THROUGH THE LENS: AmericanaFest 2021 Was a Shelter from the Storm
Allison Russell - AmericanaFest 2021 - Photo by Amos Perrine
This year’s AmericanaFest had a subdued feel to it. With COVID concerns still looming, virtually every set I attended was, at best, only half-full. This despite the Americana Music Association’s tight restrictions on venue entry: proof of vaccination (or a recent negative COVID test) was required to obtain a “Health Check” wristband that had to be shown for entry.
However, the energy that was lacking in the audience was more than made up by the artists on the various stages. Beginning with so many stellar performances during the Honors & Awards Show through all the showcases and daytime sets, excitement reigned supreme, doing its best to wake us from the 18-month slumber. In the midst of Nashville being the No. 1 destination for bachelorette parties, COVID-19, and pedal taverns, AmericanaFest was like a shelter from the storm.
The biggest bummer was when I learned that nearly all of my usual AmericanaFest friends were skipping this year. All save for fellow ND columnist (Crowdfunding Radar) Chris Griffy. Halfway through the fest, when it became apparent that we pretty much had two separate agendas, I asked if he would contribute to this year’s wrap-up. Like a trooper, he quickly agreed.
Amos Perrine’s Report
While every performance at the Awards & Honors show was outstanding, the awards again were dominated by white men. Despite so many Black women being nominated, none won. Echoing Jason Isbell from a few years back, Charley Crockett acknowledged as much during his gracious acceptance speech for Best Emerging Artist. He appeared a bit embarrassed.
Thursday alone was worth the trip to Nashville: Waylon Payne, Kathleen Edwards, Hayes Carll, and the exquisitely quiet set by Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill, who performed their new album, In the Game, live, recounting the feelings and events surrounding a couple breaking up. But I did not come to that set blind, I had seen them just days before at Mountain Stage, where I became fascinated by the songs and their interplay.
However, that night, as well as perhaps the whole festival, belonged to the effervescent Allison Russell. Building on her performance and her one-of-a-kind introduction of Margo Price at the awards show the night before, Russell’s Brooklyn Bowl set overcame political and COVID strife by her sheer will for inclusivity, forgiveness, and transcendence.
Another highlight was Sierra Ferrell, who did two daytime sets, one broadcast by Philadelphia’s prestigious Live at Noon on WXPN radio, and her showcase at 3rd & Lindsley, where she held a captivated audience suspended in time. Ferrell has a magic about her that I have rarely seen or felt. Once you come under her spell you’re hooked.
While I had seen Sue Foley before, I had not seen her so many times (three) in so short a time. Foley, who calls herself the Ice Queen and her guitar Little Pinky, took me to school on the Austin-style electric blues. Paying homage to both Angela Strehli and the Antone’s blues club, Foley concentrated on tunes from her new album, Pinky’s Blues, coming out next month. Her exuberance was as breathtaking as her playing.
As I did two years ago, I trekked out to Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in nearby Madison for the Wild Ponies Happy Hour. While the Ponies, Will Kimbrough, and Cary Morin did nice mini-sets, the highlight was Crys Matthews and Heather Mae. I had seen Matthews several years ago in my hometown, when she was barnstorming the country doing house concerts, delivering her message and honing her performing style. A lot has happened during those intervening years: Matthews has arrived. Her songs are stronger, her demeanor more self-assured, and the onstage banter and interaction with Mae was delightfully refreshing. It resulted in what I call “The Kiss.” Despite the wider acceptance of LGBTQ+, we still see relatively few public displays of affection. Not so during this set, when Mae leaned over and gave Matthews a big wet one, to the delight of the audience.
I caught up with Chris at Andy’s AmericanaMitzvah at the Groove in East Nashville, which exceeded my high expectations. Johnny Dowd made his AmericanaFest debut, Amy LaVere and Will Sexton had yet another unforgettable appearance, Amelia White’s indie East Nashville street cred remained a cut above, and Hello June’s introspective songs hovered in the late afternoon like an apparition at midnight. I also heard two performers I had never seen before: The Sweet Lillies’ Colorado bluegrassy sound was as progressive as it was laid back, and Jewly Hight hit the nail on the head when she said a few years ago that Jon Byrd (with the extraordinary Paul Niehaus on pedal steel) was “subtly refining the folk-country singer-songwriter template” (NPR). Byrd and Niehaus have a duo EP out, Me and Paul, that I cannot wait to hear.
Chris Griffy’s Report
Every AmericanaFest, some themes emerge. Even in a genre defined by a refusal to be part of a genre, there is still a level of copycat present, as with any music. This year, I saw two commonalities present.
First, the blues is back, baby! Technically, it never went away, blues being one of those genres that churns along outside the mainstream until it becomes popular again. But this year, AmericanaFest seemed to be as much a blues festival as anything. Start with one of the truly packed shows I saw at this year’s downsized festival: Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Before a near capacity, and decidedly young for AmericanaFest, audience, the 22-year-old blues phenom stormed through a blistering set of originals straight from the Muddy Waters/B.B. King playbook.
Later the same night, before a much smaller crowd, veteran sideman Colin Linden (flanked by longtime John Prine bassist Dave Jacques and veteran blues producer Tom Hambridge) ran through a set of bluesy originals from his own recent release on Lucinda Williams’ new label.
Elsewhere, Brit Jack Broadbent and his flask-slide gave a show of virtuosity with his lap-picking style. AmericanaFest veteran Paul Thorn kicked off AmericanaFest with his own Mississippi blues rock, and Tim Easton served up his own version of garage blues just one set later.
The other theme is what I call “Now that’s Americana?” Americana has never been afraid to experiment, but even so, this was a strange year. Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei proved that every culture has more in common than different with their culture-melding set of Appalachian-Chinese folk songs. Yasmin Williams played a set of instrumental folk tunes that owed less to Hank Williams than to jazz virtuoso Tuck Andress. And at The 5 Spot on Saturday, Jack Silverman, Viktor Krauss, and Rob Burger performed a highly improvisational set that, by their own description, was “an oddball jazz band playing in the lounge scene of a David Lynch movie.” Were all those sets Americana? I don’t know. But they were all great.
Now, the photos, including many artists not discussed above. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.