It’s that time of year again and the first thought is how the past twelve months have gone by in such a flash. As was the case last year, Lonesome Highway booked accommodation in the heart of East Nashville close to the Five Points yet only ten minutes’ drive into Broadway which is the more commercial Downtown area. East Nashville has become more and more popular in recent years and is a particularly vibrant neighbourhood with hip music venues such as Basement East, The 5 Spot and The Family Wash and some buzzing bars including the 3 Crows, The Crying Wolf, The Duke and The Village Pub and Beer Garden, to mention but a few. It’s also where two cool independent record stores, The Fond Object and The Groove are located. Both of these record stores host outdoor showcases during the festival and given that a large amount of the artists actually live in the East Nashville neighbourhood, you’re most likely to be rubbing shoulders with many of these people together with visiting musicians who seem to gravitate to these two venues in particular.
As has been the case in recent years the weather on arrival in Tennessee was glorious, approaching 90 degrees. Daylight was from approximately 7am to 7pm which resulted in the perfect evening temperatures.
The Americana Music Festival developed a particularly user friendly programme/schedule ‘app’ some weeks in advance of the festival. It included a complete listing of all the artists, venues, showcases, conferences etc. and allowed you to prepare your own schedule in advance of the festival. The app was constantly updated which also allowed you to view the interest and probable attendance numbers to be expected at the various shows which was very useful particularly if the intention was to ‘venue hop’ each evening to attend a number of shows.
Having arrived on schedule at our accommodation on Edgewood Place in the early evening we decided to pay a visit to The Country Bar on 28th Avenue North. The evenings music on offer included The Black Feathers, Don Gallardo, The Rosellys and Hannah Aldridge. I was quite looking forward to seeing Bristol based The Rosellys perform and was not disappointed by their laid back blend of country infused folk. Don Gallardo, a regular visitor to the UK, performed material from his current Clubhouse Records album Hickory and the extremely accomplished Hannah Aldridge played a spell binding solo set to close the evening. Mention should also be given to the young Texas born Rachel Laven who made a guest appearance and had quite a number of punters in line to buy her debut album Love and Luccheses at the end of the evening.
The first observation is how the festival, currently in its 17th year, is increasing in popularity year on year, not surprising given the quality of acts on offer for a very reasonable cost. This year’s line-up offers a choice of nearly 200 acts over a number of venues, many of which are in close proximity to each other.
Early Tuesday morning featured the annual trip to the thrift and discount record stores around Nashville for certain members of our party to seek out bargains and rarities in both vinyl, cd’s and books. The two larger stores, The Great Escape and McKays, stock literally thousands of records, books and memorabilia, mostly second hand (or pre-loved which seems to be the more politically correct description). Prices for albums are generally pitched at ninety-nine cents each with discounts for buying in bulk. Needless to say our car boot was half full after a few hours visiting a number stores. Next stop was The Mercy Lounge to collect our pre-purchased wristbands. They cost $60 each and entitle the buyer access all the showcase acts and many afternoon outdoor events during the festival. Entry to The AMA Award Show held at The Ryman is not included and visitors intending going to the show must purchase a laminate prior to buying tickets. Having attended the award show in previous years we decided to give it a miss this year.
Having regrouped to distribute wristbands and slake thirsts our party headed out to The Fond Object, a mere ten minute Uber drive, to take in some music outdoors in the glorious sunny afternoon. The afternoon’s entertainment was provided primarily by musicians residing in East Nashville. Radio presenter, film maker, record producer and singer song writer Anne McCue got the afternoon of to a flying start with a set that featured mostly material from her wonderful current jazz-influenced album Blue Sky Thinkin’. One of Nashville’s hardest working artists Tim Easton followed and the equally talented (and recently married) Amy Speace also delivered a beautifully laid back set. Kevin Gordon and Wild Ponies were also on the set list but unfortunately we had to make a dash to The Basement East at 917 Woodland Street to get in line for what promised to be a stunning evening’s entertainment.
