The Third Annual Insider’s Guide to AmericanaFest
This is it, folks, AmericanaFest week in Nashville, the week we have all been waiting for, brought to us by Jed Hilly and the rest of the hardworking gang at the Americana Music Association. It’s our time to get together, celebrate, share confidences, and experience the wide, wide world of Americana. Take off your hats and raise a glass, be it a pint or shot or perhaps something caffeinated, in appreciation.
The week can be overwhelming. While everyone has his or her own interests, instincts, and priorities, here’s a guide to some artists and events that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Be open to new, invigorating adventures and, above all, heed Todd Snider’s advice: “Enjoy yourself.”
1. The Basics
Download the app. Download the app. Download the app – and check it frequently as folks and events are frequently added and often changed.
With so many new venues this year, you’ll want to print or store a list of the ones you plan to visit and their addresses so you’ll have that info when you drive, taxi, or Uber to a venue.
For the showcases, consider staying in one place for the night. Select a venue that has most of what you want, and stay there. With even more people flocking to the fest this year, it may be harder to get in as the night goes on. Plus, if you cut down on your travel time you won’t miss as much.
Use the daytime events as an opportunity to explore and see folks before they break out. In years past I’ve caught Margo Price, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Ruby Boots, Molly Tuttle, and many more. This year some daytime events will run up to eight hours and present a dozen or so artists. I guarantee you, they’ll be ready to entertain you.
Note on the recommendations that follow: ticketed events, free or pay, are not included — just those events and showcases that badge holders and most wristband holders can attend, space dependent. I am also not using this space to suggest any panel events at the conference, as attendees likely already know what their interests are.
Finally, the good folks over at NoiseTrade are providing two mixtapes for stream or download: (1) The free Official AmericanaFest 2018 Mixtape that includes 61 tracks from 61 artists who’ll be appearing during the week, and (2) Yep Roc’s Essentials of Americana. They are plugged into my car for the drive down.
2. The Honors and Awards
While the Association has always presented a well-thought-out Honors program, this year it has outdone itself. Rosanne Cash will receive the well-deserved Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music award, and lifetime achievement awards are going to Irma Thomas, Buddy Guy, and k.d. lang. The much overlooked keepers of the flame Judy Dlugacz and Cris Williamson of Olivia Records will receive the Executive Achievement Award. While I do not know them personally, I know the label and their artists as I routinely reviewed their releases back in the day. It is nice to see that they are getting some long overdue recognition.
The awards? Several years ago Carrie Rodriguez and I shared a conversation about how few nominees, let alone winners, were women. This year women artists are included in every category, and, more significantly, are a majority of the nominees — 13 of 24. The AMA voting members have finally caught up with Americana music fans. The list of nominees is a strong one, and, as they say, all are deserving. None more so, in my opinion, than Molly Tuttle, first woman nominee and first woman winner, last year, of the IBMA Guitarist of the Year award, and Margo Price, whose years of obscurity, talent, tenacity, and touring are paying off. You can tell who I’m rooting for.
3. Is This Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Breakout?
Tasjan has been on the verge for some time now. Will this be his year? It won’t be for lack of trying. The East Nashville bon vivant is the cover feature in the current East Nashvillian and has an excellent new album, Karma for Cheap (review), that was featured on NPR’s First Listen a couple weeks ago along with an adoring appreciation by the always-in-the-know Ann Powers. He has two showcases, and will be appearing at numerous daytime events, at least three on Saturday alone. So check the app. I urge you to catch this unique talent.
AmericanaFest keeps reaching new heights. While some big names have been sprinkled throughout the showcases, they’ve done their homework and are offering a plethora of outstanding working and under the radar artists, plus some unheralded legends. There are so many exciting showcases that for the first time there are conflicts in the guide below. That mix is also a benefit in case you choose to stay at a single venue for the evening; it may help you decide which one. As in guides past, I am foregoing the big names, like John Prine, Rosanne Cash, Amanda Shires, Richard Thompson, Elizabeth Cook, and John Hiatt, just to name drop a few. Artists that have just released new albums, or have ones coming out in the very near future, are noted with an asterisk (*). As a side note, last year a Lens column featured seven artists on the verge; four of those have showcases and are included below.
7 p.m.: The Barefoot Movement at The Basement. These young folks, recipient of IBMA’s 2014 Momentum Award, are firmly gounded in bluegrass, but also make tunes by Hendrix and The Beach Boys seem like part of the tradition. They are magical.
8 p.m.: Brandi & the Alexanders* at the Cannery. They’ll kick off your week with a blast of rocking soul. (You may as well stay all night there as Samantha Fish, Fantastic Negrito, and Ruen Brothers* fill out the evening.)
8 p.m.: Dead Horses at The Local. Hear why I selected their new album, My Mother The Moon, as one of the best of the year. If you stick around till the end you’ll also get to hear The Way Down Wanderers. So you’ll be able to say you saw two dreadlocked mandolinists in a single night.
9 p.m.: Lillie Mae at The Basement. See why I picked Forever and Then Some as one of the best albums of 2017, on the verge no longer.
