What is Americana? I heard that question asked many times this past week in Nashville, by first-timers and folks who knew nothing about AmericanaFest. I do not attempt to answer that as I subscribe to what Charles Mingus said about jazz: “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll never get it.”
But I do know some things about AmericanaFest. As T Bone Burnett so aptly said in his keynote address, “Music confounds the machine. Art is not a market to conquer or bow before. Art is a holy pursuit.” AmericanaFest is one of the few remaining art forms that values reverence and tradition as much as what’s invigorating right now.
Nowhere was that more evident than at the awards show, which began with tributes to four legends in their respective branches of Americana: Ralph Stanley, Allen Toussaint, Merle Haggard, and Guy Clark. It happened in the most sacred of places, the Ryman, the Mother Church, where giants walked when they were mortals.
Living legends were also here to continue the tradition: John Prine, Bob Weir, Del McCoury, and William Bell. While other genres cast off their elders as being old and in the way, AmericanaFest honors them while they are alive, here and now, because we are one tall tree with many branches and deep roots.
AmericanaFest also acknowledged the essential artists of today, not only by awarding Jim Lauderdale with only the second Wagonmaster Award (Jim teared up when accepting it), but rewarding the monster year Chris Stapleton had. It also awarded two honors to the genre’s golden boy, Jason Isbell, whose talent, graciousness, and self-awareness is humbling.
My week began with having dinner with three friends at the City Winery and relaxing before the onslaught of the week. We began this AmericanaFest tradition years ago as a way to get together at least once a year as we all live in different parts of the country. The venue may be a bit sterile, but Tim O’Brien, Paul Burch, Colvin & Earle, and Sam Bush made us all glad to be there.
Day 2 began with Margo Price at the Hall of Fame, and set a high bar. This year seemed to be her coming out party. I have seen the future; her name is Margo Price. I caught all three of her sets. Her new album is great, and she is a force to be reckoned with in her live sets.
I started with her 90 minutes at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where she was interviewed by NPR’s Ann Powers. She performed songs solo, with her band, and with friends who are also on that bumpy road of making art, turning sour grapes into fine wine. That set seemed more focused on her country songs, but her other two performances — particularly at the Nashville Palace — felt like Rough Trade circa 1989, but on her own terms. It was Price’s own road, her own talent.
Some poor guy had the audacity to text during her Palace set, and she called him out, saying, “Hey, your Willie tattoo looks pretty cool. But, if you’re gonna do that, do it somewhere else.” Needless to say, the crowd roared with approval.
I also caught Dwight Yoakum’s stimulating interview and set at the Hall of Fame. It was fascinating to hear how this Eastern Kentucky boy got to become the face of L.A. country.
Then I had to hurry over to the Ryman, where I again worked the red carpet, teaming up with Shannon McCombs, a fantastic interviewer, and getting a chance to say hello to a few friends. Then into the awards show itself, which I will not go into but rather refer you to Kim’s thorough article.
Day 3, T Bone Burnett’s keynote address had us enthralled. I cannot more highly recommend that you read it. It’s talks like this that make you swell up, that reaffirm your place, your time, not just in the making and living of music and the arts, but in life itself.
I also would not miss for the world the MerleFest Hot Chicken Lunch Party, as I am part of the MerleFest family. Dori Freeman showed why and how her album is one of the best of the year, and Kaia Kater is a new talent you should become aware of. We had a nice chat as she came out of the Davis & Elkins traditional music program and I passed along news about mutual friends. It was also at the Hot Chicken Party where, as I missed the annual Hillbillies & Hotdogs at Compass Records (to catch Margo Price), I got my Alison Brown fix. By the way, if you have never been to MerleFest it should be on your bucket list. Set in the rolling hills of North Carolina in the Spring, it is a laid back, yet exciting experience.
Next was another not-to-be-missed moment with Bob Weir and Buddy Miller at the Hall of Fame. As Jed Hilly said before the interview, there would be no Americana without The Dead. Few people noticed it at the time, but their music was always roots-based, founded on the traditions.
From there, I headed straight to the HWY 61 Radio Launch Party to catch Margo Price again. The highlight came when she turned to me and said, with her eyes, here’s your shot, buddy, take it. And take it I did. Talk about a moment — her 30 minute set was to die for.
That evening began at Third Man, catching Larkin Poe, who ramped it up way past 11. Who’d believe that the sisters began as a bluegrass duo of mandolin and dobro? My Bubba made things quiet with their lilting harmonies that take you away to lands undreamed of — and Dave Rawlings was there to catch their set. The Handsome Family followed, and rocked it up more than I had ever seen them, doing new songs, and the one that got me hooked years ago: “Weightless Again.”