One of the most highly anticipated shows of the festival the sponsors Guitartown and Sin City christened the event Better Together and promised a five-hour marathon at the five hundred capacity venue. The first part of the show was to be co-hosted by both Chuck Mead of BR549 fame and the hardest working musician in Nashville Aaron Lee Tasjan, with the final two hours presented by the legendary Lee Ann Womack.
The anticipation was well founded with the show kicking off with a ripping version of I Can’t Explain by Chuck Mead and finishing some five hours later in style by Lee Ann Womack singing the Way That I’m Living from her excellent album of the same title.
In between we had stunning contributions by both Mead and Tasjan with a backing band made up of some of Nashville’s finest, we had the legendary 75 years young Charlie Mc Coy (who has played with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Chet Atkins to name a few) blasting out Baby Elephant Walking on harmonica, we had Dan Baird, Buddy Millar, Jim Lauderdale and Patty Griffin all performing. However, the highlight of many highlights was the appearance of Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell and the four song set that they contributed. Shires played You Are My Home, the closing track of her latest album My Piece of Land. The gorgeous love song which includes some beautiful violin playing by Mrs.Isbell and a wonderful guitar solo by her husband. Isbell name checked the eccentric and Nashville based bad boy Todd Snider noting that after his day everyone will claim to have known Snider, before launching into Play A Train Song, one of Snider’s many exceptional songs. Flagship by Isbell from his award winning 2015 album Something More Than Free completed their set.
The Country Music Hall of Hall is an iconic building situated on 222 5th Avenue South and is the largest museum in the world representing primarily American music. In 1964 The Country Music Association was chartered by the state of Tennessee to begin the process of gathering all information and memorabilia relating to American music. Originally located in a small car park in Nashville the museum moved to a 130,000 square foot building in Downtown Nashville in 1971 and subsequent extensions resulted in the building currently occupying 350,000 square feet. Wednesday morning at 9.15am found us at the museum, arriving early to gain entry to a gathering and interview with Margo Price due to take place at 11.30am. She is without doubt the most talked about artists in town at present. Practically unknown this time last year, the Illinois born Price, now residing in East Nashville, has taking the country music industry by storm this year. Her debut album Midwest Farmers Daughter was the first album by a female solo artist in history to enter the top ten in the Billboard Country Music charts. This morning’s event is titled Songs We Love; Americana Edition; Margo Price and Friends. It is moderated by Ann Powers of NPR music and takes the format of a This Is Your Life show featuring Price, her husband, band and a selection of friends who discuss and recall the circumstances that have led to her meteoric rise to fame.
The show starts with Price and her band performing Hands of Time, the opening track from her album and a song in itself that recalls her transition from childhood to her current status. What follows is a journey through her musical history, which started by playing as a folk duo with her husband Jeremy, part of the country blues band Buffalo Clover and finally, after quite a number of rejections, her album been picked up by Jack White’s Third Man Records, the first country album to be released on that label. Ann Powers introduced a number of Prices musical friends and fellow East Nashville residents such as Lilly Hiatt, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Erin Rae who recalled the graft and determination that Price displayed to get the breaks her talent so richly deserved. Each artist also performed on stage with Price. Erin Rae, better known as a backing singer, sang the beautiful Clean Slate (a song that Lonesome Highway suggested was probably the best of the year when reviewing the album earlier this year) from her debut album Soon Enough, with backing vocals by Price and Lilly Hiatt. Guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who has played with Lucinda Williams, Marty Stuart and was an original member of Margo’s backing band The Pricetags, joined the band on stage for the final number and there were also contributions from producer Matt Ross-Spang who recalled how the album only took three days to record at Sun Studio Memphis as a result of Price and her band being so well prepared and professional. Also introduced to the stage was Price’s grand uncle Bobby Fischer who has written songs for Reba Mc Entire, Phil Vassar and a host of others during his forty-year career. Price told of how influential and supportive Fischer has been throughout her musical journey. A wonderful ninety minutes indeed, professionally moderated by Ann Powers and an introduction to the modest, articulate and extremely talented artist that is Margo Price.
