AmericanaFest is the annual conference and festival put on by the Americana Music Association (AMA) in Nashville. It’s their major fundraiser for the year and it’s also the up and coming festival in the US, becoming known as more intimate as well as artist friendly than South by Southwest. About 20,000 people, comprising artists, industry jocks and fans converge on Nashville for 6 days of non-stop music. Americana is a broad church, representing all the components and genres which make up the kaleidoscope of American Roots music. All the music which is challenging to describe in simple terms, or, as I like to put it, “anything which is not purely something else”, and has an eclectic feel. It favours the acoustic guitar, but there is an abundance of electric on show at all times of the day and night. Here’s what I did during my third consecutive visit, after flying in around midnight on Sunday September 9th:
What’s on in Nashville on Monday night? (AmericanaFest kicks off on Tuesday).
Not a huge amount, but the Time Jumpers are always on at 3rd and Lindsley. That’s Vince Gill’s band, along with a host of famous session guys, and they do Western Swing. I missed them last year, and this year was also sold out, but I wandered down (45 minutes’ walk from my air bnb) to see a new songs thing that was on in the afternoon. By the time I got there that show was almost over, but there was already a small queue lined up to get into the Time Jumpers. Sold out in Nashville means almost…
It was not quite 4pm, the doors would open at 5, and the band would start about 8.
Mmmmmm, I pondered and stayed a bit, but the people in the queue were even older than me, and I had seen another option:
At the Bluebird Café, which I have never been to, but think of in terms of the TV series “Nashville”, Emmylou Harris, and the live album from 1995 with Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, Mike Henderson plays every Monday night, whenever he and his band is in town.
Now I have an album of Mike Henderson and the Bluebloods from 1995.
Mike’s been a session musician in Nashville for 30 years, and his debut album had other session guys join him in a blues session which embraces Clarksdale to Chicago. He also happens to be a songwriter with co-writing credits for many of Chris Stapleton’s songs, including the Grammy winning “Broken Halos”.
But the album is great, so I gave the Time Jumpers queue a big wave goodbye, and wandered off down to Broadway, which was humming on a Monday afternoon in anticipation of Luke Bryan’s big open-air gig for the opening of his new bar. Half the main street cordoned off. That’s how big “Big Country” still is in Nashville. Hundreds of punters skulling shots in the bars on a Monday afternoon……. Not for me either….
So off I Lyfted to the Bluebird Café, about 5 miles from downtown, just in time to get last in to the Open Mic session at 6.15pm. 25 singer/songwriters do one song each.
The Bluebird is remarkably unassuming, disappointing even, given the hype and the fame. Just a little bar holding up to 90 people, less than half the size of the Tuning Fork. And most of the singer/songwriters were both unassuming and disappointing, especially in terms of singing and playing………….
Between them they stole the show.
Then came the Mike Henderson Band. Chicago Blues in Nashville!! And what a band: Michael Rhodes on bass, the most recorded bass player in history, and part of Joe Bonamassa’s band; Kevin McKendree on piano (produces and plays with Delbert McClinton among others and has also played for Joe) and Pat O’Connor on drums.
Mike plays the blues, honours the greats, and does his own stuff as well. I knew I was in trouble when he laid down the two rules for the night: First rule, don’t drink during the gospel songs; second rule, there are no gospel songs.
Damn, I missed my wife (normally she drinks one glass from the bottle, but now I had to do the whole thing by myself….).
Just as well, because Mike swung by and played the slide with my empty bottle….
He threatened to play a Bobby Goldsboro song unless the audience sang with him, and so we did, on his tribute to the great Bo Diddley, who signed a contract with Chess which deprived him of all song rights. The song: “Pay Bo Diddley…” And amongst others: “Give me back my wig, baby, and let your hair grow bald”
Oh well, just another Monday night in Nashville……
Picked up my badge and goody bag and off to one of the opening shows, a sponsored showcase hosted by NPR Music, World Cafe and WMOT (the latter also known as Roots Radio).
