With approximately 300 acts performing this year at The AMA’s, pre-scheduling your intended wish list is essential, notwithstanding that you’re likely to be thrown a few curve balls at the festival with additional events being announced, often at less than a days’ notice. The festival organisers have in recent years developed an incredibly user-friendly app which can be downloaded to an iPhone, listing artists, scheduled showcases, venues and other events, helping enormously with the selection process but also highlighting the numerous unavoidable clashes given the sheer volume of events taking place at various venues throughout the city.
While managing to squeeze in over fifty shows at the festival, I’ve bitten the bullet to select fifteen particular highlights in three categories.
There’s no show like a J.P. show and East Nashville’s most loved and most tattooed master of all things honky tonk played a blinder at his showcase at The Mercy Lounge. Not wasting a second of his forty-five-minute slot, he launched into material from his forthcoming album, yet to be named, which he’d spent the past few weeks recording in the studio. Hard Road, I Only Drink Alone, Lady in the Spotlight and South Oklahoma all registered as being up to his usual standard. Favourites Two For The Road and Maria also got an airing and with backing vocalists Kristina Murray and The Watson Twins on stage and accompanied by pedal steel, guitar, bass and drums, he transformed the room into a virtual Texas Dance Hall three songs in. You also have to love any artist who name calls his mother on stage and dedicates a song to her together with introducing her to his brethren after the show. A masterclass set from one of today’s finest ambassadors of traditional country music.
If J.P. Harris is the master he has a more than worthy apprentice in Zephaniah OHora. Hailing from Brooklyn, a location not renowned for fiddles, pedal steel guitars or nudie suits, his debut album This Highway has turned a lot of heads with nods in the direction of Ray Price, Ernest Tubb and Red Simpson. On stage directly after J.P. Harris may have been daunting but OHora took full advantage of the warmed-up cowboys and cowgirls and gave them lots to dance about. His backing band The 18 Wheelers were vice tight and O Hora’s main asset, his baritone vocal, was used to full effect to deliver classic country tracks from his opening Way Down In My Soul to the title track from his debut album which closed his set. High Class Girl From the Country, Take Your Love Out Of Town and I Can’t Let Go also featured. He looked the part, sounded equally impressive and is riding on one of the best albums of the year. Watch this country space!
A musical child prodigy, Lilly Mae Rische has been performing with her family since childhood and is Jack White’s regular stage side person with her exquisite fiddle playing and unique style. Her recent album Forever and Then Some, released on Jack White’s Third Man Record Label, earned her appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien Presents. An eagerly anticipated festival showcase for me, she more than lived up to expectation as Mae and her band, which included bother Frank on guitar and sister Amber on mandolin, delivered a faultless set. The venue was Jack White’s Third Man Records and the delightfully quirky and impressive room featured a striking lighting arrangement. Drenched in blue light Mae oozed class and stage presence, launching into Over The Hills and Through The Wood, Honest and True and Honky Tonks and Taverns from the album, switching from fiddle to guitar between numbers. Not just a prolific fiddle and guitar player, her song writing, vocal delivery, superb band and, it has to be said, wonderful fashion style, ticked a box as one of the festival highlights. She also possesses a lovely personality and a smile that could light up any room. Some people have it all.
Whitney Rose is yet another in the stream of quality female artists than Canada has produced in recent years. Kathleen Edwards, Lindi Ortega, Lori Yates and Sierra Noble all come to mind and Rose most certainly has the formula to follow in their footsteps. Perfecting a South Texas sound rather than that of her native country and in many ways reminiscent of what Kacy Musgraves has been doing (with a bit more edge possibly), she mixes twang perfectly with a bit of rockabilly on the side and has the songs, the appearance and the band to get noticed. By coincidence I got to see her twice in the same day both at The Yee Haw Tent and later at The Mercy Lounge. Her set was drawn in the main from her current release South Texas Suite with a few numbers from Rule 62, an album she is about to release in the coming weeks. My Boots, Bluebonnets For My Baby and How ‘Bout A Hand For The Band all worked even better live than the studio versions giving the impression of an artist still honing her skills and determined to get noticed. Quite comfortable behind her acoustic Gibson guitar or with only a microphone in hand she’s blessed with a sultry twang and a young backing band that have no doubt covered a lot of road miles with her, given how tight their playing was.