The evening showcase acts generally start at 8pm and finish at 12.45am with each act playing a forty-five-minute slot. However, as the AMA’s Award Show is held on the Wednesday evening the showcases do not start until 10pm that night. After some very difficult choices which included Dwight Yoakam at The Mercy Lounge (with a likely queue for ninety minutes), a rumoured appearance by Steve Earle and Jason Isbell at Roberts Western World (which did in fact materialise) we decided to opt for The Station Inn where Aoife O’Donovan was the main attraction. The Station Inn is a landmark music room in Nashville best known for featuring bluegrass acts and is located on 12th Avenue South, a prime location in an area which has seen major redevelopment in recent years. There were three acts playing this evening, firstly Americana String Band Moonsville Collective from California who warmed up the audience with a lively set. The venue was packed to the doors for Aoife O’Donovan’s set and in recognition of the esteem she is held in she was introduced on stage by AMA Executive Director Jed Hilly, who had made a dash from the Award Show at The Ryman to do the honours. A long-time favourite of Lonesome Highway, Ms O’Donovan name checked us after two songs adding that we had attended the first night of the current tour in Dublin last January. Her backing band consisted of Anthony da Costa on percussion and the wonderful Steve Nister on guitar and as was the case in Dublin the trio performed a mesmerising set with the majority of the material from her current album in The Magic Hour.
Closing out the evening was Front Country from San Francisco. Described as a bluegrass band a more fitting description might be soulgrass based on the sassy and soulful vocals by Melody Walker, who was accompanied by mandolin, violin, guitar and bass. A young group of musicians that certainly made an impression and a name that I expect we will be hearing more about in the future
Those who did attend the Americana Music Association Award Show were treated to appearances by the cream of the industry including the following award winners -
Album of the Year: Something More Than Free Jason Isbell
Artist of the Year: Chris Stapleton
Group/Duo of the Year: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Song of the Year: 24 Frames Jason Isbell; Written by Jason Isbell
Emerging Artist of the Year: Margo Price
Instrumentalist of the Year: Sara Watkins
Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award co-presented by the Americana Music
Association and the First Amendment Centre: Billy Bragg
Lifetime Achievement Award, Trailblazer: Shawn Colvin
Lifetime Achievement Award, Song writing: William Bell
Lifetime Achievement Award, Performance: Bob Weir
Lifetime Achievement Award, Wagon Master: Jim Lauderdale
Thursday lunchtime was spent at Alley Taps in Printers Alley which is located in Downtown Nashville. The occasion was an invite only preview show of Emily Barker’s latest album due for release in early 2017. It was recorded at the famous Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis and was produced by Matt Ross Spang who recorded both Jason Isbell and Margo Price’s recent albums. As you would expect the sound was soul drenched, rootsy and quite wonderful. Emily was joined on stage by the actual session players that will feature on the album which included Rick Steff (Lucero, Dexys Midnight Runners) on keyboards, Steve Potts (Neil Young, Booker T & The MGs) on drums, Dave Smith (John Mayall, Cat Power, Buddy Millar, Norah Jones) on bass and David Cousar (Al Green, Amy La Vere) on guitar. Super stuff by the versatile and talented Barker who seems to have an endless number of projects on the go at any given time and a wonderful way to spend a Thursday lunchtime.
The next stop later on that afternoon was at New West Records Headquarters recently opened at Berry Hill Drive South Nashville. New West record a house hold list of artists including Buddy Miller, Sara Watkins, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Shovels & Ropes, Luther Dickenson and Giant Sand to name but a few. The party which started at 5pm and finished at 8pm and was held outdoors, included complimentary food and beer and great music provided by Lilly Hiatt, Sammy Brue, Sara Watkins and Aaron Lee Tasjan. Time restraints allowed us to only catch the opening act Lilly Hiatt who performed a blistering set from her opener Jesus Would Have Let Me Choose the Restaurant to her closing number Somebody’s Daughter. It was unfortunate having to leave just as Sammy Brue was starting his set. Brue is the youngest artist to have appeared at the festival having played at the age of thirteen and the now fifteen old recent Nashville resident is surely destined for a bright future with appearances already at The Newport Folk Festival and Summerfest.
