For Americana UK, this year’s Nashville experience ended where it pretty much started – at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway. Hotfoot from arriving in the city around 7pm our assembled scribes headed straight downtown to see Joshua Hedley and the Hedliners. These showcases at Robert’s are something of a Nashville institution for both discerning locals and tourists – performing classic country sets from the 1950s and 1960s, Hedley’s velvet croon and stellar backing band which includes Buck Owens’ drummer and a long standing pedal steel player with Merle Haggard, demonstrate their encyclopaedic knowledge of country music and musical chops over a set spanning three and a half hours.
You may dispute Joshua Hedley’s claim that his all male starting line-up, the Hedliners, are the greatest band in the world, but they should definitely be on any visitor’s schedule to Nashville. By the end of the week, though, it was the performances of three female acts that had everyone at the festival talking: Brandi Carlile, Yola Carter and Tanya Tucker – but more of that later.
AmericanaFest proper started on the Tuesday and it’s remarkable to think that this now constitutes the 20th annual Americana Music Association gathering. Spread over 70 different festival venues with around 500 acts appearing over the five days, the festival goes from strength to strength while still managing to maintain something of a community feel. The evening showcase ‘Better Together: That Memphis Groove ‘N Grind’ at the Basement East is a great example of what the festival does exceptionally well: multiple collaborations across a whole evening, this time a four hour event celebrating artists from the city or songs recorded in or, written about, Memphis. There were some terrific individual performances, including a genuinely unique rendition of The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’ by Will Hoge, while Jesse Malin’s cover of Big Star’s ‘Thirteen’ was a real highlight and only made you wish he had longer on stage. Nicki Bluhm looked a picture in her sixties style attire and impressed hugely with her rendition of Ann Peebles’ ‘How Strong Is A Woman?’ and Nashville Honky Tonk legend Chuck Mead & His Grassy Knoll Boys finished off proceedings, rocking the whole joint in glorious rock ‘n’ roll style with ‘Shake the Hand’.
On Wednesday, British interests were represented on Broadway by three acts at the Americana Music Association-UK Welcome Party – Robert Vincent, Ferris & Sylvester and The Rails. With the mercury touching 109F, a hasty decision was made to relocate the showcase from the rooftop to the cooler environs of the second floor stage. The three acts are a decent cross section of what the UK Americana scene has to offer at present, Robert Vincent’s album ‘I’ll Make the Most of My Sins’ recorded locally, so it’s clearly a place in which he feels comfortable. An act considered by Rolling Stone magazine to have been one of the 20 Best Things at this festival back in 2016 – while their prediction of Stateside success in the aftermath for Robert Vincent was perhaps somewhat premature – his powerful blend of roots and soul means he’s always an act worthy of attention. Issy Ferris and Archie Sylvester, AKA Ferris & Sylvester, delivered a brief, supercharged set of high energy bluesy rock and their growing confidence onstage suggests they have decent crossover potential. For The Rails, some technical difficulties with the sound were clearly causing James Walbourne consternation, so much so they abandoned the opening folksy number ‘Mossy Well’ early on and instead opted for the driving melody of ‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’ – a good choice under the circumstances. By the third number James Walbourne was still having difficulty hearing himself through the limits of the PA and with something of a resigned shrug and an expletive, decided nonetheless to plough on with the title track of their latest album, ‘Cancel the Sun’. Something of a pity given the high quality of material this British duo have to offer.
The early part of Wednesday evening was all about the Honors and Awards ceremony. If last year’s awards night was dominated by Jason Isbell who took home three gongs, 2019 was about the ascension to star status of Brandi Carlile following the three Grammys she won earlier this year. Little wonder, then, that she triumphed in the ‘Artist of the Year’ category in Nashville as well. And it could hardly happen to a nicer person, her performance of ‘The Mother’, dedicated to her daughter, so moving there was barely a dry eye in the house. Brandi Carlile’s modesty and incredible generosity of spirt – which now extends to supporting other female artists in all senses of the word (she’s committed to opening up on tours for acts she really appreciates such as Courtney Marie Andrews and Lucie Silvas) – made her an extremely popular choice.