10 p.m.: Molly Tuttle at City Winery. Winner of the IBMA guitarist of the year award last year. Just the first of many.
10 p.m.: Hymn For Her* at 3rd & Lindsley. Armed with a cigar box guitar, banjo, and kick drum, they have a backwoods country-bluesy sound that mixes rockers with sourwood honey-sweetened ballads.
11 p.m.: Vandoliers* at 3rd & Lindsley. They’ll take you on a journey through East Dallas dive bars, Pantego pool halls, small towns, and the rolling backroads of Texas.
11:30 p.m.: Tyler Childers at Cannery Ballroom. See and hear why this Eastern Kentucky boy embodies everything that’s great about alt-country, country, and Americana. But, as I write this the app indicates that over 500 folks have already said they’re catching him; maybe he doesn’t need this plug.
11:59 p.m.: Town Mountain* at The Basement. This decade-old bluegrass band has a new sound that also ventures into some country-rock and has just garned its first IBMA nomination. See why.
11:59 p.m.: Colter Wall at Station Inn. A young man keeping the country and western tradition alive.
7:30 p.m.: Kelsey Waldon at The Basement East. In 2016 Wide Open Country named her one of the upcoming artists you need know. Also on that list were The Secret Sisters, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Nikki Lane, Courney Marie Andrews, Brent Cobb, and Sam Outlaw. Whew! Now it’s Waldon’s time. Plus, she’s promised me she’ll be playing a lot of new material.
7:35 p.m.: Yola Carter at Nashville Palace. This UK talent has made the rounds at the daytime events for several years. See why she’s getting a showcase this time.
9 p.m.: Birds of Chicago* at Third Man Records. This striking couple play folk-rock with impressionistic flourishes and gospel warmth. See why Jewly Hight and I are so high on these young folks.
9 p.m.: Kaia Kater* at The Local. Tradition takes a turn to the modern. I’ve known her since her college days, and she just keeps growing.
9:30 p.m.: Mandy Barnett* at Mercy Lounge. This is the set I’m hungering for; expect her to tear the place down from the floor up doing songs from her stunning new album (Stange Conversation) that comes out next Friday. It was highlighted in last week’s Lens column.
10 p.m.: Steve Poltz at City Winery Lounge. The most infectious and engaging artist of the week.
11 p.m.: Courtney Marie Andrews at The High Watt. A darling of East Nashville insiders. You’ll understand why after you see her. (She’s part of the UK label Loose Music’s night at that venue that also features four other artists, including The Americans and Israel Nash.)
11 p.m.: Alejandro Escovedo* at 12th & Porter. Expect some fireworks from this legend. Not only does he have a new album, he’ll also be on a panel and several daytime events and at least one showcase revue. Check the app. If you have never seen Escovedo, do so sometime this week.
11:59 p.m.: Jeffrey Foucault at The Local. I’m staying up past my normal crash time to catch him do songs from Blood Brothers, one of the best of the year. If we’re in luck, his guiatrist Bo Ramsey will be there to sweeten the pot.
8 p.m.: Peter Case at The Basement. A legend. You do not see or hear Case, you experience him.
9:30 p.m.: Lindsay Lou at Analog at Hutton Hotel. (You may want to stay here all evening as Shook Twins, The Watson Twins, and River Whyless are also on the bill.)
10 p.m.: Janiva Magness at 12th & Porter. Best blues artist you’ve likely never heard.
11 p.m.: Candi Staton* at 12th & Porter. R&B at its finest. The new record (review) takes no prisoners. She’s even more engaging live.
11:59 PM: John Paul Keith at The Basement. Expect a sublime, rocking set from the best that Memphis has to offer. JP emdodies it all.
7:30 p.m.: Ruby Boots at The Basement East. She’s a country-twanged Lucinda Williams who dives headfirst into a beat-heavy metallicism that is impossible to resist. I saw that spark several years ago when she was making the rounds. She’s more than arrived, she’s become a force to be reckoned with.
8 p.m.: Charlie Faye & The Fayettes* at 12th & Porter. Americana meets the best of ’60s girl groups. They are a gripping trio of talents.
8:30 p.m.: Jim White at The Anchor. The wrong-eyed Jesus man himself.
10 p.m.: Sarah Borges* at The High Watt. She made some noise a few years ago, then fell off the radar. She’s back, with a new album as well.
11: p.m.: Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs at The Basement. They are probably the most underrated artists that the week has to offer. I’ll be dead tired, but no way I’m missing this set.
5. Daytime Events
The daytime events are where much of the intriguing action is. It’s where the record labels, management agencies, publicists, cities, countries, insiders, and others present mini-showcases of the best they have to offer. For the audience, these events are a perfect way to be exposed to new artists and, in many instances, an opportunity to be wowed. They also offer food, drink, good company, and a chance to network with the influential folks hosting the events and mingle with your fellow attendees as well as the artists. Informality is the rule. While their numbers have increased over the past couple of years and you can’t really go wrong with any of them, the events below are the ones I am most excited about.