Having been kindly offered a lift back to town we managed to catch the last two songs of Mindy Smith’s slot at independent record company The Razor and Tie before driving a dozen blocks to the 3rd & Lindsley which was hosting an evening of sets by artists from Oklahoma. First up was Austin based Jimmy La Fave whose blend of folk, country and blues has earned him a considerable reputation among music lovers and his peers over his thirty-year career. He performed as a duo this evening and no doubt won over some new fans with his relaxed yet rootsy set. Carter Sampson was on stage next accompanied only by a guitar player. Sampson is finally making a deserved breakthrough in Europe and the UK having released a number of excellent albums among them her most recent Wilder Side. Her vocals are divine, powerful yet sweet as she performed stand out tracks from her last two albums including Wilder Side and her signature song Queen of Oklahoma. She excitedly informed us how honoured she was to having fellow Okie Wanda Jackson watching from the side of the stage.
A quick dash from the 3rd & Lindsley to The Cannery Ballroom had us up front stage just in time for the start of Dori Freeman’s slot, an act I had been particularly looking forward to seeing. Freeman is a 25 year old singer songwriter from Galax, Virginia whose debut album released in February of this year took the industry by complete surprise. It’s an album that you expect from an artist that had been living and groomed in Nashville for a number of years instead of being released on a very small Washington D.C. label, Free Dirt Music. It certainly made its mark with us at Lonesome Highway and Freeman was one of the new artists that caught my attention this year. Regrettably she got a graveyard slot, scheduled immediately before Rodney Crowell, which resulted in the large venue being very well attended but also meaning that she had to play to an extremely talkative crowd. Unlike audiences in Ireland and the UK in the main, there seems to be a tendency in the States for people to attend shows and proceed to talk to partners and friends throughout the acts. Many of the crowd, even at front stage, seemed to be doing their level best to make as much noise as possible throughout her singing and only stopped talking at the end of each song to applaud! Playing on one of the largest stages at the festival Freeman, who could pass for a mid teenager given her diminutive stature, stood mid stage accompanied only by a percussionist. Halfway through her set, having made a casual remark about the verbals offstage, she turned to her stage colleague and we could hear here gently saying to him ‘I gonna do this’ and bravely launched in to a quite wonderful acapella which did actually result in some quiet in the hall. Her wonderful set, one of my favourites of the festival, featured You Say, Tell Me and the superb Go on Loving from her debut album and also an appearance by Teddy Thompson (who was involved in the production of the album) on backing vocals. Despite the ‘talkers’ this young lady certainly gained a number of new fans among our group and is an artist that we hope plays Ireland in 2017.
A mere twenty minutes later and Rodney Crowell was on stage with a full band and being, well just being Rodney Crowell. No surprises, simply forty-five minutes of nonstop favourites played at pace to a loving crowd. Stars on the Water, Ain’t Living Long Like This and Leavin’ Louisiana in particular worked well to mention a few and superb playing by Crowell, Jeff Hughes on guitar and Steve Fishell on pedal steel and guitar was a joy to behold. I’ve been lucky to see Crowell perform many times over the years but this really topped the lot.
Friday morning involved a visit to Grimeys Record Store on 1604 8th Avenue South which is without doubt the premier independent record store in Nashville. It is located above The Basement which was one of the music venues used throughout the festival and also possess a large car park which was also used for afternoon events during the week. An adjoining building, owned by Grimeys, includes a bookstore stocking new and second hand books, cd’s and vinyl. It’s a great spot to spend an hour or two, browsing, listening to music and inevitably engaging in a spot of retail therapy.