Like a lot of awards shows, its three and a half hour duration made it somewhat tedious at times, however, there were some excellent performances from Yola, Rhiannon Giddens (with a rendition of ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’), Jade Bird, JS Ondara, Mumford & Sons with the Milk Cartoon Kids, Lori McKenna, and Delbert McClinton – the latter also walking away with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. McClinton’s speech included the revelation that he had seen President Kennedy less than an hour before he died and that he was subsequently interviewed by the police because they found McClinton’s name in Jack Ruby’s phone book.
Other notable awards went to the brilliant trio, I’m With Her, for Duo/Group of the Year and John Prine for Album of the Year with ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ (yet another Dave Cobb produced effort). There was huge applause for Mavis Staples and deserved recognition for her role in the Civil Rights movement with the Staples Singers when she went to collect her Inspiration Award. In her speech she said, “I’m still here. Still singing the freedom songs. Still as important today – if not more so… I’m honored. I’m grateful. I’m just loose!” There was also a moving dedication from T Bone Burnett towards Elvis Costello for his Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting – “This award goes to Napoleon Bonaparte…I mean dynamite. The most generous of men and the most ferocious of artists”. However, it was so late that many people had already left by the time Costello struck up ‘Blame It On Caine’ – on which he was more than ably assisted by a “house band” which included such musical luminaries as Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller.
With the late finish time of the awards ceremony, the number of options for follow up entertainment were somewhat limited nearby, but thankfully serendipity intervened in the shape of Tanya Tucker’s performance at 3rd & Lindsley, which took place at 11pm just up the road from the Ryman auditorium. Kudos again to Brandi Carlile who headed straight from the awards ceremony to support Tanya on backing vocals, along with the Hanseroth twins, for pretty much the entirety of Tucker’s performance. Brandi’s involvement on Tanya Tucker’s latest album, ‘While I’m Livin’’, which extends to writing six songs and co-producing the record alongside Shooter Jennings, has had a massive impact in rejuvenating Tucker’s musical career and the mutual appreciation society the two have going on is palpable. It made for one of the most moving and celebratory performances of the festival – Tucker’s ability to put on a show is unquestioned, and her rendition of ‘The Wheels of Laredo’ and ‘Bring My Flowers Now’, had the audience in raptures, while ‘Delta Dawn’ – the song that made Tanya Tucker a star aged 13 – had the whole audience singing along and proved a fabulous way to culminate what was arguably the highlight of AmericanaFest.
On Thursday at the Easy Eye Sound Americana Revue at Little Harpeth brewery, a showcase curated by Dan Auerbach, were two performances that were also festival stand outs – the Marcus King Band and Yola. Marcus King’s was a powerhouse performance, amps turned up to 11, his fingers traversing his guitar’s fretboard with ease, the band super tight and yet languid and loose as well. His blend of what he describes as “soul-influenced psychedelic southern rock” is fast becoming a must see live experience. Yola Carter represents the more soulful end of the musical spectrum but it’s clear how successful her crossover appeal is proving and that she has genuine breakthrough potential on both sides of the pond, songs from her latest album, ‘Walk Through Fire’ proving a big hit with the audience, who were clearly impressed, particularly when she demonstrated the extent of her full vocal range and power on the song ‘It Ain’t Easier’.
There was just about time enough in the afternoon to head back down to Lower Broadway to catch the concluding part of Mojo Nixon’s Music City Mayhem at Robert’s, a live broadcast on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. Somehow, The Mavericks, who are on tour celebrating their thirtieth anniversary, managed to get their full 8 piece band on the miniscule Robert’s stage. A rare treat, they performed a four song set, including an almost ska-like sounding cover of Springsteen’s ‘Hungry Heart’ and an inspired version of Hank Cochran’s ‘Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)’, the latter interrupted when the band had a celebratory round of tequila shots. Other highlights of the Music City Mayhem showcase included a brief set by country royalty, Carlene Carter, while the afternoon was nicely rounded off by a Chuck Mead collaboration with Sarah Gayle Meech and her band, who anchored proceedings throughout the day.