This is a new venue, and in a new area of town for AmericanaFest, and as it was the first pre-show I thought it might be packed. But, no, it was tolerably busy, (which means about 300 people) so I saw two acts, firstly The Accidentals, a trio from Michigan featuring two female singers/instrumentalists and a guy on drums. Indie-folk would be the description. Although they get some acclaim in the press, and have released four albums, they didn’t do it for me. Maybe I was in a bad spot, ‘cos the sound was poor.
So I moved upfront to see the first “discovery” of the week, Knoxville’s The Black Lillies. Four-piece classic line-up, and think CSNY, Eagles, Dawes with southern rock thrown in. Great songs, great musicians, led by Cruz Contreras. We got to get these guys down under!!
The festival officially starts at 6pm, and the biggest act (in the world and which required priority reservations) is John Prine and Friends at City Winery. I got standing room only, which was a bummer, but standing staring right at the stage was sufficient compensation.
On shuffled John and his mates, wow, the legendary songwriter Roger Cook (78 years old), Pat McLaughlin on guitars and mandolin, David Pomeroy on bass, Keith Sykes on guitar, and, would you believe….. Dan Auerbach. Turns out that these guys were the core of the song writing group that worked together on both “The Tree of Forgiveness”, John’s latest album, (and his all-time best chart performance), and Dan’s “Waiting for a Song”.
They play an essentially acoustic set, no drums, and play the entire “Tree of Forgiveness” album, in order (that’s the only way, John explains, he can remember the songs). Casual, matey, lots of banter, the odd false start and silence while waiting for the other guy to chip in with a verse, and of course John’s legendary style of introducing each song with a contextual story. Pure magic…. Kleenex moments…. Especially when the encores included “Waiting for a Song” and “Paradise”, which I sang along to at the top of my voice, but fortunately with the mute button pushed (sometimes happens on Radio 13 as well…).
After that show, I felt ready to go to the airport….how can you follow that?
You can’t, and the next act, I’m With Her, a thee piece supergroup of Americana and Folk songstresses, played and sang beautifully, but it was a hard act to follow. I’ll have to give them a second chance.
Then Jerry Douglas came on with his Dobro resonator, but again, there are only so many ways to make that work, and fatigue, both physical and emotional, began to set in, and off I went.
On my way home, I popped into the big Cannery Ballroom to catch 20 minutes of Samantha Fish, a surprisingly good blues, R & B, and rock singer with a hot guitar. Very impressive.
But, home I go, and on the way out I’m accosted by Arkansas Dave who insists I buy his CD for $10 because it will change my life…. Recorded in Muscle Shoals with the Swampers, I look forward to playing this on a future show and see how life changes.
Day 2 (Wednesday September 12th):
First up today was a short walk down to Compass records for their lunchtime promotion. Managed to squeeze into a small studio to hear Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen finish their set. Progressive bluegrass is the official description. Nice picking is what I heard. Then with a bit more squeeze on came Californian Nicki Bluhm, who is really good, and after many years in the business, has just released her third solo album. Short, but impressive set, including a cover of a Dann Penn song “I hate you”.
Then off to the Ryman for the Award’s night rehearsals. (This is a Gold Circle ticket holder privilege. The AMA sell a limited amount of these tickets for a bigger price, so there are typically about 30 folks sitting in the front rows taking it all in).
You never know who’s going to appear, because rehearsals will have been going on all week, but we were treated to, first up, Courtney Marie Andrews doing “May your kindness remain”, twice!! Wow, hard to believe how grown up she is after seeing such a shy young lady at the Tuning Fork last November opening for Sam Outlaw. Outstanding!!
Then we had Robert Earl Keen, an ancient Texan troubadour, Margo Price and the big coup, John Prine again. Last year he had Jason Wilbur standing in to rehearse with Iris De Ment, but this year there he was, doing “Boundless Love” one of the songs he co-wrote with Dan Auerbach. Very casual and intimate. Of course, we now knew what was being sung later in the show, at least from these performers, but that mattered not a bit.
