The 2018 Americana Music Festival and Conference brought hundreds of artists to Nashville for six days of sweaty showcases, elbow-to-elbow day parties and probing panels. Powerful new solo voices emerged, rock bands proved their place in the genre, and the old Americana guard reinforced their legend status. Here’s the best things we saw.
Best Speak Your Mind: Tyler Childers
If it were a just world, Tyler Childers would have already won a new artist award at either (or both) the CMA Awards or the ACMs. Instead, the Kentucky songwriter was welcomed into the Americana community as the winner of the Emerging Artist of the Year Award, an honor that has gone to Margo Price and Amanda Shires in past years. But Childers didn’t give a typically warm-and-fuzzy acceptance speech. Rather, he corrected television journalist Anthony Mason regarding the pronunciation of his last name, and then criticized the very genre lauding him. “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers.” It was a sharp, biting comment, a coda to his sublime acoustic performance of “Nose on the Grindstone” earlier in the night. B.M.
Best Hidden Talent: Allen Thompson
More than offering up the same old, same old, the collaborative spirit of AmericanaFest is a great opportunity for artists to show off an unexpected side to their talents. A perfect example was Nashville singer-songwriter Allen Thompson, who took two wildly differing turns at the mic during the Basement East’s Show Up and Sing! showcase. First came a dead-on impression of Michael Stipe as he threw himself into a cover of R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush.” Far more unexpected, however, was the grooving, swaggering reggae of Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up,” which Thompson nailed with the help of the Watson Twins. J.G.
Best Movie Stars: Ben Dickey and Charlie Sexton
Ben Dickey and Charlie Sexton were revelatory in the new biopic Blaze as Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt, respectively — and at an intimate afternoon set at Luck Mansion they lived up to their onscreen performances by playing some of Dickey’s original, haunting folksongs and a Foley tune, too. Sexton’s fingerpicking was as casually virtuosic as ever, with Dickey’s voice as soothing as the Willie’s Remedy CBD coffee on pour (turns out, the Red Headed Stranger knows how to make a good cup of joe, too). The set ended with the duo playing Foley’s “Sittin’ by the Road,” one more notch in their attempt to keep these potent works from being lost to time. M.M.
Best All-Star Discussion: Amazon Roundtable
If you’ve ever dreamt of being a fly on the wall of a conversation between some of the world’s best musicians, this special roundtable presented by Amazon Music’s Today in Music is about the closest the average layperson could get. Featuring John Prine, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Dave Cobb, Margo Price, and Brandi Carlile in interview with host Adam Steiner, the conversation covered a diverse range of topics, including early musical memories, intimate stories from the recording studio, female representation in music festivals, and each artist’s preferred studio snack (spoiler: Prine loves tequila and fried chicken). And good news: if you weren’t one of the lucky few present to witness it, you can watch it here now. B.M.
Best Album Preview: Kelsey Waldon
Though she’s been touring nonstop of late, it’s been since 2016’s I’ve Got a Way that Kelsey Waldon released new material. But the Kentucky native is gearing up for a long-awaited new album in 2019, and she used her Thursday set at the Basement East to debut some excellent fresh tracks, from “Havin’ Hard Times,” about life working in the coal mines, to soulful country songs about drugs (“not the good ones,” she told the crowd), heartbreak and home. It was a warm-up worthy of where she headed the next day — to open, and sing with, John Prine. M.M.
Best Backing Band: Whiskey Wolves of the West
Leroy Powell and Tim Jones didn’t play a proper showcase with Whiskey Wolves of the West until Saturday, but that’s because they’d been busy as a house band nearly every night before that. The sheer amount of material they must have learned is staggering: Tuesday saw them play the Show Up and Sing! party, Wednesday was Paul Cauthen’s Velvet Revue, and Friday brought a tribute to 1968, each one of which was a marathon affair. Whether Powell was shredding away on “Sympathy for the Devil” or Jones was bringing his bawdy theatricality to “Okie from Muskogee,” they never missed a beat. J.G.
Best Texas Dancehall: Mike and the Moonpies
Unlike many of the artists performing multiple gigs during AmericanaFest, Mike and the Moonpies only played a single show — but it was a shit-kicking doozy. The Texas band’s midnight set on Saturday at 3rd & Lindsley found leader Mike Harmeier singing, picking and Yoakam-spinning with reckless abandon. Which went double for bass player Omar Oyoque, who kept the band tight in the pocket while striking his best Gene Simmons pose. But it was the Moonpies’ two-step-inspiring songs that tied it all together, from the title track to 2015’s Mockingbird to the sublime “Beaches of Biloxi” and sing-along “Road Crew” off their latest, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. The capper: a raucous, winking cover of Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” J.H.
Best Try Not to Cry: Brandi Carlile at Studio A
One of the best producers with one of the best voices in one of the best studios in the world: it’s a singularly Americana combination, and on Wednesday Dave Cobb and Brandi Carlile met up at RCA Studio A, which Cobb calls his artistic home and where Carlile’s LP By The Way, I Forgive You was recorded. A conversation between Cobb and Carlile about the making of the album — from stories of working with the late Paul Buckmaster to the spontaneous way “The Joke” was written — was engaging and informative, and provided a rare peek behind the curtain. But it was the performance, where Carlile and her band brought along a string section for a goose bump-inducing version of Americana Song of the Year nominee “The Joke” and saw her taking the keys for “Party of One,” that had the audience choking back tears. M.M.
