music with his new animated Cinemax series, Tales From the Tour Bus (premiering September 22nd). Judge screened a pair of episodes at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, including a howler about Johnny Paycheck’s run-in with the law, and then took part in a spirited Q&A with Elizabeth Cook. He also brought along some musical guests: Cook, Joshua Hedley, Brent Cobb, Brandy Clark and others all performed songs by artists profiled in Tales, including Paycheck’s “Colorado Kool-Aid,” defiantly done right by Jack Ingram. J.H.
Nashville native Nicole Atkins was in a lighthearted mood herself at Cannery Ballroom, but the breezy atmosphere betrayed a set that jumped between an array of styles. Mixing R&B, doo-wop and the odd cha-cha, Atkins was the laid-back bandleader whose backup singers added an old-school girl-group vibe to the swaying groove, particularly on the title track to recently released Goodnight Rhonda Lee. “Sleepwalker” was soulful and fluttering, while “The Way It Is” was meaty and funky, giving Atkins a chance to really dig in to her vocal range. J.G.
J.P. Harris brought out the Watson Twins late in his Saturday-night set at Mercy Lounge, a nice touch for an old-school country performance that thrived on its layers of harmonies and guitars. (There were as many as four guitars playing at once, and that’s not counting the pedal steel.) But the real charm of the set came from Harris himself, who was full of self-deprecating humor between songs and a bundle of energy during them. Harris’ mother was even on hand for the show, and naturally he dedicated one of the songs to her. J.G.
Natalie Hemby was in a particularly reflective mood at 3rd & Lindsley, where she delivered a stripped-down set that saw her switch back and forth between guitar and piano. A sense of place was at the core of several of Hemby’s songs, including her elegy to a bygone Nashville, “What Made It Great,” and the small-town remembrances of “This Town Still Talks About You.” Most beautiful of all, however, was “Jealous,” a song that Hemby proudly said had once made Adele cry. “I’m free to write with you anytime, Adele,” she joked. J.G.
Between gigs on Nashville’s Lower Broadway and supporting Jonny Fritz and Justin Townes Earle, Joshua Hedley’s been an in-the-know presence on the country and Americana scenes without yet bringing his own original material to the forefront. But on Thursday night he went from sideman to center stage at his new label home, Third Man Records, playing from the Blue Room and showing why he’ll likely never play second fiddle again (though he’ll certainly play plenty of fiddle). Performing his forthcoming album in its entirety, Hedley’s voice was rich and deeply skilled – and among peers who are obsessed with replicating the Outlaw era, his penchant for classic honky-tonk and a modern take on the Nashville Sound was also downright refreshing. In a sparkling blue-green Nudie-style suit complete with bedazzled tigers [Hedley says they’re panthers, actually.], Hedley and his ace band (including Jeremy Fetzer and Misa Arriaga) made ’em weep, made ’em dance and made ’em dream, closing with a star-making version of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” M.M.
Most of Lee Ann Womack’s set at Music City Roots’ Yee-Haw tent on Thursday night wasn’t really about the Texas native. In fact, she mostly added harmonies to a cavalcade of guest performers that included Jim Lauderdale, David Ramirez and John Fullbright. Womack reveled in the role of curator and talent spotter, saying proudly, “Sometimes I feel like these are my children.” Appropriately enough, the highlight of her set came courtesy of a pair of real-life siblings, the Secret Sisters, whose full-throated harmonies blended beautifully, and to chilling effect, with Womack. J.G.
Christian Lopez had substantial buzz around him leading into AmericanaFest, so it was only fitting he’d play one of the week’s many kickoff parties. Held at Razor & Tie’s office just south of Nashville, the mid-afternoon event was packed out for Lopez, who played as part of an acoustic three-piece. The young West Virginia native had no trouble filling the room, with the intimate setting allowing the crowd to see him effortlessly modulate between a gritty Americana croon and a soulful brand of modern rockabilly. Lopez’s set was short, but he managed to squeeze in a few new tracks, like the infectious “1972,” from his forthcoming album Red Arrow. He also made a famous new fan in Beatle Bob, a beloved St. Louis cult figure who spent the half hour dancing and twisting along next to the stage. B.M.
