Americana Music Festival, Nashville - 15th to 20th September 2015


Tuesday 15th September. An announcement at United States Immigration at Dublin Airport that their server has crashed is not the ideal start of the adventure, particularly when you are flying to Chicago with a sixty minute turnaround for a flight to Nashville. 

After an hours delay the systems are up and running again and we are boarded for the flight to Chicago. Relief all around when the pilot announces that flying conditions are ideal and he expects to land as scheduled which he duly does. An hour later and we are aboard for the short flight to Nashville from Chicago as scheduled. 

I and my, annually increasing entourage, discovered The 3 Crow Bar in East Nashville at last year’s festival and subsequently arranged accommodation close by for this year’s festival. The neighbourhood bar in the fashionable Five Points area became a meeting place for food and beers and night caps. East Nashville has been rejuvenated from what was a quite seedy area ten years ago to a very upmarket and hipster area in recent years. It’s fair to say that most of our group are more hip replacement than hipster material but the laid back and bohemian scene is more appealing than the commercialised and touristy accommodation available downtown.

Tuesday night for your Lonesome Highway scribe kicks off the festival with a visit to Basement East in East Nashville, a mere ten minute stroll from the 3 Crow Bar. The evening’s event is titled Sin City v Guitar Town and features The Bottle Rockets, Jesse Dayton, Jonathan Tyler, Keith Gettis and Aaron Lee Tasjan & Friends.

Aaron Lee Tasjan's friends include Lilly Hiatt guesting on vocals and acoustic guitar, Megan Palmer on fiddle and backing vocals, Kevin Gordon on rhythm and lead guitar and Nikki Lane on vocal. The set develops into a wonderful jam session with nine musicians on stage. The Bottle Rockets end the evening with a stirring set of heads down rock 'n' roll and include favourites $1000 Car and Trailer Mama in their set as well as material from their latest album due for release later this year. A rocking’ start to the festival and great to reunite with friends we met in previous years including WHFB Indiana Radio DJ Angela Backstrom, her husband Al and friend Ann Marie. 

Despite the late night and loss of six hours crossing the Atlantic it’s an early 7am rise on Wednesday morning and a stroll around East Nashville in the beautiful early morning sunshine.

To satisfy the insatiable appetite for CD’s and vinyl collection among our group a drive out to some of Nashville vintage music megastores follows. The Great Escape at 5400 Charlotte Avenue, specialising in second hand CD’s, vinyl, magazines and books, is the first port of call. With thousands of albums price at $0.99 the weight restrictions on American Airlines are most certainly going to be difficult to observe. 

Not content with considerable purchases at Great Escape our next destination is McKays Nashville at 636 Old Hickory Boulevard for more rooting. McKays is even larger than The Great Escape, think of your largest Tesco store and you’ll get a feel of the proportions involved. 

Preparing your schedule in advance of the festival is essential as the choice of acts is mind blowing. Having said that, regardless of how meticulously you prepare you'll always encounter a curved ball when you hear of an additional gig being thrown into the mix at the last moment or a performance at a local bar not necessarily part of the festival.

It's intended to make Cold & Bitter Tears late afternoon show on Wednesday at The Tin Roof to catch Mary Gauthier and James Mc Murtry perform songs from the soon to be released Ted Hawkins tribute album. Disappointingly the non-availability of taxis and the prospect of a ninety minute walk in 30 degree heat from East Nashville results in the venture being abandoned.  With a few hours to kill before the evening gigs it’s decided to check out small craft brewing house The Jackalope Brewing Company on 8th Avenue. The disappointment of missing the earlier show soon dissipates after a few pints of Leghorn Rye Indian Pale Ale. 

Wednesday evening’s choice of venue is The City Winery for performances by The Contenders, James Mc Murtry and Patty Griffen. The City Winery opened its doors last September and is the most upmarket of the venues used during the festival. It's best described as a music restaurant with table seating only and waiter service unlike the majority of the other venues which are standing only or limited seating. Despite the lack of atmosphere and somewhat sterile environment both McMurtry and Griffen's sets are top quality. McMurtry, not renowned for on stage banter, excels with a solid set taken from Complicated Games, released earlier this year. Copper Canteen, You Got Me and Carlisle’s Haul stand out in particular. 

Patty Griffen playing acoustic guitar and piano is accompanied by David Pulkingham, universally considered to be one of the best guitarist in the industry. Her set concentrates on material from her recent album Servant of Life, offering a mixture of gospel, blues and country all beautifully delivered with her unique vocal. New material is delightful and justifies the positive reviews the album has been earning.