Finally, we got a sneak preview of the finale song, and were sworn to secrecy. A tribute to Aretha, a rousing rendition of “Chain of Fools”, with the legendary Irma Thomas, The War and Treaty, Courtney Marie, and the McCrary sisters doing the vocals (later to be joined also by Brandi Carlisle).
Then we were kicked out for a while, to allow the Milk Carton Kids to rehearse their role as Masters of Ceremony.
Two hours later, at 6.30 sharp, the show started, streaming live on Sirius and some radio. (we’ll get to see an edited version later in November, which we will try and get onto Radio 13).
This is just the most spectacular show, with live performances interspersed with the honours and awards being given out. The awards involve a process of nomination by the AMA members, with an independent panel reviewing and sometimes adding until the final shortlist is released for members to vote (I’ve voted twice now and got it right both times !!)
And the winners are:
Album of the Year:
“The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, produced by Dave Cobb
Artist of the Year:
Song of the Year:
“If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, written by Jason Isbell
Duo/Group of the Year:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Emerging Artist of the Year:
Instrumentalist of the Year:
“Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, presented in partnership with the First Amendment Center:
Americana Trailblazer Award:
Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist:
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance:
Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive:
Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz of Olivia Records
The show started with a tribute to Creedence Clearwater’s 50-year anniversary, a version of “Favourite Son” sung by Lukas Nelson, Nathaniel Rateliffe and the Fantastic Negrito.
Then came Lily Hiatt ( introduced by her proud Dad), Anderson East, Robert Earl Keen, Courtney Marie, Roseanne Cash, Tyler Childers (looking like Colonel Sanders with coleslaw stains), Margo Price, Brandi Carlisle, Irma Thomas (singing her hit “Time is on my Side”, done before the Stones did it !!), Nathaniel Rateliffe and the Night Sweats, I’m with Her, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, Jason Isbell ( with Amanda Shires), John Prine and Buddy Guy ( introduced by Keb Mo’).
Have you heard enough? Oh yes, k.d.lang got an award and sang a song.
Fantastic show, more political and diverse this year, in keeping with what Jed Hilly (Executive Director of the AMA) calls the growing tribe of the global Americana community.
Emotionally very draining, but no time to waste.
Off to the Cannery to catch Lucero, a country rock outfit from Memphis, Tyler Childers and his band (without the Colonel Sanders outfit) and then a much anticipated (by me) and simply amazing set from the Southern Avenue. Performance of the week! Memphis night in Nashville!!
AmericanaFest just gets bigger and better, which means of course the choices you have to make are sometimes very painful or breathtakingly disdainful…….I won’t see Amy Helm because Courtney is playing…. No, I’ll miss John Hiatt because we might see him Sunday night……oh, and if we do that, we’ll miss Chris Shiflet……... It’s a hard life….
280 official showcase artists across 50 venues, not counting the unofficial artists who are featured at the sponsored showcases. Plus, there are a dozen or so industry panels going on at the Conference HQ, the Westin.
Today, Thursday, I started late and walked across to The Local, about 30 minutes away, and where I had started on Tuesday. Asleep at the Wheel were on the bill, and they are a huge part of my bucket list. Unfortunately, they’d already been on by the time I got there, so I had to make do with The Earls of Leicester, a bunch of geriatrics like me in suits and cowboy hats playing the true bluegrass (none of this “progressive” stuff). Anyway, caused a flurry of You Tube access in Invercargill….. But they were good.
Then the tempo changed dramatically with Whitehorse, a Canadian outfit with husband and wife team on guitar and bass, supported keyboards and drums. The mixed gender band is almost the norm these days, and that’s just fine. These guys played what I would call blues rock, even though their website calls them folk rock. Indicates the challenge in calling the genre these crazy mixed up Americana days.
