AmericanaFest 2018: Must-See Artists and Showcases at Nashville Music Event

From Tyler Childers to Lilly Hiatt, our guide to the 21 not-to-miss performances at the annual Americana blowout

The 2018 Americana Music Festival and Conference gets under way in Nashville on Tuesday, with hordes of Americana artists, journalists and fans descending upon music venues, clubs and bars around Music City. This year, with an uptick in scheduled day parties and happy hours supplementing the requisite nighttime showcases, there’s a distinct SXSW vibe — proof that this hot-ticket festival is growing quickly.

More than 500 live performances are on tap, and while you won’t see them all, we suggest you make a point to catch these 21.

Fantastic Negrito (Tuesday, 11:00 p.m.; Cannery Ballroom)
While Fantastic Negrito sure does sound good on recordings, it’s his transcendent live performances that truly cannot be missed. The stage name of Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, Fantastic Negrito is a genre-defying project with a little something for everyone: blues, rock, folk and some absolutely stellar musicianship, both from Dphrepaulezz himself and from his ace band. Look for songs from his Grammy-winning 2017 album The Last Days of Oakland, as well as tunes from his latest LP Please Don’t Be Dead, released earlier this year. B.M.

Will Hoge (Thursday, 10:00 p.m.; 12th & Porter)
Somewhere along the way, Will Hoge just stopped giving a shit — particularly about the consequences of speaking out for what he believes in. So on his new LP, My American Dream, Hoge is angrier, bolder and more poetic than ever, pondering the consequences of the Trump administration and a world where empathy and decency are rare currency. For his AmericanaFest set, don’t expect him to just shut up and sing (the first release from My American Dream, “Thoughts and Prayers” skewered the common empty reactions to gun violence). Instead, expect a cathartic evening with the side of the genre that has always expertly roused political and social angst with just a few pulls of the guitar. M.M.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (Thursday, 8:00 p.m.; Cannery Ballroom)
The mother-son duo initially won over listeners in 2015 with their debut LP Skeleton Crew, an intimate mixture of hushed folksong and the vocal harmonies of Ward and his mother Ruth. They returned in July with the EP The Radio Winners, beefing up their sound with lush orchestration, big drums, and some Music Row collaborators like Taylor Swift producer Nathan Chapman. But it’s the urgency of their songwriting, along with the closeness of their bond, that still pierces through loud and clear. J.F.

Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (Photo: Jordan O’Donnell)

American Aquarium (Friday, 10:30 p.m.; 3rd & Lindsley)
For American Aquarium front man BJ Barham, Things Change — the name of his band’s latest LP — is an understatement. Having gotten sober (he was a onetime drinking buddy of Jason Isbell), the North Carolina native hit the reset button last year, scrapping his old band and hitting the road for his acoustic Great 48 Tour. Regrouping with a new lineup in 2018, American Aquarium bounced back with a fiery set of songs both autobiographical and politically bristling over the fractious state of the nation. Touring since the spring in support of Things Change, Barham and company should be in shit-kicking form when they hit Nashville. J.G.

Erin Rae (Thursday, 10:00 p.m.; Third Man Records)
Mazzy Star and Elliott Smith weren’t claimed by Americana, but what they did — utilizing ethereal folk roots and spinning them into lo-fi rock — has a kinship with many of the artists who now call the genre home, including Erin Rae, whose new LP Putting on Airs is a gorgeous, emotive confessional where the vocals are perfect but the humanity never strives to be. On songs like “Bad Mind” and “The Real Thing,” she tackles major issues in minor chords, mulling fears and freedom in the American South where one is often accompanied by the other. M.M.

Lera Lynn (Friday, 10:30 p.m.; The Anchor)
Almost an unclassifiable performer, talented singer-songwriter Lera Lynn has switched guises between virtually every project. In a few short years, she’s nimbly moved from alt-country hopeful to wounded goth to inscrutable indie-rocker. On her latest album, Plays Well With Others, Lynn shares the spotlight with a host of talented performers from Rodney Crowell to her producer, John Paul White. The only downside to the album is that she can’t really tour behind it — but seeing as how several of her duet partners will also be playing AmericanaFest this year, odds are good that she’ll get to sing a few of the songs live. J.F.

Mike and the Moonpies (Saturday, 11:59 p.m.; 3rd & Lindsley)
AmericanaFest casts a wide net of musical styles, but if you’re looking for some no-nonsense, true-blue-collar country, look no further than Mike and the Moonpies. Few able-bodied acts could even hope to keep up with the Austin honky-tonkers’ gigging schedule, averaging over 200 nights a year. Their groove is so tight at this point that they probably dream in four-four time. And the songwriting has only gotten sharper over time, with Mike Harmeier delivering his best set yet in the group’s 10-plus-year run with last winter’s Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. J.G.