Thursday evenings schedule brings us to Cannery Row, about a ten minute walk from downtown Broadway. With three venues under one roof, Cannery Row, The Mercy Lounge and The High Watt and fifteen acts on offer we start the evening with The Stray Birds at The Mercy Lounge. Recent visitors to Ireland, they are a three piece from Lancaster, Pennsylvania who feature superb harmonies and playing, very much styled on a Gillian Welch /Dave Rawlings theme. They entertain with some cover versions, new material and a rousing finale of the title track of their recent album The Best Medicine. Local residents and Caitlin Rose’s backing band Los Colognes follow and transport us back to the days of the Allman Brothers with their high charged and hugely enjoyable set.  

Next up at the same venue is the delightful Lera Lynn and her band. Lera has recorded two quality albums in recent years and was commissioned by T Bone Burnett earlier this year to compose and record material for this season’s True Detective series. She also performed on the Letterman Show this year exposing her talent to a wide audience. Having seen her perform at the festival in previous years to small crowds it’s refreshing to see a full house for an artist who records such quality material and tours continuously. Her set includes My Least Favourite Life from The True Detective series and a number of songs from an album she is currently working on together with Out to Sea and Coming Down from her last album The Avenues. Lera also tells us that she intends finally to make it across the pond in January to the U.K. and hopefully also a show in Dublin. One to watch out for.

Next door in The High Watt we are treated to slide guitars, exquisite harmonies and fifty minutes of mid 70’s southern rock from Winnipeg’s finest The Bros. Landreth before the dash back downstairs to catch the second half of Honeyhoney’s set.  

Friday afternoon finds us in Broadway at the Acme Feed and Seed bar to catch a few acts not originally featured in the festival programme. Luther Dickinson, later in the evening to feature in Jim Lauderdale’s band, plays a stormer of a set with the tightest band imaginable which features local legend and session player Fats Kaplin on fiddle. Dickinson is the son of Memphis pianist and producer Jim Dickinson and a member of The North Mississippi All-stars and his blues guitar style is as good as it gets. Unfortunately due to time restraints it’s only possible to catch the opening numbers from Lilly Hiatt and her band before heading down to 3rd and Lindsley to nail a position up front for what has been my most eagerly anticipated evening of music at the festival. The collective line ups every night at the various venues are mouth-watering but the Friday night offering at the 3rd and Lindsley is, for me, unparalleled. Commencing with Sam Outlaw (interviewed in Lonesome Highway in August) followed by Lee Ann Womack, Whitey Morgan, Jim Lauderdale and Uncle Lucius.

The quality line up understandably attracts a full house. Sam Outlaw is an artist in the ascendancy which is understandable after witnessing his slick forty minute set. The Los Angeles resident is backed by superb Nashville sessions players and performs material from his latest album Angeleno, produced by Ry Cooder. His is coolness personified, looks the part and says all the right things. It’s heartache and love gone wrong all the way and a throwback to 60’s traditional country. The stand out songs from the album Who Do You Think You Are? and the title track sound even better live and there is no doubt that Sam Outlaw has the talent to follow a similar path to Sturgill Simpson in respect of commercial success and recognition in the coming years.

More used to performing to audiences multiples larger than this evening Lee Ann Womack's set is absolutely stunning. Justifiably renowned in the industry for her warmth and personality not withstanding one the best female country vocalists, her sixty minute set includes a broad range of material from her career. She kicks off with Never Again, Again from her debut album but it’s the material from her Grammy nominated 2014 album The Way That I'm Living that is particularly impressive. The stripped back songs on the album allow her angelic vocal to dominate and her delivery of Send it on Down and the title song are to die for. A highlight of the festival for me without doubt. Whitey Morgan and the 78’s that follow are hard hitting Texan hard-core country. Beards, long hair, denim, tattoos, cowboy hats and volume dominate the stage and we are served up songs of trains and cocaine. A hard hitting, powerful, dust kicking set that is a complete contrast to the previous artists but none the less enjoyable. 

The Jim Lauderdale slot that followed is also an unexpected diversion. Jim takes the stage immaculately dressed in blue pin striped suit and floral red shirt to announce that he's going to do things a little different this year. His entire set is based on his forthcoming double album of Memphis blues entitled Soul Searching and his band also features a horn section. Luther Dickinson, seen earlier in the day at Acme Feed and Seed, excels on guitar. As expected the quality of all the playing is top drawer but equally impressive is how well suited Lauderdale's vocal is adapted to this latest venture. The material is also so impressive and reinforces exactly how talented and versatile the man is. As usual Jim comes out to the audience after his set for handshakes, hugs, photos and chats.