Taking the stage at Third Man records immediately after a dynamic set By Lilly Hiatt might be nerve wracking for most artists but Joshua Hedley took it in his stride, reminding the audience on a few occasions that what they were listening to was pure country music, no compromise. True to his word, dressed in a sparkling nudie suit and accompanied by a five-piece band including Jeremy Fetzer on guitar and the ever-smiling Eddie Lange on pedal steel he was, for me, the surprise package of the festival, delivering a set that had mid 60’s Merle Haggard stamped all over it. With a smooth baritone vocal, effortless fiddle playing by Hedley and some dreamy pedal steel and guitar playing by his band, this was pure honky tonk at his best. Hedley is yet another artist that is very much part of the East Nashville music co-op and has previously worked on stage with Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz, served his time playing at Roberts Western World on Broadway and given that he’s not yet 25 years old, it’s not surprisingly he has been signed to Third Man Records. I’ll be first in line to pick up his debut album when it sees the light of day!
Drive By Truckers
Cannery Row was the venue for Drive By Truckers, one of the leading lights in what we define as Americana music, and was heaving in anticipation of their first ever showcase appearance at The AMA’s. Once in a while an act play a setlist that you could have penned yourself and this, for me, was one of those gigs. Including Marry Me, Surrender Under Protest, Hell No, I Ain’t Happy hit the spot but the inclusion of World of Hurt (quite poignant given the political turmoil in the States at present and seldom performed live) was the icing on the cake. Having seen the Truckers perform live on many occasions, including a number of times where they were so loud that some of the songs were unrecognisable, this evening performance was the best I’ve seen them. Patterson Hood was passionate, politically charged and in fine form and unafraid to ostracise some of his core following by speaking emotionally about the worrying degree of racism currently pertaining in America. Perfect setlist, sound and vantage position upfront and with Hood and Cooley in sparkling form resulted in yet another festival highlight. Overplaying their forty-five-minute set by an additional ten minutes was the perfect end to a great day’s music.
Aaron Lee Tasjan
A favourite performer at the festival, Aaron Lee Tasjan seems to appear at every venue whether playing with his band, solo or on stage with others. Somehow, he managed to play thirteen times in three days and we were fortunate to catch his showcase in the Yee Haw Tent on the Saturday afternoon. With his unique and individualistic fashion sense - he appeared on stage decked out in a white suit, white hat and black and white snakeskin shoes – you just knew his show was going to be full on entertainment, and he did not disappoint. Kicking off with Hard Life and Memphis Rain from his 2016 album Silver Tears, his set not only accentuated his song writing skills but also his ass kicking guitar work. A twin guitar onslaught from Lee Tasjan and his side man Brian Wright (more from him later) on Ready To Die brought the house (tent) down. One of the best received gigs of the week by an artist that has it all with lots to spare. A modest and approachable young man he also hung around chatting and chewing the breeze before heading on to his next appointment.
Twelve months ago, Lilly Hiatt’s appearances at the AMA’s featured in the main material from her then current album Royal Blue, a mix of country, roots with just about the correct dosage of twang. This year’s sets found her ramping up a number of notches and featuring material – the whole album bar one track – from her 2017 release Trinity Lane, most definitely one of the standout albums of the year. Going down a more traditional rock path it’s songs are personal, honest and self-cleansing in equal doses and rock like hell with riffs and hooks to die for. Kicking off the Thursday evening showcase sets at Third Man Records she manages to cram in ten of the eleven tracks on the album and no doubt have played the entire album given an additional five minutes. Highlights, of which there were many, included All Kinds Of People, I Wanna Go Home, Different I Guess and the monster track The Night David Bowie Died. Hats off to her killer young band whose enthusiasm mirrored that of Hiatt.