Kyle Daniel (Tuesday, 8:00 p.m.; Acme Feed & Seed)
Kentucky native Kyle Daniel busted out of the gate last spring with the song “Hangover Town,” a potent mix of Southern rock and country twang that called to mind both the Stones and the Black Crowes. He brings that same heat to his live shows, which shine a light on his Allmans fandom and his sharp songwriting via live gems like the ebullient “Keep on Rollin'” and the heartbreaking “That Somebody Ain’t Me.” But hope for “A Friend With Weed” during his set at Acme on Tuesday night, Daniel’s puff puff praise-worthy toker’s anthem. J.H.

Tyler Childers (Wednesday, 11:30 p.m.; Cannery Ballroom)
When Tyler Childers took the stage to open for Margo Price at the Ryman Auditorium last May, the audience was on their feet only two songs in — and it wasn’t the first time the Kentucky native received a standing ovation within those hallowed walls. It certainly won’t be his last, either. The favorite to win the Emerging Artist trophy at Wednesday’s Americana Honors, Childers’ music manages to capture both his personal loves, plights and confessions and the reality of life in modern Appalachia, where the media narrative and the day-to-day experiences of those working just to get by could not be more different. Indeed, Childers delivers what Americana does best: tell the truth, even when it hurts. M.M.

Lilly Hiatt (Saturday, 10:30 p.m.; Basement East)
The genre of Americana means many different things to many different people, and to Lilly Hiatt (alongside names like Aaron Lee Tasjan and Amanda Shires) its broad definition now includes a good heap of purebred rock & roll. On Trinity Lane, Hiatt turns the amps up to tell stories of life, sobriety and self-discovery with a distinct Southern warble, seamlessly integrating introspective folk (“Different, I Guess”) into the Jerry Lee Lewis at CBGB’s vibe of the title track. The banjo and fiddle might be crucial players in this week’s activities, but on Saturday, Hiatt will make sure things get a little loud. M.M.

Lori McKenna (Thursday, 8:35 p.m.; Nashville Palace)
Despite being as thoughtful and perceptive a songwriter as any in Music City for much of this millennium, even Lori McKenna couldn’t have anticipated the groundswell of attention her own career has received in recent years. Long respected for writing and co-writing hits for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the Grammy winner shined new light on her solo work after sharing in the credit for Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” with this summer’s The Tree LP, giving McKenna her second Number One on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Not that that’s changed her approach any: McKenna’s music thrives on the same gripping storytelling it always did. J.G.

Amanda Shires (Thursday, 9:30 p.m.; Basement East)
Americana’s reigning Emerging Artist of the Year, Amanda Shires is fresh off the release of her fantastic new album To the Sunset, so look for particularly rousing performances from the talented songwriter-musician over the course of the festival. She’ll be part of the “50 Years of Creedence Clearwater Revival” event at Mercy Lounge on Wednesday night, which kicks off at 11:00 p.m., perform a showcasing set on Thursday at 9:30 p.m. at the Basement East, and participate in NoiseTrade and Thirty Tigers’ Songsmith Social at Diskin Cider on Friday at 3:00 p.m. Pick a show and get in line. B.M.

Amanda Shires (Photo: RMV/REX/Shutterstock)

Richard Thompson (Friday, 9:30 p.m.; 3rd & Lindsley)
Not to be held back by national borders, Englishman Richard Thompson has been one of Americana’s favorite sons for years now. The 69-year-old, who got his start with Fairport Convention more than a half century ago, has lost none of his intensity nor blistering guitar skills, which are set to be showcased once more with the release of 13 Rivers on Friday. As the new six-minute dirge “The Storm Won’t Come” suggests, this old hand is primed to remind the kids just how things are done. J.G.

Amythyst Kiah (Friday, 8:00 p.m.; City Winery)
Johnson City, Tennessee, native Amythyst Kiah is one of roots music’s most exciting emerging talents, blending a deep knowledge of old time music with sensibilities spanning classic country to contemporary R&B. She’ll make a handful of appearances throughout the festival, including the Rolling Stone Country presented Queer Roots Part at the Crying Wolf on Thursday, September 13th. She’ll also appear on two panels: “Keeping It Real in the Hills: Representing Appalachia in Americana” (Thursday at 9:30 a.m.) and “Working Life of Musicians: A Primer for Fans” (Friday at 4:00 p.m.). She’ll also perform Friday at 8:00 p.m. at City Winery. B.M.