The afternoon found us at the rear of Groove Record Store a mere ten minutes’ walk from our house for the annual Bloodshot Records Backyard Bash. The schedule included four of the labels acts, Lydia Loveless, Robbie Fulks, Cory Branan and The Bottle Rockets. With the temperature well into the nineties and a large crowd in attendance a place in the shade was an imperative. Lydia Loveless played solo but with maximum attitude as expected and no less talent. Her set featured material from her current album Real, possibly the album which will gain her the deserved industry breakthrough and recognition she deserves. Given the temperature levels I decided to slip down the road and go indoors to The 5 Spot where Tim Carroll was playing his weekly residency with his crack band. Carroll’s ability to still write three minute, one hundred miles an hour songs is laudable and as a result his band, air conditioning and cold beer resulted in me staying for his whole set and not getting back to The Groove for The Bottle Rockets or Robbie Fulks. Can’t win them all unfortunately.
Hopping in an Uber, ten minutes later we are Downtown having decided to work between The Mercy Lounge, The High Watt and Cannery Row on the Friday evening, all three venues being under one roof and fifteen acts on offer. A few songs from The Secret Sisters before slipping downstairs to catch the start of Lee Ann Womack’s set at a very packed Cannery Row. Lover of all things Lee Ann Womack as I am, the main attraction for me of the evening was Marlon Williams scheduled upstairs at The Mercy Lounge. The twenty-five-year-old New Zealander’s debut album had highly impressed me earlier in the year and having heard positive reports of his live shows he was top of my wish list. Difficult to describe or categorise, his soaring, sophisticated and rich vocal range slots somewhere between Scott Walker and Jeff Buckley. He certainly did not disappoint, quite unique and quirky and his delivery and take on the Billy Fury song I’m Lost Without You was stunning.
Downstairs at the heaving The Cannery Ballroom Buddy Millar was halfway through his set but we managed to catch the final twenty minutes. As expected Millar introduces a number of guests on stage including Jim Lauderdale and Lee Ann Womack.
Saturday morning involved a second visit to The Country Music Hall of Fame for an event titled Songwriters Session: Jim Lauderdale. The sixty-minute show comprises of songs and an interview with the Nashville legend and one of the most popular characters in the industry. Always full of surprises Lauderdale tells us that the interview is going to be slightly unorthodox as he has decided to play the part of both interviewer and interviewee and proceeds to launch a series of questions and answers which involves him moving from one side of the chair to the others while adopting both roles. Lauderdale as expected also includes song in the show, playing the title track from his latest album (and 28 release) This Changes Everything and the closing track from the album, Drive, a co-write with Hayes Caryll. The interview is informative and honest with Lauderdale confessing to only getting a record label at the age of 34 after many years of rejection and was only finally in a position to support himself four years later when his iconic song The King of Broken Hearts was recorded by George Strait.
The event closed with a question and answer session which was particularly interesting given the number of singer songwriters in the audience. Dealing with rejection, which Lauderdale noted was still a reality for him, was fascinating. A young female writer from the floor asked how to best deal with it and Lauderdale’s reply was both enlightening and positive when he simply said "I write my way out of it". As always he spend at least a half hour after the show meeting, greeting, signing albums and allowing photos with him to be taken. Some things change in the music industry from time to time but Jim has proved consistently over the years to be one of the most honest and likeable artists in the business.
The afternoon saw a return to The Groove for the yearly Bootleg BBQ which is a showcase produced in association with Americana UK and featuring a number of UK and International acts. Free beer and food is also provided by the sponsors and the event runs from noon to 6pm. This year’s line-up includes UK acts Robert Vincent, William the Conqueror, Yola Carter, Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones together with American band Sons of Bill, The Americans and Applewood Road, a three piece all female act made up of Amy Speace (USA), Emily Barker (Australia) and Amber Rubarth (USA).
I missed the first two acts but arrived in time to catch the last two songs by Yola Carter who wooed the crowd with her powerhouse vocals and country blues style verging on gospel. Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones set featured material from their current album Little Windows, the stand outs being I Never Knew You Loved Me Too and You Can’t Call Me Baby. Their harmonies were to die for and Thompson’s relaxed stage presence interspersed with humour made for a highly enjoyable forty-five minutes. Equally enjoyable was the glorious vocal trio that is Applewood Road, three artists that live thousands of miles apart but managed to record their excellent debut album which has been gaining very positive reviews. Particularly well received were their performances of the title track of the album also called Applewood Wood and a silky version of Loving My Religion enhanced by heavenly harmonies from the three ladies.