The 5 Spot in East Nashville is the venue where most local artists cut their teeth on the path to bigger venues. It’s also a bar where you’re likely to be rubbing shoulders with as many musicians as local residents or tourists. Their weekly $2 Dollar Tuesday, hosted by Derek Hoke, offers two-dollar entry (free with festival wristband), $2 beers and $2 food. Nashville based Los Colognes were billed to perform Neil Young’s classic album Tonight’s The Night in its entirety. After two opening slots by the excellent Michaela Anne – classic young country vocalist, landing somewhere between Ashley Munroe and Zoe Muth, well worth checking out – and Derek Hoke, we were treated to a stunning performance by Los Colognes transforming what can be a quite depressing album into a celebratory evening. As expected given the venue, they were joined on stage by Margo Price (on her way home from performing at The Grand Olde Opry), Lilly Hiatt and Caitlin Rose whose delivery of Borrowed Tune silenced the room within twenty seconds. An unexpected treasure of an evening in my favourite East Nashville hangout.
Multi-instrumentalist and an artist that came to my attention at last year’s festival when he played in Aaron Lee Tasjan’s band, Texas born East Nashville resident Brian Wright played one of the rockiest and most enjoyable shows of the festival at the backyard of The Fond Object Record Store in glorious sunshine to an adoring crowd. I have to admit that I’ve come to his solo work late only picking up his 2013 album Rattle Their Chains in recent months. Mixing soul, blues and good old-fashioned rock with killer guitar licks and a backing band that included John Latham and Aaron Lee Tasjan was the perfect formula for a no-nonsense performance. Ending his set offstage and finishing his solo with guitar pointed skyward surrounded by an audience of all ages was a fitting image to a fun filled and head down rocking set.
Not so many years back The Station Inn was surrounded by gravel surfaced car parks in a location primed for development known as The Gulch. Within five years the iconic venue has become dwarfed and overshadowed on all sides by high rise condominiums and commercial developments. The owners have stoically resisted the option of selling out the site which has been the hub for bluegrass in Music City for decades. Internally it’s a throwback to former decades as if time has stood still and it’s the venue for a terrific show by Austin troubadour Hayes Caryll, not his first appearance at The AMA’s, but his first time to play the hallowed venue. With a 175 seating capacity and possibly in a position to accommodate another 50 standing, it’s essential to get along early as it’s one of the few venues at the festival that invariably attracts large numbers. With this in mind we arrived ten minutes before the doors opened and positioned ourselves upfront for the impressive support act Caitlin Canty, who admitted to being light headed by both the opportunity to play the venue and to appear before Hayes Caryll. You know exactly what to expect from a Hayes Caryll show, brilliant tales transformed into song, passionate delivery with lots of humour on the side and this evenings set delivered on all fronts with the inclusion of Drunken Poets Dream, Drive (written with Jim Lauderdale), Magic Kid (dedicated and written for his son) and the hilarious Bible on The Dash (a co-write with Corb Lund). A particular highlight was his inclusion of a recently written song titled Wild Pointy Finger, which he went to great lengths to explain is not a euphemism for genitalia!
One of the most versatile and diligent female artists on the circuit Australian born UK resident Emily Barker played a short lunch time set at Alley Taps, the same venue that she launched her album (yet to be released at that time) Sweet Kind of Blue at last year’s festival. Recorded in Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis the album found Barker visiting her soul roots and was subsequently released earlier this year to glowing reviews. Barker has flirted with UK folk, roots and country soul ventures over the years together with writing the theme music for the TV drama Wallander and she has the ability to excel in whatever direction she chooses. With the voice of an angel and aided by a crack backing band, Barker treated us to a sampler of tracks from the album including the title track and the stunning Sister Goodbye, possibly the most beautiful song she’s written. The only regret was that her set had to wind up after four songs but waiting in the wings to perform were Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters, Shannon Mc Nally and The Orphan Brigade (featuring our own Ben Glover), which softened the blow somewhat!
