AmericanaFest is growing year on yearwith no sign of any let-up.
From dive bars to five-star hotels, record store backyards to plush estates, where traditional country, gospel, blues, formula rock, folk and Bluegrass is on endless offer, AmericanaFest continues to expand.
This year was no exception with more than 300 artists/bands who performed showcase sets in over 70 venues in Nashville – ten years ago, it was a more modest, three-day event, featuring 56 acts in five venues, along with another 20 acts during what was called its cocktail hour and weekend parties.
And added to the current mix are the musicians who roll into Music City for festival week, seizing the opportunity to play in countless shows not listed in the official festival programme.
A short, few hours after landing in Nashville on the Monday evening I happily strolled up Broadway towards Robert’s Western World, where Joshua Hedley was set to start his four-hour, Monday night residency. Anyone naively assuming that Nashville’s tourist strip is lined with honky bars offering wall-to-wall country music may be a tad disappointed. The sounds of Guns and Roses, Thin Lizzy and Springsteen, churned out by cover bands, blared out of a number of bars en route.
Thankfully, Robert’s Western World is one of the remaining downtown bars religiously offering real country music, although there are still a number of more classic honky tonks not far out of town.
Hedley is a no-nonsense traditional country performer, who earned the nicknamed “Mr. Jukebox” because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of country music and his ability to effortlessly dip into this library of songs for four hours every Monday night. His profile took a major step forward last year when his debut album, with the title – surprise, surprise, Mr. Jukebox – was released on Jack White’s Third Man Record label.
Despite the exceptionally long day travelling, I managed to remain upright and awake throughout his spell-binding set, eventually conceding to fatigue and heading back to our temporary home in East Nashville at 1.45 am.
The first day proper of the festival for me kicked off at Acme & Seed, a popular Downtown gastro bar that features in the festival every year. It’s right on the tourist trail so artists often have to compete with diners and barflies attempting to talk as loudly as possible to be heard over the music. This is an annual dilemma for the faithful festival punters attending showcase gigs at this venue.
Three acts featured on my schedule this evening – and two were absolutely superb. Kicking off was Jamie Lin Wilson, a young lady who possesses the energy and capacity to combine raising four young children, touring and performing, having recorded her splendid album Jumping Over Rocks, last year. Only coming to my attention on the release of that album, her set was a further endorsement of her talents and fortunately she succeeded in silencing the diners and drinkers into attention.
Also on the same page is Jaimie Wyatt who performed later that evening. From similar musical influences as Wilson but with slightly more edge, her set in the main is taken from her Felony Blues album. With a style of her own and vocals to match she really was a blast.
Sandwiched between these two was Kyle Daniel from Bowling Green, Kentucky. I’m often bemused by the selection of artists placed on the same schedule and the sequencing at the festival. Daniel’s set is formulaic rock and possibly more suited to a non-seated venue and different audience. The band fired out a rocky set with perfectly rehearsed shapes and moves, but I was left scratching my head as to where this sits in the Americana genre. The same question crossed my mind a number of times with similar acts during the festival.
The final stop of that evening was The 5 Spot Bar in East Nashville, an institution where numerous breakthrough acts have cut their teeth. That evening was the legendary $2 Tuesday, with - I’m sure you’ve guessed - entry and local drinks for $2, though a festival wristband allowed free entry.
Derek Hoke presents the weekly event at the venue and East Nashville band LOS Colognes perform a classic album from start to finish at AmericanaFest each year. This year’s selection was Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and joining the band on stage were a number of artists resident in East Nashville, including Erin Rae. The night was closed in fine style with a roof raising Rockin’ In The Free World with Lilly Hiatt taking the lead vocal.
Wednesday kicked off with a return to The 5 Spot to catch Terry Klein, Chuck Hawthorne, Libby Koch and Rod Picott perform four songs each before a dash around the corner to catch Canadian Joe Nolan on stage at Noble’s Bar. Joe’s performance was not an AmericanaFest scheduled show but was unmissable after his memorable performance at Static Roots in June.
Tanya Tucker’s recent release, While I’m Livin’, her first in seventeen years, has caused quite an industry stir and her gig at 3rd & Lindsley was always going to be crammed. Arriving well in advance of her slot, this gave me the chance of also seeing Kelsey Waldon perform. Recently signed to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, she’s been for the past few years earmarked as an artist whose career is likely to blossom – and her performance certainly endorsed this.
The atmosphere in the room before Tanya Tucker took the stage could only be described as electric. With a career spanning five decades, the audience comprised of lifetime fans together with, like myself, folks enthralled with her new album. The show was essentially an album launch and she was accompanied on stage by a host of crack musicians, including one of her daughters who had travelled from Australia to provide backing vocals.