Sons of Bill are no strangers to Lonesome Highway having been one of the star performers at Kilkenny Roots Festival a few years back. This afternoon the Virginia based brothers play a stripped back acoustic two piece set and include a particularly riveting rendition of Brand New Paradigm from their current album Love and Logic.
Last to play are The Americans, a band I had heard quite a lot about without having listened to their music and they certainly did not disappoint. A four piece rock band hailing from Los Angeles they have supported Lucinda Williams, Ryan Bingham and Nick Cave. The PBS documentary American Epic was produced by T Bone Burnett who is quoted as saying that the band are part of a group reinventing American heritage music for this century. High praise indeed and in fact Burnett attended their showcase concert later that evening at The Station Inn and even got on stage and sang a number himself. They sounded excellent this afternoon and are an act I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for.
Next pit stop was The Mercy Lounge for Jason Eady and his band. Having witnessed a blistering straight down the middle honky tonk set from Eady two years ago at the same venue this was an artist that was certainly not to be missed. Last time out he included his wife and singer songwriter Courtney Patton in his band but this time around he performed with an ass kickin’ four-piece band of upright bass, guitar, drum and pedal steel. Opening with AM Country Heaven he played a wonderful set that reminded me of exactly why I love die hard traditional country music. His sound is very much in the Merle Haggard School of country and it continues to baffle me as to why he is not a household name given the quality of the many albums he has released and his stomping live shows.
Next on our list is Dylan LeBlanc who was due to start thirty minutes after Eady but in The Anchor Fellowship which is located approximately a mile away from the Mercy Lounge. As we exited the venue and anticipated a fifteen-minute walk in extreme heat it came to our attention that a female bicyclist with a back car was offering rides at the princely sum of one dollar per block. Two of us hopped in the back and the young lady somehow managed to transport our combined thirty stone weigh to the venue in no time at all. The Anchor Fellowship is a small converted church at 629 3Avenue South and still functions as a multi-domination church together with staging music and art shows. Having been informed by a number of locals that it is also known as the mini Ryman I was determined to get to see at least one act at the venue. Dylan LeBlanc first two albums did not particularly light my fire but I have been loving his latest offering Cautionary Tales. Renowned for his shyness I was expecting a laid back acoustic set either solo or possibly as a duo. How wrong could I get! His six piece band at an ear deafening level played a blistering set covering the best part of Cautionary Tales in what was without doubt one of my highlights of the festival. LeBlanc was on fire on stage and a total contradiction to the very shy and humble young man that we congratulated at the end of a stunning performance.
The 5 Spot is a local bar and music venue in east Nashville where many of the local artists get there first musical break and it’s where we decided to relocate for the last two acts of the evening. Hollis Brown, named after the Bob Dylan The Ballad of Hollis Brown, are the brainchild of New Yorkers Mike Montali and Jonathan Banilla. They perform as a four piece landing somewhere between New York 70’s punk and southern rock. They certainly hit the right notes this evening with a lively set played to an audience which probably included as many local musicians as it does festival goers. The night ended in some style by the one-man blues dynamo that is Dex Romweber who, in a former life, was part of the Flat Duo Jets, a duo that were quite a name in the late 90’s and were hugely influential on a young guitar player named Jack White prior to him forming The White Stripes. Romweber is moody, loud, and bluesy and has the ability to generate a melody from his screeching guitar feedback like no other. An epic end to the day’s musical adventure before a visit to the 3 Crow bar a mere two minutes’ walk away to regroup and compare notes with the rest of my crew who had attended different shows throughout the course on the evening.
