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AmericanaFest 2017: 20 Best Things We Saw

From Lee Ann Womack’s royal status to Joshua Hedley’s star turn, the highlights of the annual roots-music festival in Nashville

lee ann womack joshua hedley american festival

Lee Ann Womack and Joshua Hedley were among the highlights of this year's AmericanaFest.

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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.

JP Harris

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J.P. Harris

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

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Natalie Hemby

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.

Joshua Hedley

Jamie Goodsell

Joshua Hedley

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.

Lee Ann Womack

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Lee Ann Womack

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

Jordan O'Donnell

Christian Lopez

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.

Ruby Boots

Ruby Boots

“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

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JD McPherson

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

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Yola Carter

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

Joseph Llanes

Jessie Baylin

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.

Steelism

Jordan O'Donnell

Steelism

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.

Charley Crockett

Lyza Renee

Charley Crockett

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.

Little Bandit

Danielle Holbert

Little Bandit

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.

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