Then I headed over to see John Prine at the Station Inn, performing his 1971 debut album. You see, I was there back in ’71, working with some folks at Atlantic. They gave me an advance copy, saying, ‘Here’s something I think you might like.’ That turned out to be an understatement. Atlantic touted him as the next Dylan. It was not too long before everyone wanted to be the next John Prine.
I still remember a cold winter night in 1972 when seven of us piled into my 1967 Plymouth Fury and drove many miles to catch a John Prine show. This night, he delivered that album and then a surprise second set with a killer band — the Isbells to boot. You shoulda been there. I got back to the hotel at 1:30.
Day 4 saw me catching the Aussies again at the Filming Station, where I chatted with Kasey Chambers before she took the stage and stunned everyone with the single off her new record due early next year, “I Ain’t No Little Girl.” Go out now and hear it. Freaking killer.
I also would not miss Julie Christensen at the 12th & Porter happy hour. I lived so long with that voice haunting me. I am glad I stuck around for other local talent, as it showed how many fine artists there are out there, under the radar — great but relatively undiscovered. Jen Foster, Amelia White, and Carolina Story — you should check them all out.
That fourth evening began back at the Winery with the luscious harmonies of Applewood Road. Finally a trio born in a coffee shop worth listening to. With the likes of Amy Speace, Amber Rubarth, and Aussie transplant Emily Barker, they are extraordinary. I know them individually, but had not checked them out ahead of time. It was discovery time.
But, the reason I was at the Winery to begin with was the next act, Motel Mirrors and their swaying Memphis sound, featuring Amy LaVere, John Paul Keith, and Will Sexton. It’s as if they were all born together, while having individual careers; they are so in tune with each other, like telepathy. LaVere keeps it all together with the bass, Keith moves like an alleycat on the prowl with a guitar, and laidback Sexton lies in wait for his moments, then hits it out of the park.
I then caught Rose Cousins and Sara Watkins before venturing over to the Cannery to get my Buddy Miller fix. What a night. Another late one.
Day 5 had me missing Lauderdale at the Hall of Fame, so I made the most of it by dividing my afternoon with the Aussies at the 5 Spot and the Memphis folks at the Filming Station. Both were fine events. The Aussies pioneered these afternoon get-togethers and they put on the best show in town, but this year the folks from Memphis gave them a run for their money. I caught Motel Mirrors again, the legendary Bo-Keys (!), and an exciting new duo called Deering and Down.
With no rest for the weary, I trekked out to the Nashville Palace for the Luck Reunion, featuring Margo Price and Shovels & Rope. It was quite an evening. Shovels & Rope have a new record out, and they too have turned it up way past 11. Price sat in with them for a few songs. On drums! Why? Because that’s how she got started. Plus, they had recorded together the night before at the Luck Mansion. I cannot wait to hear that, in whatever form it comes out.
I got out just in time to catch two favorites: Charlie Faye and the Fayettes at the Basement and Dex Rombweber at the 5 Spot. Both extremely crowded, but I had to see for myself.
Day 6 began with sleeping in and going to Sunday School at the Family Wash with Sarah Potenza. I did not know that Julie Christensen would inhabit “Anthem” so thoroughly, so completely. Who better to interpret Lenny’s songs than one his simpatico accompanists?
The show closed with a stunning Potenza with New York gospel legend Christine Ohlman. What a way to send me out to Fond Object to catch local bands performing in the back yard in front of a trailer. But the highlight came off the bandstand as I had a great chat with Ruby Boots. I got her album the day before I left for Nashville and had caught her two mini-sets. I love the record, which you should check out, and was impressed with her live sets, as well as her outlook on things. She was one of my discoveries.
Then, as with all things, it was time to close down the festival with Nashville Sunday Night at 3rd & Lindsley, with local legend Travis Meadows and the one and only Holly Williams. Meadows did a nice set of country, including his song that Dirks Bentley had a hit with. Then came Williams — tall and graceful, with a great band, loving husband on lead, and now with two great kids. You can see them all the time on Instagram.
While she has a new album coming out early next year, Williams did mainly the familiar songs, maybe in part because the show was being broadcast on the radio. But she began her set by continuing her reverent tradition of covering a songwriter who died too young of gun violence — a legend in certain circles — Blaze Foley. She did his extraordinary “Clay Pigeons,” which is the greatest song most folks have never heard. She also paid tribute to Prine by doing “Angel From Montgomery.” Wow.
Then Williams closed the same way she has closed every one of her shows that I have seen, with her own stunner, “Waitin’ on June.”
As Margo Price said when she Instragramed one of my photos (#7 below) from the Luck Reunion, “Helluva week! Thanks AmericanaFest.”