Finally, in this session on came Alejandro Escovedo, who funnily enough I have never heard (only just heard of, and I would have guessed he was a crooner). But no, every day is a school day, and Alejandro is a 67-year-old Tex Mex rocker with punk in his pocket. He had this amazing bunch of Italian rockers (who looked just like Mexicans) supporting him, including the keyboardist who plays with Zucchero. They’ve just released a concept album of sorts, with guest appearances from Wayne Kramer of MC5 and also a Stooge (on the album, not at the gig). So, they played the song they did with Kramer and man, did the punk come out of the pocket… And loud, very loud for 6pm. Amazing.
Off back to the Cannery ballroom to catch a little of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a Kansas City mother and son duo backed by an Asian American girl on cello, and a white guy on guitar. Gentle, soothing, vocalizing folk. How cool it must be for wheelchair bound Mama to go on the road with her son…..
Then, because there are three venues at the Cannery, hopping is a breeze, and tonight was unusually quiet. Plus, tonight was the night everyone else I knew was there, just by chance, so it was indeed a small world. So, I hopped up to the High Watt, and caught the end of William the Conqueror’s set, a three piece from Cornwall in England. Ok live, but I think their record might sound better (UK Americana Association nominee for best album)
Caught the full set of Mipso, a North Carolingian quintet, who play melodic folk-country, and don’t rock it up when playing live. Dreamy, well-constructed songs and harmonies and a new CD in my bag to play on Radio 13.
Then Tyler Ramsey, former lead guitarist from the Band of Horses, and his band. Tyler is also from North Carolina (everyone wistfully looking over their shoulder at the hurricane approaching their home towns). And the set was very pleasant, in a band of horsey kind of way.
Quick change to see Courtney Marie Andrews, or at least three songs, but man, I could listen to her voice all day and all night. At 11.30 the Milk Carton Kids were on next door, but for me, the bucket had arrived, and the great Ray Benson and his Asleep at the Wheelers came on for their first gig since noon (the one I missed earlier).
I’ve been a great fan of this band for over 30 years, and they do not disappoint. Western swing, Bob Wills style, is still just spell bounding. 8-piece band, with Ray towering over everybody but still playing a slick guitar, and two great fiddle players, along with horns, steel, keyboards and big old bass. They opened with (get your kicks, on) Route 66 and played a brisk set (it was after midnight) of tunes, old and new. And some covers, including a heart stopping version of Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues, and a “faster than you guys can” rendition of Old Crow’s Tiger Rag. Just bliss……
It’s Friday already, and it’s hard to get to anything before noon, although tomorrow I have to be up for the AMA meeting at 10….
Off back to The Local, to see the phenomenally great Richard Thompson. It was hot and crowded, but ok from the door. There are few artists more consistent as well as distinctive as Richard Thompson. He played songs from his new album before surprising us with a song he announced as having written with Tim Finn, and then launched in to “Persuasion”. Beautiful. I bet you didn’t know he did that!
The Milk Carton Kids were next, but I made an executive decision to go early to Jackie Bristow’s gig, because the night before she had introduced me to Kara Grainger, an Australian living in LA, and I felt bad when I said I wasn’t going to be there for her show. I made the right decision, because I’ve seen the Kids at the Awards show three years running, and Kara was great, leading with a mean slide guitar.
Then Jackie did her gig, with songs that I obviously know, but given new depth by Mark Punch who was in super form on lead, and Robben Ford’s drummer added percussion. Nice to see the kiwi contingent out in force (all 5 of us), and Jackie was pleased to see us all there. Jackie is doing really well, with a recent gig supporting Chris Isaak and soon three gigs supporting Boz Scaggs.
Simone Williams and I had our once only treat at an upmarket bistro, to offset the steady fare of food truck tacos and burgers which typify the AmericanaFest diet, and then back to the Cannery to briefly catch Ian Noe, a Kentucky native who plays what I would call alt-folk.
