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AmericanaFest 2022 Rises Above Over Five Days In Nashville

AmericanaFest 2022
Emily Jones
Nashville artist Nikki Lane performs for AmericanaFest 2022 on the roof of the 27-story Westin Hotel with a soaring view of Nashville's skyline and surroundings on Saturday afternoon.

The 21 years since the birth of the Americana Music Association’s annual fall convention and festival have been rough on the American people but good for America’s music. It recalls the breakthroughs and beauty that came from the grassroots during the Great Depression. Hard times inspire art. Disruption, disorientation, disenfranchisement and distrust have often been hallmarks of our politics and economy in this juvenile century, so it seems that more and more people have turned to music that explicitly or implicitly carries overtones of history and the healing power of the blues.

As I traversed the city during my own 21st AmericanaFest, I saw a vibrant community, full showcases, exciting special events and optimism about the business. Back in 2000, I spoke with the format’s founders and leaders who spoke of Americana as potential energy, as a “cult” that was “finding each other” in the words of an indie label president. “The groundswell is coming but I don’t think it’s happened quite yet,” he said. But since then, we’ve seen O Brother, Where Art Thou ?, Raising Sand, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Yola and a bluegrass boom. We’ve seen growing diversity and commitment to an honest narrative about the founding and ownership of American roots music. We’ve seen the complete destruction and rebuilding of the music distribution system and a pandemic that shut live music down almost entirely. Recently, inflation has made the road even more challenging. Yet last week, amid lovely weather, we enjoyed an upbeat reunion surging with honest, creative, moving music.

As I always say, everyone’s AmericanaFest is unique and subjective, because there are an infinite number of pathways through its maze of showcases and possibly too many choices. So I saw what I saw, and here I offer my personal highlights. The Tuesday night welcome wagons were out all over town, from the traditional BMI Rooftop party, which featured blues phenom Kingfish and English rockers The Heavy Heavy to a 50th anniversary tribute to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street with dozens of mostly Nashville artists bringing satisfaction to the Basement East.

I however had to be at the outdoor stage at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison as Amy Alvey and I co-hosted the Old Fashioned String Band Throwdown presented by WMOT. Our lineup surveyed the traditional acoustic side of Americana, with true Nashville blues by Mike Compton and Joe Newberry, Afro-futurist fiddle and banjo vision from Jake Blount and friends, the league-leading traditional bluegrass of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys (joined for a few songs by Jim Lauderdale) and Amy’s all-star old-time band Tune Hash, whose swirling, transfixing sound coaxed a few couples up front to dance, which is mighty rare in Americana. Special notice should be extended to folk singer Willi Carlisle, who took the stage solo for the middle set. A rave-up raconteur and a seasoned troubadour in the vein of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Utah Phillips, Carlisle sings big, feels everything, spins yarns and takes you to the heart of American characters, as in his masterpiece ballad “Tulsa’s Last Magician.” His breakthrough album, Peculiar, Missouri, is on Free Dirt Records.

Following Wednesday’s Honors and Awards, reviewed here, I stayed after the City Winery viewing party to see two important African American artists who’ve made Americana waves in the past few years. Buffalo Nichols played electric and acoustic guitars backed by a drummer and surging with a rocker’s willpower. He mixed original and traditional songs with fire and finesse, and he wrapped up on the flattop, picking and singing in the manner of Doc Watson on the Delmore Brothers classic “Brown’s Ferry Blues.” Next came Sunny War of Los Angeles, a fascinating figure who is shy on the mic and fearless on the guitar with a fingerpicking style all her own. Her picking was a bit swallowed in the mix by drums, bass and the always exceptional electric guitar of Anthony Da Costa, but her voice was front and center for profound songs like “Real Bad Habit.” Her L.A. friend Chris Pierce, himself a showcase artist for the second year running, lent his soaring voice on several songs, including a rowdy Iggy Pop cover to close the set. Also that evening was a packed out masterclass by Taj Mahal who brought on more than a dozen “friends” for an extra long event at the Basement East that had people raving all week.