Having had the opportunity to see Combs play at the festival the past number of years its noticeable how he has grown as an artist over those years both in his song writing and live performances. His latest album Canyons Of My Mind, released in Europe on the Loose label, is one of the most striking releases of the year. Our good friends at Loose Tom Bridgewater and Julia Grant hosted a lunchtime party titled The Loose Lounge featuring a number of acts on their label and giving me the first of two opportunities to witness Combs live. Facilitated by Americana UK the venue was attended in the main by UK and Irish punters and Combs, having performed to an audience that annoyingly talked through his set the previous day at The Thompson Hotel, opened up by noting how great it is to play to audiences from countries that come to gigs to actually listen to music. Playing solo emphasised his exquisite vocal and his short set was played to pin drop silence. His showcase performance took place two days later at The Mercy Lounge where he delivered a knockout set with his full band featuring mostly material from the current album with Dirty Rain, Heart Of Wonder and his anti-Trump masterpiece Bourgeois King hitting the spot.
Courtney Marie Andrews
An artist very much in the ascendancy and likely to make a major impact going forward, Courtney Marie Andrews was one of the most talked about artists playing the festival. Similar to Andrew Combs she is on the Loose label and the impact of her current album Honest Life, released in Europe by Loose, has resulted in it being rereleased in the States. She also featured in the Loose Lounge party performing three numbers solo which not only highlighted her stunning vocal but also her splendid guitar skills. Her main gig was at The City Winery where she performed at an all-female evening which also included sets by Erin Rae, Dori Freeman, Brandy Clark and Kasey Chambers. Understandably the majority of her standout set was drawn from Honest Life with Rookie Dreaming, Table For One and a rousing delivery of How Quickly Your Heart Mends all reinforcing exactly how special this young lady is. Material from her forthcoming album, to be recorded in the coming weeks, suggested a fuller and more country soul feel than Honest Life.
On the same bill as Andrews was Dori Freeman, a young lady from Galax Virginia. At last year’s festival Freeman was given the grave yard shift, performing solo prior to Rodney Crowell’s slot, and battling against an audience that did their best to talk over her performance. The City Winery is a seated and very much a listening room and Freeman, accompanied by a percussionist, took full advantage to deliver a gorgeous set visiting both her self-titled album and her sophomore album Letters Never Read, due for release later in the year. Her song writing is simple, stripped back and personal, perfectly suited to her acoustic delivery with the emphasis on her natural crystal clear vocal. If I Could Make You My Own from the new album and Go On Lovin’ from her debut album were simply divine from an artist who is as authentic and natural as it comes. Who needs backing musicians when you possess a vocal that can silence a room seconds into your first song.
Our flight back home to Dublin from Nashvilla included a stopover at Chicago and ironically, or perhaps fittingly, as we queued to board who should be standing beside us but Pat Sansone of Wilco (he performed a number of times at the festival), giving their song Via Chicago a complete new meaning!
List of acts/shows attended:
Michaela Ann, Derek Hoke, Sally & George, Los Colognes, Lilly Hiatt (twice), Margo Price, Caitlin Rose, Caitlin Canty, Hayes Caryll, Blair Crimmons & The Hookers, Emily Barker, Shannon Mc Nally, Mary Gauthier, The Orphan Brigade, The Deslondes, JD McPherson, The Texas Gentlemen (twice), Joshua Hedley, Lillie Mae, Drive By Truckers, Andrew Combs (twice), Courtney Marie Andrews (twice), Gill Landry, Joana Serrat, The Americans,Vikesh Kapoor, Kasey Chambers,Tyler Childers, Lindi Ortega, Carter Sampson, Kaitlin Butts, Travis Linville, Erin Rae, Dori Freeman, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Deep Dark Woods, Mark O' Connor Band, Reckless Kelly, The Secret Sisters, Whitney Rose (twice), Doug Seeger’s, JP Harris, Zephaniah O Hora, Brian Wright, Hugh Masterson, Band of Heathens (twice), The Wild Reed’s, Wild Ponies, Teddy & The Tough Riders, The Smoking Flowers (twice).The War & Treaty, Big Star Tribute Band (Chris Stamey, Django Haskins, Jody Stephens, Mike Mills, Millie McGuire, Mitch Easter, Pat Sansone)
Reviews and photography by Declan Culliton