Brandi Carlile, who wrote the bulk of the material for the new album had been awarded Artist of the Year at the Awards Show at The Ryman only an hour earlier. Rather than hang around the Ryman soaking up the accolades, Carlile and her twin band members, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, appeared on stage throughout the show, only stepping off stage to allow Beth Neilsen Chapman to duet with Tucker for one song. With sassy stage presence, a gifted bunch of players and a vocal delivery that has aged to perfection, Tucker wooed and entertained the room over a glorious and electrifying fifty minutes of fun, killer playing and of course, great songs.
The talk around town the following morning – and no wonder – was all about Tanya Tucker by those who were and those who missed the show.
However, it was an early appointment to interview Paul Cauthen at the swanky FieldHouse Jones Hotel, that had me up bright and breezy on Thursday to meet up with an artist with a reputation for being, let’s say, colourful. Cauthen had acted as Master of Ceremonies at his annual Big Velvet Revue the previous night at The Basement East, a marathon show from 10 pm to 2 am, so I fully expected a ‘no show.’
But, true to his word, he did appear and proved to be an engaging, polite and most interesting gentleman. I was accompanied by my good pal, Mike Ritchie, presenter of the excellent Mike Ritchie Show on Celtic Music Radio in Glasgow every Sunday afternoon. Both Mike and I had met Cauthen when he performed at Kilkenny Roots a few years back and Cauthen put us completely at ease when he arrived in the hotel foyer with the greeting: ‘nice to see some friendly faces again’.
That afternoon found us out at a particularly hip clothing store called Imogene & Willie in South Nashville. A stage had been set up in their back yard with complimentary drinks and food and a most formidable list of artists including Carson McHone, Mike & The Moonpies, local indie band The Prescriptions, Brian Wright and Hayes Carll, who was joined on stage by his wife Allison Moorer. Another exceptional few hours of quality music.
With the temperatures soaring over 100 degrees F, we retreated across the road to the 12 South Taproom for cold beers and cold air, before heading back to town for the evening showcases. First up was an equally enjoyable second helping of the day from Mike & The Moonpies at The High Watt followed by a dash to The Anchor to catch the aforementioned Paul Cauthen, whose set was reduced to twenty minutes due to ongoing sound problems. However, his four-song set was incredible. The frustrations caused by the technical difficulties appeared to intensify his stage presence, resulting in a quite dramatic performance, before he stormed off stage.
An Uber to Winners Bar followed to catch the end of Elaina Kay’s set - whose latest album was coincidentally produced by Cauthen - before returning to our local Five Points Bar, The 3 Crow, to compare notes on the various day’s activities with the rest of the crew.
First port of call on Friday was Acme & Seed for The California Country Show. The first act in the line-up was Ted Russell Kemp. Long time bassist for Shooter Jennings, Kemp can also write and deliver a good tune and his thirty-minute set was perfect midday fare.
Next in line was a trip to the Tennessee Brew Company for the quite superb Angela Perley, a young artist who has impressed me over the past few years. Her recent album, 4.30 is a breath of fresh air, closer to indie pop than country. Her live set was equally polished at the delightful, small venue which offered exceptional, quality beers.
Unfortunately, our schedule demanded that we kept on trucking and our next stop was the admirable Center 615 venue. Hosted by Thirty Tigers, but with a limited time allowance, we caught fine performances by both U.K. alt-folkers The Rails and the soulful Trigger Hippy.
The annual Bloodshot Records Backyard Bash is held at the back of The Groove Record Store on Calvin Avenue and has been an event that I’ve attended each year at AmericanaFest. I managed to catch the first two acts, Ruby Boots and Banditos before heading down the road to The 5 Spot for Tim Carroll’s Friday early evening residency from 6 pm to 7.30 pm.
On reflection I’ve seen Tim play more than any other artists at AmericanaFest over the years, always marking his show in my diary as a must see. With so many other options, no more than twenty punters attended the show and it was a pleasure to sit back, have a cold beer in my favourite Nashville venue and listen to him knock out quality music over the ninety minutes. He had barely left the stage before we were heading back into town for Eilen Jewell’s magical show at The High Watt.
With a mix of material from her new album, Gypsy, together with a trawl through her back catalogue, she was on fire, aided no end by her cracking band which features the now heavily-bearded Jerry Miller on guitar.
The Basement is located at 1604 8th Ave South, behind what used to be Grimey’s Record Store, which subsequently moved to a converted Church on Trinity Lane in East Nashville. When we finally overcame the complications of actually finding the entrance to the venue, we took in an excellent and confident set by Carson McHone and her band. I had been looking forward to seeing Jason Eady perform on the same bill but his slot was cancelled for some reason.
Instead, I settled for performances by David Starr and husband and wife duo The HawtThorns. With the midnight hour approaching and our music appetites not yet fulfilled we headed back to The Basement East where a variety of acts were performing at To The Moon and Beyond – A Tribute to 1969. Not a bad end to a busy day catching Molly Tuttle, Brian Wright, Peter Mulvey and Nikki Bluhm performing in front of a crowded stage of talented musicians.