Another “must see” performance followed later that evening at a packed High Watt where Mike and the Moonpies took to the stage. This band who’ve been hawking their own brand of Texas honky tonk around roadhouses and dance halls in the US for years now, demonstrated quite how accomplished they are – a blend of a more traditional, no nonsense country sound allied to great use of harmonics and band interplay. ‘Beaches of Biloxi’, with its singalong chorus, ‘You Look Good In Neon’ and ‘Steak Night at the Prairie Rose’, were all highlights.
If collaborations between acts at AmericanaFest are one example of what works so well, seeing some less celebrated but equally talented performers is another facet of the festival that makes it so compelling. The Canadian Blast at the Indo Nashville venue on Friday afternoon proved what great music is being produced north of the US border, the low, deep baritone of Winnipeg-based William Prince and his slow-talking, country-folk love songs which he frames inside traditional gospel, proving a revelation. Another full voiced performer, with heartfelt passion and a penchant for great guitar riffs was roots rocker, Terra Lightfoot, who wowed the 100 strong audience with her foot-stomping rendition of Lead Belly’s ‘Black Girl’.
Three acts rounded off the evening in fine style: Eilen Jewell at the High Watt demonstrating her ability to draw deep from the well spring of traditional folk and Americana while still managing to sound current – followed by two acts at the Exit In – Jesse Dayton proving once again that the the guitar toting Texas tornado’s hybrid of ‘60s surf rock and country honky-tonk is always worth seeking out. He was swiftly followed by headliner, Chuck Mead, whose unique take on vintage country, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll generates a sound with a swing all its own.
The weekends at AmericanaFest are largely about the outdoor events, and the early part of Saturday was given over to the Bootleg BBQ at the Groove where Roseanne Reid opened with a low key set of some of the introspective acoustic folk songs from her debut album, ‘Trails’, that have had critics raving. In contrast, a full band set from Curse of Lono amply demonstrated why their live shows are becoming increasingly popular events, the quality of their playing evident for all to see.
A desire to catch Brooklyn-based blues firebrands, DADDY LONGLEGS, meant that a hasty decision was made to relocate to the North Carolina Day Party, all of whose bands are on the Yep Roc record label. Their set of high octane, foot stompin’ and hollerin’ R&B influenced gems didn’t disappoint. Equally as good was to follow in the form of Michaela Anne who proved why her latest album ‘Desert Dove’ is worth seeking out: ‘Child of the Wind’ movingly described the itinerant lifestyle she led as a forces child growing up, while ‘If I Wanted Your Opinion’ is a terrific put down of mansplaining. The no nonsense twang of Sarah Shook finished things off, her ultra-tight band of session vets, the Disarmers, providing effortless support.
One of the keys to enjoying AmericanaFest is to shake off the feeling that with such an endlessly fascinating array of options on offer that a better party isn’t to be enjoyed elsewhere – and to simply enjoy the spectacle that’s in front of you. Early evening entertainment was provided by Dawn Landes at the 5 Spot, who appeared to be having as much fun watching her band as the audience.
The late start of the showcase to follow, dedicated to the music of the Carpenters, “We’ve Only Just Begun” – curated by Erin Rae – resulted in a return instead to the Basement East to catch Hayes Carll round off Saturday night and the last day of the festival. Performing material from his latest album ‘What It Is’ and selections from his back catalogue, Carll showed the timing and wit of a seasoned stand up comedian between songs and he received peerless vocal backing support from his wife, Alison Moorer. His bromantic collaboration with Canadian Corb Lund for the song ‘Bible On The Dash’ was another high point in a day that wasn’t short of them.
Finally, the JP Harris sponsored event, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ on Gallatin Avenue was another opportunity to witness yet further evidence of the number of superlative female vocal performers operating on the Americana circuit, this time in a series of duets with JP Harris, which feature on the second volume of his ongoing duet project, entitled “Why Don’t We Duet In The Road (Again)”. In a line up that included partnerships with Molly Tuttle, Miss Tess, Kelsey Waldon, Kristina Murray and Erin Rae, the performances of Malin Pettersen and Nikki Lane proved especially memorable. 2019 proved again why AmericanaFest is without doubt the best music festival in the world: world class acts all day every day, ridiculous value for money, southern hospitality to die for, and the most friendly people imaginable.
With thanks to Nick Barber for the use of some of his photos (http://www.nickbarberphotography.co.uk)