Noon-7 p.m.: NPR Music, World Cafe, and WMOT Kick-Off Party at The Local. This trio of well-connected powerhouse sponsors kick off the week with fireworks: Paul Thorn, Mike Farris, Nicki Bluhm, and more.
6 p.m.-8 p.m.: BMI Kickoff Party at BMI. This will be your only chance to see Tony Joe White, the swamp legend who has going strong for over 50 years. Hear why. The War and Treaty and Israel Nash are also on the bill.
11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.: 8th Annual Hillbillies & Hot Dogs at Compass Records, co-sponsored by No Depression. This has always been my favorite way to kick off Honors & Awards Day: Alison Brown and Garry West invite you into their studio (it feels like a home), where legends like Waylon Jennings, John Hartford, and many more recorded. This year’s event features Molly Tuttle(!), Mike Farris, Nicki Bluhm, and more. Yes, there’ll also be the best food truck hot dogs in town and other goodies. (Note: Conference registrants only; RSVP requested.)
3 p.m.-5 p.m.: AMA-UK Welcome Party at Nashville Underground. Our friends in the UK have introduced us to some outstanding artists in the recent past, including Yola Carter. Expect more of the same this year with Ida Mae, The Wandering Hearts, and John Smith.
5 p.m.- 5:30 p.m.: Amy Helm* at Grimey’s. Before the Awards show, hear songs from her new album and pick up some vinyl along the way.
1 p.m.-6 p.m.: Lost Buffalo Artists 3rd Annual Bloody Mary Party at 1107 Petway Ave. This was my favorite afternoon last year, in the home of Lindsay Lou. This year will feature Town Mountain, Lindsay Lou herself, Missy Raines, and more. (Not on the app.)
5 p.m.-8 p.m.: Music Export Memphis Presents: The Pure Memphis Happy Hour at The Filming Station. The Memphis folks know how to throw a party. Last year they had the best food, drink, and freebies, not to mention some incredible under-the-radar music. This year promisses more of the same; we’ll get to hear a half dozen artists, including the exciting Cedric Burnside, display wide-ranging talents that demonstrate why this steeped-in-tradition town has renewed itself and is the melting pot of creativity.
Noon-2 p.m.: Shore Fire Media’s Salute to Americana at 3rd & Lindsley. Shore Fire is one of the best PR and marketing firms out there, and they’re providing a chance to see what the fuss is all about with Dawn Landes and the legendary Asleep at the Wheel, among others.
5 p.m.-8 p.m.: Third Annual Bloodshot Records Backyard Bash at The Groove. The insurgent country label from Chicago is at it again, and in my favorite backyard. This year features one of my absolute faves, Ruby Boots (whose showcase I am also reccomending, above), along with the Bottle Rockets, Robbie Fulks & Linda Gail Lewis, Luke Winslow-King, and the Vandoliers. You will not be able to catch your breath.
11 a.m.-4 p.m.: hatWRKS HAPPENIN’ at HatWRKS. This will be your only opportunity to hear the legendary David Olney (whom I first bonded with in the early 1970s over our mutual love for Townes Van Zandt) who also has a new album out (review) and wrote a stunning essay in ND a couple weeks ago. You’ll also hear other vastly underrated artists, including Angie Aparo and Angela Pearly and the Howlin’ Moons.
Noon-7 p.m.: The Aussie BBQ at The 5 Spot. The Aussies have been an integral part of AmericanaFest almost from the start, and while they have several events during the week, this is how I have have generally closed out my week. Ruby Boots (again!) and Tommy Emmanuel highlight the magic the Aussies bring to this legendary East Nashville bar. There will be nearly a dozen in total. It’s a match made in Americana heaven.
Noon – 7 p.m.: JP Harris’ Sunday Morning Coming Down at the Compound, 919 Gallatin. I’m glad these folks are back, it’s a nice way to ease yourself out of town. But not too quickly as this is your chance to hear JP Harris. Afterwards, you’ll know why Rolling Stone just named him one of the ten country artists you need to know. He also has a whale of a record coming out next month. Along with the indefatigable Elizabeth Cook, Kevin Gordon(!), the bright Erin Rae, and the Watson Twins. They’ll offer you a soft, warm, and inviting place to fall.
Noon – 8 p.m.: Wildwood Revival Presents Sundown Social at Fond Object Records. If you want to wander a bit further east to see what East Nashville was like before the hipsters moved in, this backyard, complete with a trailer, will be more to your liking. While Lilly Hiatt, Blackfoot Gypsies, and others are set to appear, this will be your only chance to catch Legendary Shack Shakers fronted by J.D. Wilkes. Their alt swamp rock banjo carnival inspiration is perhaps the closest thing you’ll get to taking a lid of acid. What a way to end what promises to be a thrilling week.
Hell, I’m not leaving till Monday. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
The slideshow below features photos of all the performing AMA honorees, all but two of the awards nominees, and practically all of the folks mentioned above, plus some of the bigger named artists. Many thanks to the ND photographers who have made these photos possible.