Best Shut Up and Listen: John Hiatt
Chances are slim that any crowd at AmericanaFest was as quiet as the one that watched John Hiatt perform at the Station Inn on Thursday night. The room was eerily still, as though the world had momentarily stopped turning for what was a veritable clinic in musicianship. Alternately whistling, grunting, and barking out his lyrics, the 66-year-old chopped through his set with a gruff inelegance that was raw, beautiful, and sometimes chilling, relying on nothing but a guitar, harmonica and his knack for emotional ventriloquism. Hiatt cut the tension with lighthearted banter, and even obliged with an encore of “Have a Little Faith in Me.” J.G.
Best Redefining the Sound: The Suffers
On their 2018 album Everything Here, Houston-based band the Suffers concocted an inspired vision of roots music that went beyond the usual Muscle Shoals or Music From Big Pink references to include joyful bits of disco and guest spots from Houston rappers. At their AmericanaFest showcase, the eight-piece outfit brought it to life, bouncing effortlessly between sultry, quiet-storm jams, horn-punctuated bangers and jazzier excursions, sprinkling in tunes from their 2016 debut along the way. Dynamic singer Kam Franklin shimmied like Tina Turner, with a voice that was equal parts tender and tough, candidly declaring her agency and mapping out an alternate history of Americana music in the process. J.F.
Best MVP: Aaron Lee Tasjan
You couldn’t walk into a bar, club or even backyard during AmericanaFest and not bump into Aaron Lee Tasjan. The singer-guitarist, who released the terrific new album Karma for Cheap last week, kicked off his Americana week at the Basement East, where he performed a bombastic version of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” at the Show Up and Sing! tribute night. From there, he played at least one show each day, culminating with three gigs on Saturday. A believer of the “it’s not how you feel, but how you look” dogma, stylish cat Tasjan sported a different outrageous outfit each night. J.H.
Best Open Defiance of State Law: Asleep at the Wheel
Legendary bands like Asleep at the Wheel certainly don’t have to play Americana Fest — but on Friday afternoon, Ray Benson and his crew, including fiddler-vocalist Katie Shore, took to the Luck Mansion living room to bring some pure Texas country and Western Swing to East Nashville. They showcased cuts off their new LP New Routes (“Jack I’m Mellow,” “Call It a Day Tonight”), took a poignant turn with a version of the late Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” and embraced stoned contentment when a joint surfaced (courtesy of Luck godfather Willie Nelson). “People say you can’t play music high,” Benson said, taking a toke and passing it on to Shore (who, by the way, is a vocalist and instrumentalist of the highest order) before launching into song. “We’re about to prove ’em wrong.” Naturally, they did. M.M.
Best Topical Talk: Immigration Panel
Diversity has been a topic of debate within the Americana community for several years now, a conversation that has begun to shape musical performances and conference panel topics in interesting ways. One of the conference highlights was the panel “Deportees, Woody Guthrie, and Immigration Today,” which sought to tie the decades-old messages of Woody Guthrie’s music with today’s issues surrounding immigration. Panelists Alejandro Escovedo, Will Hoge, Deana McCloud, Mark Fernandez, and Radney Foster each brought valuable perspectives to a complex topic that only grows more polarizing with each passing day of the news cycle. Foster summed it up well when he said, “We don’t need a wall blocking Mexico, we need a bridge to Mexico. We are intricately intertwined.” B.M.
Best Diverse Band: Ryan Culwell
Backed by Megan McCormick on guitar and drummer Meg Coleman, Ryan Culwell’s band — which also included guitarist Ethan Ballinger and bassist Geoff Henderson — represented the inclusivity he preaches on his new album The Last American. Taking the stage at the 5 Spot on Friday night, the Texas songwriter delivered tracks off the record with both quirky charm and laser-focus, whether it was the lullaby for his daughters “Moon Hangs Down” or the ominous murder jam “Dig a Hole.” But he allowed himself to go off the rails at least once — a frenetic, mesmerizing reading of his single “Can You Hear Me” that found Culwell chanting “I can’t breathe” over and over. J.H.
Best Otherworldly Sound: Erin Rae
Erin Rae graced Third Man Records on Thursday night with the same lineup of players with whom she’d recorded her recent Putting on Airs LP. The core of the Nashville native’s set had to do with her own lilting voice, at once wispy and full bodied, yet the harmonies from her bandmates unquestionably added to Rae’s gentle, calming effect. In many cases, like with “Bad Mind,” those vocals were but a starting point for impressionistic arrangements that flowed on a wave of harmonics, the musical equivalent of a dream sequence. J.G.
Best See You Next Year: Sunday Morning Coming Down
There’s no better way to end Americana Fest than with JP Harris’ now-annual Sunday Morning Coming Down, where performances are interspersed with tastes of his legendary gumbo. Erin Rae and the Secret Sisters paired up for a stellar set (with the Sisters giving a special nod to the women in Americana); Elizabeth Cook brought some killer country (and a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps”) sporting a pair of incandescent blue leggings; and Harris himself launched into his own breed of modern honky-tonk and also made space for Michaela Anne, Sunny War, Kellen Wenrich and Joe Purdy to take the mic for their own tunes. Parting Americana-style is such sweet sorrow. M.M.
Best Grit and Grin: American Aquarium
As far as AmericanaFest performers go, few can match the intensity of BJ Barham. The North Carolina singer-songwriter and his reconstituted band delivered a wide-eyed performance at 3rd & Lindsley on Friday night, delivering songs off their latest album, the politically charged Things Change. “The World Is on Fire” had Bar