The venue thins out to very small numbers by the time Uncle Lucius hit the stage for the 12am slot with many punters heading to The Mercy Lounge to catch the American Aquarium gig. We decide to stay put and despite the small numbers in attendance we are treated to a glorious full on bluesy set by the band. A fitting finale to five hours entertainment of the highest quality.

Saturday morning finds the author been driven to West Nashville to be measured for a bespoke western shirt. The shirt in question is a Christmas present from the family and is being designed and tailored by Janet Aspley of Dandy & Rose. Janet, who lives and operates Dandy & Rose from Lewes, Sussex, is in Nashville both for the AMA’s and to continue her studies in the fashion industry. She has designed and tailored shirts for Jim Lauderdale, Rod Picot, Danny Wilson of Danny and The Champions and numerous private clients and is such a wonderful designer, seamstress and an example of someone who adores what she does. It was a pleasure to finally get to meet Janet and where better to get measured for the shirt than Nashville.

The trip out to Oakhill, where Janet is staying, is not uneventful, to say the least. A stubborn sat nav directs us to the most luxurious and upmarket estate imaginable with detached mansions situated on acres of manicured lawns and exquisite landscaping. We spend twenty minutes driving around the estate trying to locate No.844 and finally in desperation head out to the main road again to regroup. Eventually we are redirected to an adjacent estate and locate the correct house which is located a few fields away from where the sat nav had previously brought us. It transpires that Martina Mc Bride and other celebrities reside in the upmarket estate.

Saturday afternoon’s choice is the Bootleg BBQ-UK Underground at The Groove record store in East Nashville. Each year the UK is represented at the event together with some American acts. This year’s UK acts are Martin Harley, Lee and Leigh and The Dreaming Spires who are particularly well received. Free BBQ and beer are on offer sponsored by the organisers which is greatly appreciated. The beers on offer, it transpires, are 7.3 and 6.4 per cent alcohol content and understandably have the punters in good form in the glorious sunshine.  The afternoon also featured sets by Frankie Lee and another chance to enjoy outlaw Whitey Morgan and the 78’s who has also played the previous evening at the 3rd and Lindsley. With multiple choices for the evening’s schedule we decide to stay local and head to the Basement East for Oh Pep!, Crooks, Sarah Potenza and JP Harris to round off what has been another cracking day’s entertainment.

Ok, so here's the deal. You're invited to a Sunday outdoor party which includes complimentary food and beer together with entertainment by a number of bands. You're also likely to be shoulder to shoulder with a number of renowned musicians and music industry folk. Can't be bad.

Such an invitation was extended by East Nashville resident and honky tonker JP Harris when he hosted his annual back yard party at The Fond Object record store in East Nashville on Sunday 20th September, the last day of the Americana Music Festival. The party is aptly titled Sunday Morning/Coming Down and is attended by festival punters, members of the local music community together with many artists who had performed at the festival. JP prepares and cooks endless portions of gumbo which he personally serves to all the guest. He also manages to introduce all the artists before performing a storming set with his crack bandNikki Lane and Shelly Colvin join him on backing vocals for the second half of his show.

The afternoon also features sets by Luke Bell, sounding like a young Wayne Hancock, instrumental duo Steelism, Shelly Colvin, showcasing her about to be released album and finally JP and his band The Tough ChoicesA rousing version of Sunday Morning Coming Down with vocals by JP and guest Nikki Lane appropriately closes the afternoon’s party in style.

It is so pleasing to see so many musicians including Robyn Hitchcock, Anne Mc Cue, Parker Millsap and many others listening to the acts and mingling with the crowd. A great reminder of how the music community in East Nashville operates and how supportive they are of one another.

After such a stunning afternoon in the brilliant sunshine enjoying the music, company, bands, beers and gumbo it's time to head downtown to the 3rd and Lindsley for the final show of the festival which features Jay Farrar performing the songs from Son Volt’s Trace, recorded twenty years ago. The support act is Parker Millsap and the show is being recorded live on Lightning 100 Nashville Radio. Farrar’s band consists of Eric Heywood, who played on the original album, on pedal steel with multi-instrumentalist Gary Hunt completing the three man band. To witness this performance in such a small venue is memorable, particularly stripped down versions of DrownWindfall (featuring two pedal steel players) and Too Early.

A fitting end to six days of wall to wall music including daytime events, outdoor parties, barbecues and evening showcases.

The cost of a wristband to attend all the showcase gigs and parties at the festival is the princely sum of $50. Punters who wish to attend the Americana Awards Show at The Ryman need to join the association which costs in the region of $350 but includes entry to conferences and various industry related events throughout the week.

Looking forward to next year already.

Overview diary and photographs by Declan Culliton