For the third year on the trot JP Harris had organised a very special Sunday afternoon of great music, food and of course, beers. The most welcoming of hosts, Harris prepares and cooks monumental amounts of gumbo and manages to feed possibly a couple of hundred people while also introducing his guest artists on stage. The venue is at the rear of the Fond Object record store at 1313 Mc Gavock Pike which is in the heart of East Nashville and also close to where many of the locals reside. Today’s line-up includes Tim Easton, Ariel Bui (an album release show), Tommy Ash, Aaron Lee Tasjan, JP Harris and his Band (and friends), Blackfoot Gypsies and Fly Golden Eagle. The audience is made of festival attendees and musicians but also many locals including quite a number of families who have arrived with their children for the afternoon. As always JP is the most charming of host making a point of welcoming everyone, introducing the acts, keeping an eye on the slow cooking gumbo while managing to chain smoke without pause.
Tim Easton’s set was short and started at 12pm as he had other commitments and as a result we did not get to see him play. Ariel Bui is a really interesting artist. A formally trained classical musician the young lady’s sound incorporates jazz and country into a set of songs that are both dark, intoxicating and quite experimental. She basically plays her debut album in total in the order that it is recorded and is accompanied by some excellent and equally talented musicians and backing singers. By way of comparison her sound is not unlike Angel Olson and she’s an artist I certainly will be following. Her album was only released on vinyl but expected to be followed on cd in the coming months.
What follows is a complete contrast and not exactly what I expected when I read the name Tommy Ash on the schedule. Expecting a male artist, I was surprised that Tommy Ash is in fact a female country singer songwriter from Phoenix Arizona but currently living in East Nashville. She is straight honky tonk country with a classic country vocal, dress sense to match, a delightful southern drawl and with an absolutely killer band. It transpires she has also opened for Merle Haggard, Dale Watson and Ryan Bingham. With obvious influences from Merle, Dwight, Wanda and Patsy her set is no nonsense, straight down the middle country and lots of fun.
Aaron Lee Tasjan and his band are next to perform and it’s fair to say that Tasjan must be the hardest working musician at the festival. Apart from co-hosting the Tuesday night event at The Basement East he has played his own showcase sets and appeared on stage with numerous acts over the week. He is also highly supportive of his fellow musicians and always prepared to give them a dig out. Tasjan has a remarkable musical pedigree from playing in the gender bending rock band Semi Precious Weapons, a member of the re-formed New York Dolls through to his present day focus as an exceptional song writer and guitarist with the ability of combining wit, grit and no end of passion to his live performances. All these ingredients are packed into his set this afternoon which ends with Tasjan on his knees in the crowd encouraging his long-time fan and Festival regular Bob Mc Adam to strum his guitar for the final riffs. Stunning stuff indeed.
With the gumbo slow cooking outdoors in a gigantic pot JP Harris finds the time for his own set. As in previous years Harris invites and introduces a number of emerging artists during his set to perform on stage with him and his band. The first artist up this year is Kelsey Weldon a young lady that has been living in Nashville for a number of years and like so many others working endless hours waitressing while trying to make a breakthrough in the industry. Her vocal is classic country, natural and controlled. I learned afterwards that her latest album ‘I’ve Got a Way’ is top drawer and she is certainly another new artist for me to investigate.
Courtney Granger is a traditional country singer hailing from South Louisiana. Introduced on to stage by Harris the young man’s appearance is more like an accountant than a country crooner but his vocal, accompanied by Kelly Jones, is remarkable and worthy of the praise heaped on him by Harris who predicts that Granger has the quality to make a major impact going forward.
Harris’s set naturally also includes some full on honky Tonkin’ from him and his crack band which as usual includes the superb Brett Resnick on pedal steel. South Oklahoma, Golden Ring & Gear Jamming Daddy all featured together with the Lera Lynn and Conway Twitty standard You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly. It finishes, all too quickly unfortunately, with Harris resuming duties in the outdoor kitchen serving up plates of gumbo and rice to the masses.
Blackfoot Gypsies, up next, were another new act to me. A mixture of blues, roots, rock ‘n’ roll and country the young four-piece band are fronted by a young man named Matthew Paige with a most incredible, distinctive high pitched voice and the ability to belt out a song with the best of them. They succeed after only a few numbers in having men, women and quite a number of children up front dancing, air guitaring and generally having a ball. Extraordinary live band and another act to follow in the coming years.