The Nude Party (Thursday, 11:59 p.m.; Third Man Records)
The Nude Party may embrace a tongue-in-cheek approach at times, but they quite literally come by that cheekiness honestly, having gotten their start as a campus party band playing in the buff while going to school in North Carolina. Donning clothing hasn’t dulled the playful enthusiasm of this group, which dropped its first collection of bratty, country-inflected garage-punk tunes earlier this year on New West Records. Part Bakersfield twang, part Black Lips (that band’s drummer, Oakley Munson, produced the record), the scrappy five-piece favor scuzz over earnestness, but still take their wild live show plenty seriously. J.G.

Ruston Kelly (Friday, 9:00 p.m.; Mercy Lounge)
After releasing a string of acclaimed tracks teasing the project, Ruston Kelly unveiled his proper studio debut album, Dying Star, earlier this month. A stirring blend of introspective folk and rough-around-the-edges country-rock, the album has been a critical success for Kelly, who’d first gained notoriety with his 2017 EP Halloween. A dazzling recent performance on Seth Meyers showed what to expect when the songwriter takes the stage this week in Nashville. B.M.

Dom Flemons (Thursday, 8:30 p.m.; Station Inn)
A co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons’ new LP Black Cowboys is an essential piece of both art and anthropological study, seeking to correct the narrative on how we represent — and who we leave out of — stories of the Old West. And though Black Cowboys was released on Smithsonian Folkways, under the African American Legacy Recordings Series, it finds an artist who can both preserve the rich legacy of roots music while also moving it forward. Flemons not only recorded songs by African-American artists who contributed to the vast catalog of music about the westward expansion and were then erased from its history, but he wrote originals, too. Flemons will participate in a panel on “The History of African Americans in Roots Music” on Thursday, and his showcase that evening will be just as joyous as it is enlightening. M.M.

The Nude Party (Photo: Jordan O’Donnell)

Devon Gilfillian (Friday, 10:00 p.m.; High Watt)
Nashville-based soul artist Devon Gilfillian has generated considerable buzz over the last couple of years with his electric live performances, his 2016 self-titled EP and his late 2017 announcement that he’d signed to Capitol Records. With an as-yet-unannounced debut album forthcoming, look for Gilfillian to debut some new tunes alongside old favorites like “Here and Now” and “Travelin’ Blues.” B.M.

Aaron Lee Tasjan (Friday, 11:30 p.m.; 3rd & Lindsley)
Don’t bother looking at a schedule to figure out where all Aaron Lee Tasjan will be during AmericanaFest. The Nashville hot hand is prone to pop up during a half-dozen or more of his friends’ sets throughout the week, including an all-star tribute to CCR on Wednesday at Mercy Lounge, even when he’s not playing with his own band. When he does, however, Tasjan is guaranteed to produce some guitar pyrotechnics, newly equipped with a fierce set of songs that dropped last week on his wide-eyed new LP Karma for Cheap. His quirky sense of humor and flare for showmanship ought to keep things delectably unpredictable. J.G.

Aaron Lee Tasjan (Photo: Jordan O’Donnell)

Sam Morrow (Thursday, 10:00 p.m.; The 5 Spot)
Sam Morrow is one of AmericanaFest’s busier artists, with six appearances scheduled over the course of the festival. He’ll bring the swampy country-rock of his 2018 album Concrete and Mud all over Nashville, beginning on Tuesday at the 8:00 p.m. at the Better Together: Show Up and Sing! Showcase, presented by Rolling Stone Country at the Basement East. He’ll follow that with stops at Paul Cauthen’s Big Velvet Revue at the Basement East (Wednesday at 10:00 p.m.); NPR Music/World Café/WMOT’s day stage at the Local (Thursday from noon to 6:00 p.m.); the California Country Social at Fond Object Records East Nashville (Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.); a showcase at the Five Spot (Thursday at 10:00 p.m.); and his own lunchtime party with the Shootouts at InDo Nashville (Friday at noon). Expect a sound that mixes a California vibe with Texas honky-tonking. B.M.

Alejandro Escovedo (Thursday, 11:00 p.m.; 12th & Porter)
Forty-odd years into his musical career, Alejandro Escovedo remains a wellspring of creativity, endlessly capable of reinvention. After a turbulent few years that saw him get married, nearly die in a hurricane, and grapple with a subsequent case of PTSD, the Texas roots-rocker is back with a bold new set of music. The Crossing not only confronts the current political landscape, but also embraces his own musical upbringing, from the Stooges to Chicano punk, all told through the lens of two immigrants in the ambitious narrative arc of a concept album. J.G.