36 Hours at the Americana Festival
On Thursday night, as I was exiting the Mercy Lounge/Cannery nightclub complex where the Americana Festival holds some of its most remarkable performances, I spotted Zoey and Gunnar (Chaley Dalton and Sam Palladio, respectively) from the TV show Nashville. It was hard to miss them. They were bathed in a curtain of camera flashes — from iPhones as well as from actual cameras with big, long lenses. On television, they play a pair of artists who came to Nashville with a dollar and a dream. Palladio’s character, in particular, is the sort you might imagine striving for a gig at the Mercy Lounge, if he were real. So, it was some kind of weird meeting of real and fake worlds to see the pair — a couple in real life, both actually really musicians, to boot — show up to the actual real-life Americana Festival.
But this is what Nashville, Tennessee does these days. Thanks in large part, I imagine, to the series which is directed by T Bone Burnett’s wife and which boasts Mr. Americana, Buddy Miller, as one of its chief music supervisors. I was only surprised that neither Palladio nor Dalton (nor Chip Esten, nor Jonathan Jackson, nor — especially — Lennon and Maisy Stella) were called upon to perform this year.
I bring this up mainly because Nashville is, shall we say, evolving. In the five years or so that I’ve been attending the Americana Music Association’s annual conference and festival, I’ve seen Music City pop through growth spurts from being an outpost of outlaw country and vaguely twangy pop music, to a condo-speckled destination town for espresso bars and bearded hipster dudes. Nashville has become just generally more crowded and more polished and, in the process, so has the Americana festival. The latter, however, thankfully, still prioritizes exquisite musical performances over all else.
In the brief 36 hours that I made my way around the AMAs, I caught dreamy-voiced Robby Hecht and Caroline Spence, plus the other Mr. Americana, Jim Lauderdale, during coffee hour at a PR office. I saw Robert Plant lunching with Alison Krauss at a chain Mexican restaurant. Talked to a guy about plans for a major folk music event. Saw the Duhks in a crowded, shrunken recording studio, rocking like they were in a concert hall. I grabbed spicy fried chicken next to Mike Farris, before we talked in-depth about revving up the band, and the magic of music-making, the soul-stirring catharsis of one of Mary Gauthier’s most incredible songs. (Yes, I’ll share that interview soon.) I stood in line at a packed-beyond-capacity Station Inn before calling it a night, got my ears blown out at Third Man Records by the sleepy singer-songwriteriness that is Gregory Alan Isakov (of all people to blow my ears out). Saw Loretta Lynn sing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” on the Ryman stage. Watched Taj Mahal blow the minds of hundreds in a rapt audience as he ticked his head back and forth and shook his butt and ripped the heck out of some honest-to-goodness blues music.
Which brings me back to the Mercy Lounge/Cannery complex, where Amy Ray and her freakishly tight country band delivered a killer set. Then it was Parker Millsap killing the very same stage (if you could manage to squeeze your way past the dense crowd, up the stairs), living up to the bar he set for himself when he showed up dressed like Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. Downstairs, Trigger Hippy brought the jams, with Jackie Greene ripping hard on guitar and Joan Osborne singing in that grumbly gospel alto that’s practically her trademark, tambourine banging against her whirling hips. What’s perhaps even more remarkable — given all I managed to see in that short time — was all that I missed in the same time. Just before I arrived for the Duhks in that small studio, John Cowan was breaking some hearts. As I waited in line at the Station Inn, Langhorne Slim hosted a monumental jam for the Bluegrass Situation and Todd Snider and friends were ripping it down the road, where ND’s own Dave Champine was getting his mind rocked. While Isakov was blowing my ears out, Buddy Miller was playing Loretta Lynn songs with LeeAnn Womack on vocals over at the Cannery. While I was digging hard on Trigger Hippy in that same room, Lake Street Dive was throwing it down upstairs.
You just can’t see everything, and that’s the truth. But, as Nashville and the AMA festival become more crowded and hip, it’s good to see at least the latter is holding fast to its roots and directing the crowds toward music that matters.
Photo of Parker Millsap from the AMA Awards, before he dressed like Elvis. (c) Amos Perrine.