Saturday morning found us at Woodland Memorial Park and Mausoleum to visit the grave of the late, great George Jones. The trip came about courtesy of Al Backstrom, the husband of Radio PR Guru Angela Backstrom, who continues to provide Lonesome Highway with so many great albums for review. I had met the glamourous couple Al and Angela at a gig at 3rd & Lindsley on my first trip to AmericanaFest in 2013, long before my Lonesome Highway days. Angela went on to host an excellent country/roots Saturday Radio Show which I tuned in to regularly. She now acts as Radio PR Consultant to an increasing number of artists.
The graveyard visit was quite moving, standing next to the head and tombstone of one of the greatest country music artists. The enormous cemetery extends on both the north and south sides of Thompson Lane and despite its vastness, the only other visible company was a lone tractor driver.
With another busy day of music ahead we stopped on the way home at Mas Tacos, close to our accommodation. Generally accepted as the best tacos in Nashville, this off-beat establishment provided a welcome and healthy break from the over-indulgence on fried food from previous days. We refuelled and prepared for another afternoon and evening packed with endless musical opportunities. First up was a flying visit to The Groove to catch Roseanne Reid, the opening performer at the Bootleg BBQ.
Hosted by Transoceanic Records and Atomic Music Group, the chosen afternoon’s music was staged on the 27th Floor of the exclusive Westin Hotel. The rooftop setting had been converted into a plush setting with the stage constructed over a swimming pool, offering surroundings that could not be further removed from the authentic dive music joints such as The 5 Spot and The Basement.
Uniformed waiters and waitresses served canapes and sliders - and drinks to the folks in the VIP areas - giving the whole experience a very much corporate aura. I imagined I had been transported to a music cruise and was somewhat uncomfortable in the environment.
The music varied from generic ‘rock by numbers’ from Jesse Terry and Michael Logan, alongside local favourite Caleb Caudle. Unfortunately, I had missed J.P. Harris performing earlier but the day was rescued by a delightful set from Suzy Bogguss, preceded by a cranked-up, rocking twenty minutes from Drivin’ N Cryin’and then, as ever, a masterful perfomance from Jim Lauderdale, who, true to form, appeared to be performing on every stage during the week.
A welcome and hasty retreat ensued after Jim’s set. The rooftop at the venue did offer a spectacular view of the city and fortunately also overlooked The Flying Saucer Bar, an emporium renowned for its selection of fine craft beers and quality food. With an hour or two to kill before our next appointment it was time to regroup, chill out and refuel with a few delicious cream beers and a Rueben toasted sandwich.
The Exit Inn is a legendary venue on the outskirts of the city and one that can boast appearances by artists such as Dr John, The Black Crowes, R.E.M and Talking Heads, to name but a few, over the years. It had not featured in my previous visits to AmericanaFest so the prospect of seeing Leslie Stevens perform there killed two birds with the one stone.
Formerly the leader of Leslie Stevens and The Badgers, her recently released solo album, Sinner, had hit a sweet spot for me and I was interested to witness if she would impress in the live setting. Sparsely attended and possibly not the ideal venue for the show, Stevens played an impressive set featuring material from the album and an unnecessary, in my opinion, Tom Petty cover. She also included an audience participation song which fell flat. Despite her obvious nervousness onstage she displayed enough quality to suggest she can build on the quality of the album and carve out a successful career. As expected, her band were wonderful and included pedal steel maestro, Eric Haywood.
The choices for the rest of the evening were no brainers with a host of ‘must see’ acts due to play at the Mercy Lounge and The High Watt. With both venues in the same building and only divided by double doors and a twenty-metre corridor, it also provided the option of working between both rooms. Getting a position up front for Jade Jackson at The Mercy Lounge provided the opportunity to catch the last twenty minutes of Aubree Sellers, daughter of Lee Ann Womack. Gifted with a gorgeous voice and surrounded by equally gifted bandmates, she did seem to hit the spot for many in attendance. I have to say I found her set to be formulaic, generic rock with each song sounding like the last, quite similar to a number of acts I’d seen at the festival, who seemed to be competing for the accolade of best Bon Jovi cover band.
Jade Jackson, who followed, was nothing like that at all. She has matured beyond recognition over the past two years, from a quite self-conscious, on-stage performer to one who oozes confidence. With the quality of her song writing, a distinctive vocal and a road fit band that perform as a unit, she excelled. Julian Ness, the son of Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness, is now Jackson’s guitarist. A long term friend of Jackson, their dynamic and on-stage combination was fluent, natural and quite a sight. Still in her twenties, Jackson has all the talents of an artist with an outstanding career to look forward to.