“Nashville is about as far away from Australia as you can get, so it’s nice to be here and get into the vibe,” said Bex Chilcot, squinting through sunglasses into the late-afternoon sun outside East Nashville record shop the Groove, the site of Bloodshot Records’ blowout. The Australian-born singer known as Ruby Boots sounded right at home with a rootsy mix that crossed country twang with outlaw bravado, tapping into the loose energy of a young Lucinda Williams. Several of the songs were from her yet-to-be-released debut for Bloodshot Records, including the spiraling “Believe in Heaven” that closed out the set. J.G.
JD McPherson really only knows one way to play, and that’s full throttle. That doesn’t mean that the Oklahoma native doesn’t ever slow down the tempo, but on Thursday night of AmericanaFest he closed East Nashville’s American Legion Post 82 with a set that never let up its fury. Boogieing through an amped-up cocktail of R&B and rockabilly, highlighted by vintage-sounding originals like “North Side Gal,” McPherson’s secret weapons were the upright bass of Jimmy Sutton and wild keys solos of Ray Jacildo. But the bloody minded crescendo of “Wolf Teeth” was all down to McPherson’s own animalistic delivery. J.G.
Yola Carter was one of the breakout stars of the 2016 AmericanaFest, taking the festival by storm with her powerhouse vocals and undeniable stage presence. The U.K.-based artist (and reigning U.K. Artist of the Year at the AMA U.K. Awards) stole the show again this year, putting on an arena-worthy set in the backyard of record store the Groove. Performing as part of the Americana Music Association U.K.’s annual Bootleg BBQ alongside acts like Angaleena Presley and Courtney Marie Andrews, Carter took the opportunity to share new material from what she described as a future album, like “It Ain’t Easier,” a bittersweet number that allowed Carter plenty of room to show off her otherworldly range, and the sweetly melodic “Born Again.” It may have been close to 90 degrees outside, but Carter’s set was as cool as ice. B.M.
Jessie Baylin’s last LP, the Richard Swift-produced Dark Place, was a gorgeous and haunting exploration into the impact of motherhood on the sense of self – but it was largely overlooked amongst the noise of indie rock’s less subtle fascinations. Baylin’s Beach House-meets-Brill Building point of view was never particularly Americana in nature, but on Thursday night at Amazon Acoustics’ event, she stripped things down with harmony support from the Watson Twins and turned her songs into lush, ethereal folk gems. Baylin’s voice doesn’t twang, but it is golden, and it found a happy new home in this rootsier context. Here’s hoping she’s not just stopping by. M.M.
The Nashville studio aces in Steelism stretched the notion of Americana music to its breaking point, but that didn’t matter much to the crowd gathered in the High Watt for the band’s one and only gig of the festival. Their instrumental soundscapes were heavy on the rock and spaghetti western end of the spectrum, channeling the heady vibe of Hot Rats-era Frank Zappa but reinterpreted with a heavy dose of steel guitar. Best of all was a trippy, hard-rocking reimagining of “Speak Softly, Love,” the theme from The Godfather, which finished the set. J.G.
Texas native Charley Crockett checked off more boxes than most on Americana’s big tent of musical styles at the Cannery Ballroom on Friday night. Bringing a New Orleans swing one minute and a Texas two-step the next, Crockett and his band, which included trumpet and accordion players, threw in a number of honky-tonk standards that were spiced up with jazz, blues and a touch of tejano. Crockett careened playfully around the stage during his songs, with one of his originals, “I Am Not Afraid,” juiced up with big-band effect, proving to be one of the highlights. J.G.
Pick a showcase at Americana, any showcase, and you’re bound to hear a song or two about train tracks or the trials of love and heartbreak – but you’re probably never going to hear about a hooker being stashed in the trunk of a car. Unless, of course, you’re at a Little Bandit performance. Friday at the Basement East, bandleader Alex Caress told stories of murder, misery and misanthropy from behind the keys with one of the festival’s biggest, most soulful voices, blending country with gospel and delivering it all with a showman’s touch. Playing songs from his debut LP Breakfast Alone, Caress made the case for Americana that uses the tools of the past but sets them firmly in the context of the modern experience. M.M.