But the real destination was Logan Ledger at the Mercy Lounge, which was one of the “whispered names” of the week amongst the small group of regulars that you get to know after three years. One of the “must sees”. He doesn’t even have a record out yet, but he’s produced by T-Bone Burnett, and he had a backing band of Nashvillle elder statesmen in Dennis Crouch (Timejumper), Russ Pahl and Jay Bellerose (who play for everyone), T Bone himself on rhythm, and the incredible Marc Ribot on lead. Another bucket filled! The band of course were amazing, and Logan sang well, looking a little like a possum in the headlights (what’s happening here…?). There were comments about the next Elvis, but Simone and I were both thinking, we know better, and how well Marlon would go with these guys supporting him, if not musically then politically.
Across the river in East Nashville a tribute to the songs of 1968 was underway, and I caught a few songs before deciding on an earlyish night. One of the highlights was seeing Daniel Donato, the child prodigy guitar player who is often at Roberts Western World on Broadway playing in the Don Kelly Band. But what an amazing year 1968 was, just think about it if you were there, as I was, albeit just a schoolboy!!
Saturday morning and the American Music Association Annual Meeting is at 10am. This is a very informal meeting, for AMA members only (of which there are only 3000!!), kind of like an AGM, but no financial numbers as this week’s festival is the main fundraiser for the Association, so the numbers aren’t counted yet. Jed Hilly, the Executive Director, gives an overview of the Association’s activities, speaks to the few logistics issues they had this week, particularly during the Awards night, when the new Ryman soundboard went down for a few embarrassing minutes (the show streams live) and lets his Board Executive Committee (5 from 20 total Board members) speak to specific issues. I find this session very informative, as it hits home how much Jed and his team achieve on a small break-even budget. Then questions and comments from the floor.
This year I decide to go to the Aussie BBQ again, after going two years ago on a Sunday afternoon downtown and finding it full of football fans getting ripped after the previous night’s big game. Not conducive to good music and thus the music was not good. This year the venue was out in East Nashville, and a host of showcases including The Winnie Blues, Tom West, The Weeping Willows, Ruby Boots, Catherine Britt, Josh Rennie Heynes, Fanny Lumsden, Tommy Emmanuel and Brian Cadd. This was much better, and for me Ruby Boots with her rocking sound and something interesting to say was the highlight. It also introduced a local female rock guitarist called Brandy Zdan, who had also sung at the previous night’s 1968 show. It’s quite typical to see a support musician showing up in several guises during the week, and she is one of them.
Now I’d never seen Tommy live, so this is my chance. He starts off in dazzling form playing a tune I recognised from the only album I own of his. Turns out he wrote it in 1975! But in totality, he seemed a little off, or a little old, or maybe his brand of guitar virtuosity is just too ordinary these days. Just as with Jerry Douglas, twenty minutes or so is enough.
And Brian Cadd is yet another legend I’ve never heard of. Mike Elrington, a big Aussie singer I’ve befriended, and who plays our Bay of Islands festival, looked at me askance when I said I didn’t know him. I replied that I too am a legend and he’d never heard of me!! But this guy has been around since the 60s, has played with everyone, including a stint with the Burrito Brothers, and now lives quietly up in Woodstock. One of the many, many artists with age old pedigrees who are getting a new lease of life in their old age. There is money in nostalgia…..
A group of us go back to City Winery, where we started on Tuesday, for dinner and whatever showcases are on, and Mike and I sneak off to the Mercy Lounge (short walk away) to catch Doug Seegers.
I don’t know if you know the Seegers’ story, but there is a great documentary from about five years ago done by a Swedish producer who was filming in Nashville when she came across Doug, busking and living rough amongst the homeless under a bridge. Turns out he’s been in a band with Buddy Miller in the 70s, and has an old song which stands out, “Down to the River”. So, she films his life story and releases it to great acclaim at home. Doug becomes an overnight sensation in Sweden. Similar of course to Sugarman, but different.
So, here he is, live at the Mercy lounge, where I had seen Logan Ledger the previous night, and Marlon Williams two years ago. It’s a great story, and a great result. Go Doug!!