Next, we were set for something completely different. Orville Peck has been creating quite a stir since the release of his album, Pony, earlier this year. The masked frontman, decked out in outrageously over the top western attire has certainly created a hype. With a crammed house, he delayed his entrance - no doubt stage managed - by ten minutes, reducing his set to thirty five of the forty minutes allotted. I have to say I’m quite enjoying the album but I am on the fence as to whether he is hype over content – and this showcase did not convince me either way. Thumbs up to him for offering something entirely different and generating a huge amount of media attention in doing so.
After the hysteria of his set it was a joy to slip next door for the relative calm of Kacey & Clayton. I’m a long-time admirer of these cousins from Saskatchewan in Canada ever since they played Kilkenny as teenagers not so many years ago. There’s a charming innocence to their music, as if they’d never veered away from their own back porch, notwithstanding the fact that Jeff Tweedy has produced their last two albums. Joined on stage for two numbers by Marlon Williamsthey were a pure joy to behold.
One of my album highlights of 2018 was Amy Ray’s Holler and the opportunity to witness her perform the album live had been top of my schedule this year. The occasion proved to be the festival highlight for me, as Ray and as many musicians as could physically fit on The Mercy Lounge stage, performed as much of the album as her time slot allowed. A particularly goose bumps moment was her delivery of Didn’t Know A Damn Thing, a hugely personal and moving song and a highlight that will be embedded in my memory bank for some time. A more than fitting finale to another special AmericanaFest day.
It was hard to believe and accept that it was the last day of AmericanaFest, the days and evenings seemed to have passed so quickly.
However, the compensation was two quality events on offer on the Sunday. J.P. Harris’s annual Sunday Morning Coming Down at 919 Gallatin and Wildwood Revival, further East at Sundown Social House, had hugely impressive line ups. With both events starting at midday and continuing until early evening the obvious compromise and sensible decision was to attend both.
The first half of the day was spent at 919 Gallatin where the hugely impressive John R. Miller and The Engine Lightsopened the event. An artist previously unknown to me he won the ‘best new discovery’ award at the festival for me. The West Virginian’s set was no frills, raw and rugged Appalachian-laced music filled with engaging songs delivered by a ‘lived in’ husky vocal.
A change in direction followed next involving JD McPherson’s Mid Tenn Three, a retro rock and roll / rockabilly set which included a cameo appearance by Chuck Mead for three songs.
No one has contributed more to promoting female artists in Nashville than JP Harris himself. His set, titled Why Don’t We Duet In The Road, featured appearances by a host of talented female singers, both local and out of town. Leigh Nash, Kelsey Waldon, Kristina Murray, Nikki Lane, Miss Tess, Erin Rea, Molly Tuttle all performed in turn alongside J.P before he ended the sparkling set with an appearance by Norwegian Malin Petterson, who had attended the festival the previous year with her band Lucky Lips. The hugely talented Michaela Anne and her band were next up as we booked Ubers for our next adventure. Michaela performed material from her outstanding Desert Dove album, now available on Yep Roc.
An unnerving Uber ride to Sundown Social House followed, courtesy of a young female driver who gave the impression of being behind the wheel for the first time. What should have been an eight-minute journey eventually ended some twenty minutes later at a very commanding venue.
Our tardy arrival unfortunately meant missing Sarah Shook & The Disarmers’ set. But three successive showcases by Jeremy Ivey - joined on stage by his wife, Margo Price - Dylan LeBlanc and Elizabeth Cook softened the pain with the added advantage that I was in the shade after the blistering temperatures earlier in the day. After three delightful hours at Sundown Social we headed out in search of transport back to East Nashville as J Roddy Watson, accompanied only by piano, delivered his solo slot.
AmericanaFest may have officially closed on Sunday evening but there is no shortage of live music on offer seven days a week in Music City.
Our final musical encounter found us Downtown at A.J’s Good Time Bar, a honky tonk where Steel Blossoms perform their weekly residency, playing from 11 am until 2.15 pm: that’s right, three and a half hours without a break. They are a duo – Sara Zebley and Hayley Prosser –who relocated from Pittsburgh to Nashville a few years back to pursue their musical careers. Their laid-back style, cool harmonies and Sara’s exquisite fiddle playing proved to be the perfect come down to another music and fun-filled AmericanaFest.
Alongside the spectacular musical experiences throughout the week, I must mention the exceptional company I enjoyed throughout the festival. Friends old and new, and far too many to mention.
I am grateful to the staff and customer service in our favourite dive bars, The 3 Crow, Dinos and Dukes, and also preferred breakfast eateries such as Marche Artisan Food and Nashville Biscuit House.
I see the dates - 15th to 20th September - for next year’s AmericanaFest have already been announced. I wonder if the flights are on sale yet?
Review by Declan Culliton