I made my way back to the City Winery’s cozy upstairs stage to kick off Thursday night with a new star of the banjo, North Carolina’s Tray Wellington. With a high-skill, all-acoustic newgrass quartet, he played tunes and songs from his debut solo album Black Banjo, channeling his varied influences, from John Hartford to John Coltrane. Then I saw Nashville’s Nicki Bluhm play the Exit/In with a band that included Americana house band keyboard player Jen Gunderman, guitarist Dan Knobler (producer of Allison Russell’s Album of the Year Outside Child) and drummer Jamie Dick. The California native’s hippie country sounded sunny on “Sweet Surrender” and emotive on the ballad “The Loving Thing To Do,” both from her fine 2022 album Avondale Drive. A run down to 6th and Peabody was rewarded with a fiery newgrass set by Asheville’s Fireside Collective. Their jamming ways stirred a considerable crowd into a dancing mass with the band’s long-time favorite “Moving On Down That Line.” The room was thus warmed up for Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs from Bozeman, MT, who became my favorite new discovery of the festival. Their slam-grass had power and grace. Lena (Laney) Schiffer played guitar or washboard and sang with a lovely tone that had touches of Joan Baez. The band brought impressive four-part harmonies and tons of barroom fun, as with the finale that visited “Psycho Killer” and “Paint It Black” on their way to a roaring finish.

After catching several artists at the WMOT Day Stage on Friday (a full report about WMOT's three days of live sets will follow), I found my way back to nearby Dee’s for the Wild Ponies annual happy hour, which was a chance to see New Orleans “Folk Rock Diva” Lilli Lewis live up to her reputation as an empathic, moving artist. Leading a bass and drum trio from her keyboard, she reimagined and remixed folk/blues standards like “House Of The Rising Sun” with original songs like the prayerful “My American Heart.” Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” was as original as any I’ve heard, and her finale “Let Your Light Shine Bright” evoked chills. She’s a voice for light and justice on and off stage. Then it was time to crowd into the Station Inn, where Dallas, TX band The Wilder Blue put on a clinic in musicianship and harmony. I’ve been impressed with the writing and feel of their self-titled 2022 album, but on stage the lush and layered sound really took off. Leader Zane Williams has a clean, pleasing voice in the Jackson Browne vein, but when all five voices hit it pitch perfect on “Wave Dancer” and others it was like the best of California and Texas coming together with a 1970s glow. Then Nashville’s versatile Lindsay Lou departed from her folk and bluegrass baseline to offer songs from an upcoming album that got rocking and edgy. Her late grandmother’s voice appeared from an oral history phone call triggered on a computer. Kyle Tuttle played space banjo. Lindsay Lou led the band with smiling ease and foretold another exciting chapter in her career.

Saturday started for me with an interview with and performance by young Brooklyn old-time artist Nora Brown. The 17-year-old has won immense attention for her old-soul voice and her refined touch on two-finger and clawhammer banjo. Especially cool were duos with her Jalopy Records label mate Jackson Lynch on fiddle and Nora’s take on Norman Blake’s “Billy Gray” on archtop guitar. Then I had to attend the return of the most talked about special party of last year, the epic “Under The Sun” showcase on the 27th floor pool deck of the Westin Hotel put on by Transoceanic Records, New West Records and Soundly Music. Large crowds go to hear Nikki Lane, Lilly Hiatt, Emily Nenni, Joshua Ray Walker, Rissi Palmer, and more. I’ve fallen hard for the tuneful Appalachian country rock of 49 Winchester. The soaring vocals of Issac Gibson made “Second Chance” a highlight of their short, sweet set, but they also played a full showcase at the Exit/In. Canadian born, New Zealand-based Tami Neilsonhas a big voice, big eyelashes and a big personality. She sang from her new album Kingmaker in her signature gold headdress and a dress with lightning bolts, stars and “Hot Damn!” embroidered upon it. And to close she put her guitar down and uncorked in every way on her older song “Holy Moses.” It was something to hear her and the others blast country soul and rock and roll out over the entire Nashville skyline, spiked with dozens of digital looking skyscrapers, few of which existed when AmericanaFest first took place.

This was the second AmericanaFest after the cancellation of 2020’s gathering, and while it was trimmed by a day from the pre-pandemic festivities, it seemed even more sprawling with a number of new venues on the calendar, including the acoustically live former church Riverside Revival and the Music Row coffee house Koinonia/The Well. The cluster of four venerable clubs in the Cannery/Mercy Lounge complex was offline this year due to new ownership and renovations, making club hopping a good deal harder. A source with knowledge of the development says those venues will be back online in 2023. Without shuttle buses this year, and with the hyper-growth of the city, the challenge of traveling among far-flung venues was exacerbated. I saw fewer acts than I have in years past, and other writers have noted the same issue. More half-hour staggered sets at certain venues could help the situation. Yet the range and caliber of artists, by any metric you might choose, was impressive, lending credence to the t-shirts on sale at the merch tables - “All Colors/All Genders/All Abilities/All Sizes/All Orientations/All Identities/All Americana.” As long as they keep having this thing, I’m All In.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org