Unfortunately, time pressure did not allow us to catch the final act on the bill, Fly Golden Eagle but the time had come to make a move to relocate and catch the last acts of the festival. The intended show for the Sunday evening was Holly Williams supported by Travis Meadows at the 3& Lindsley. However, word filtered through during the day that a host of artists, including Robyn Hitchcock, Emma Swift, Lilly Hiatt, T Hardy Morris, Tristan, Pony Boy and others, were due to jam at the 5 Spot and the venue being local to our accommodation, won out. The event was attended by probably more musicians than punters, packed to the doors and a great end to the festival. Particularly enjoyable for me was the opportunity to meet Robyn Hitchcock, an artist that I have admired since my teen years and his partner Emma Swift who were both delightful, amiable and conversational.
The evening ended, as many had during the week, with a few beers across the road in our local bar The 3 Crow.
As the saying goes just when you think it’s over … Monday provided another pleasant surprise. Never short of music events to attend in Nashville the plan had been to catch The Time Jumper’s Monday residency at the 3& Lindsley. Consisting of a number of elite local musicians The Time Jumpers perform Western Swing every second Monday at the venue. Plans changed however when word spread that Cale Tyson was hosting an end of festival celebration at The American Legion joined by an array of artists who had performed over the past week. Due to join the party were Aaron Lee Tasjan (no surprise), Nikki Lane, Jonathan Tyler, Molly Parton, Robyn Hitchcock, Emma Swift, Jamie Wyatt and Erin Rae and with such an impressive list is was decided to defer The Time Jumpers until another year. The American Legion, situated at 318 Donelson Pike East Nashville, is a private members club which hosts events from time to time to raise funds for the maintenance and upkeep of the complex. It’s like a workman’s club in by gone times and punters are required to sign in at the venue prior to admission. If features a hall which was still decorated from previous functions including a mirror ball and happy birthday balloons which may very well have been located at ceiling level for quite a while. A separate bar is situated the entrance door where old timers very busy playing cards and drinking beers. In the hall the stage has been decorated by Cale Tyson and his team and to our delight included not one but two steel pedal guitars on stage.
The format for the evening sees Tyson invite the various guest to the stage where they each perform one song, all covers and mostly standards, well known to all present. Tyson’s band includes his regular steel player Brett Resnick and an equally talented group of players. It’s a wonderful evening, relaxed and the perfect end to a wonderful festival.
What follows could not be script written by the writer. Lonesome Highway has been unapologetically raving about both the album and live shows by the hottest name in Nashville this year which is Margo Price. During a break between artists I slipped out to the near empty bar to arrange refreshments and fate would have it Margo and her husband Jeremy were sitting at the bar. She had just arrived at the venue to make special guest appearance having been on stage with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle at a recording of Skyville Live just minutes earlier. Having had the pleasure of meeting the charming young lady after her show in Manchester in September it was a fitting end to the whole adventure to have another chance to encourage her and her husband to visit and play Ireland in 2017. A lasting memory for me as I lifted my drinks from the counter was her engagement with the lady serving the drinks who must have been in her eighties. Price gently whispered “Mam I got to sing on stage tonight with one of my all-time heroes Emmylou Harris”. To which the smiling barmaid replied with a slow southern drawl and holding Price’s hand “Honey, you’re a big star now.” You couldn’t make it up!
Minutes later Price was on stage belting out Guy Clark’s Rita Ballou in fine style. The evening finished with all the artists on stage closing the set with a rousing Goodnight Irene.
It’s difficult to know where to start in mentioning the many people that made the festival another outstanding mix of music, laughter, education, glorious weather and the odd beer.
A word of thanks to my housemates, the 3 Crows group of similar minded people, Dandy & Rose, Ark PR, Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly and his wonderful team, Yazoo Brewing Company and of course the many musicians and artists that continue to make the festival a very special week indeed.
Lonesome Highway got to see approximately 60 acts out of the 200 that performed at the Festival this year. Time to make plans to get back in 2017 to catch some of the ones we missed.
Written and photographed by Declan Culliton