Then off I go back East to catch Lily Hiatt, who released an awesome album last year. But I must say I was disappointed with her live. The songs lose their punch in a loud rocky liveness, and I didn’t hear “the night David Bowie died”. Unforgiveable.
In fact, it’s been a slightly off day, maybe the festival is winding down, maybe I’m just tired, too much to drink…….
All of the above, but there is still one more day!
Day 6, Sunday morning coming down…
Sunday morning requires an early start to queue up, again at the City Winery, for the Thirty Tigers (label) gospel brunch. Two hours of music after a breakfast of fried chicken and waffles. It will be a two (cholesterol) pill day today……
Hosting the breakfast this year is the War and Treaty, a sensational African American couple who achieved break out status last year. This year they sang at the awards, did a couple of showcases, and act as very funny MCs for the gospel brunch. Yes, it is gospel tinged, and the show opens with an English troubadour, John Smith, who plays beautiful guitar, including a Bach sonata, and sings beautiful songs including some hymns. Breath taking.
Next we get AHI (pronounced “eye”), a Canadian African American and his band who do up tempo gospel and soul, including an awesome version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. The atmosphere is supposed to be churchy, even though we are in the hands of Dionysus. But then on comes the Reverend Peyton and his Big Damn Band, who is absolutely astonishing and sensational, along with his washboard wife Breezy, who puts on an act all of her own, pulling faces and even setting her washboard on fire. I saw the Rev at the Tuning Fork early this year, but this show, although shorter, is a real highlight.
Hollerin’ gospel blues, you might describe it.
Finally, the War and Treaty perform with their band, and do not disappoint. Last night’s lethargy disappears, and I am uplifted and refreshed.
And it’s only 1 pm….
Sunday afternoon sees a couple of parties across town, more than last year, but people are starting to go home for work somewhere on Monday, and the feeling is like, “can I actually get through another concert?”
But tonight it’s Emmylou, and her benefit concert for stray dogs called “Woofstock” (I kid you not), so take a nap and stiffen your spine, and off we go (Aussie banjo guru Bucky Collins and I) at 5.30 to see the end of the second act, an English duo called Ida Mae.
The Ascend theatre is an amphitheatre in the middle of Nashville, and just by the river. It’s a fantastic venue, and the sound is just perfect. The back of the stage is open, so you can see through to the Nashville Skyline (Bob Dylan said that) as the sun sets, the dark clouds coming in from North Carolina swirl and colour in the fading sun, and the swallows put on a show of their own.
What a night. Nearly 6 hours of music. Highlights:
- John Paul White singing “Can’t Get It Outta My Head” (yes, ELO)
- A big outlaw country crooner called Jamey Johnson with long golden hair. Like Leon Russell on steroids (he was once a marine). Beautiful version of “Rainy Night in Georgia”
- I saw Tommy floating around and thought, oh no, I’ve seen him already. But on he came, with Jerry Douglas!! Now this makes sense. Better together! And so they were. Fitting ending with a gorgeous version of Danny Boy. I take back everything I’ve said about you two guys. Just do it duo!!
- Emmylou at the end doing some of her old songs, a Gram Parsons number, and “The Boxer”. Joined by Margo Price and Matraca Berg for some other great songs which I can’t remember
- But, highlight of highlights, best show ever and other superlatives: On comes John Hiatt with his band from 1988 playing songs from “Slow Turning”. AND SONNY LANDRETH ON GUITAR!! Another bucket list, it’s all too much, I’ve had enough, get me out of here..
But not before Bucky drags me up Broadway to Roberts for a final beer and a glimpse of another guitar prodigy, Luke McQueary, and the Don Kelly Band.
So, there you have it. 7 days of music, over 80 acts, and of course to get to Woofstock I had to miss Chris Shiflet at 3rd and Lindsley and k.d.lang at the Ryman.
And others have their “best of the week experiences” stories which I have missed.
Never mind, have to go back next year.
Come with us. Come on our tour bus. Talk to me!!!