WMOT’s 2019 AmericanaFest programming kicked off in the midst of a couple of notable anniversaries. The year 2019 marks the 20th year of the Americana Music Association, launched by a group of music industry visionaries in 1999, paving the way for the annual AmericanaFest and Honors & Awards Show. This year also marks the third birthday for WMOT Roots Radio; WMOT has broadcast on 89.5 FM from the campus of Middle Tennessee State University since 1969 and officially flipped to an Americana format in September 2016.
A celebratory mood filled the room as WMOT Executive Director Val Hoeppner and Program Director Jessie Scott welcomed the group of WMOT members and AmericanaFest attendees to Nashville’s 1925-vintage War Memorial Auditorium. After announcing the day’s lineup — Keb’ Mo’, Maggie Rose, Honey Island Swamp Band and Shinyribs — Scott told the audience that a special guest would join Keb’ Mo’.
“Do you want to know who it is?” Scott teased as Keb’ Mo’ walked onstage to the audience’s enthusiastic applause. “It’s Garth Brooks!” Brooks rushed out and immediately embraced the veteran bluesman and songwriter.
“I love fans of Keb’ Mo’,” Brooks told the audience. “Fans of real music, fans of a real person. I’ve loved you from afar and I love you up close. And I’ll just say it — my wife loves you more.”
Brooks and Keb' Mo’, seated center stage, looked as comfortable as two old friends catching up. After discussing the wonderfulness of Brooks’s wife — fellow music icon Trisha Yearwood, Brooks then asked Keb’ Mo’ to share the inspiration behind his latest album, Oklahoma, released in June, just two years after the release of TajMo, his GRAMMY-winning collaboration with Taj Mahal.
“I’m a cross between Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt,” Keb’ Mo’ said. Those are the people I looked at in terms of how to craft a career and show up in an authentic way.”
At Brooks’s request, Mo’ briefly explained his musical path, playing bars and clubs in Los Angeles, where a music career was seemingly defined by being commercially successful. Mo’ mused that he soon realized he didn’t need success to play music — he was just grateful to participate. He recalled that he was surprised by the success of his self-titled 1994 Sony debut, that he had expected it to flop like his 1980 record Rainmaker, which was released under his given name, Kevin Moore.
“My thing is, life is better with two things, bacon and music,” Brooks interjected, sensing the room was ready for some music. “I love this record … you want to start with a tune?”
Keb’ Mo’ responded that he hadn’t been this nervous playing for somebody since he played for Michelle Obama before launching into “I Remember You,” the opening track from Oklahoma. After the album's title track and the introspective “This Is My Home,” which explores the immigrant experience, the audience — including Brooks — rose to a standing ovation. Brooks then remarked that immigration is often a touchy subject, but that Mo’ handled the polarizing topic in a relaxed way.
“It’s a song we need to hear now,” Brooks said as the audience loudly clapped in agreement. “We’re all immigrants.”
Brooks then requested what he said was his wife’s favorite song from Oklahoma, “Put a Woman in Charge,” calling it the “national anthem in his house.” Mo’ explained how Beth Nielsen Chapman and John Lewis Parker helped him pen the lead single from the album, and how he reached out to Rosanne Cash (who did not pop out from backstage to join him, unfortunately) to sing on the track.
Speaking of women, powerhouse vocalist Maggie Rose took the stage next, telling the audience how honored she was to share the stage with Keb’ Mo’. She said that this was her first AmericanaFest appearance, and she thanked the crowd for the warm welcome. (Rolling Stone gave her a warm welcome, too, naming her one of the 20 must-see acts during the 2019 AmericanaFest.) Backed by seven-piece Nashville rockers Them Vibes, Rose worked the crowd from the moment she took the stage with “Hey Blondie” from her 2018 release Change the Whole Thing.
Rose, who moved to Nashville 12 years ago, recently had her TV network debut on The Today Show performing the power ballad “It’s You.” (Rose shared that she’ll also perform the song at her sister’s upcoming wedding.) She talked about the recording process for her next album, which has involved working in Muscle Shoals with Marcus King, John Paul White and Ben Tanner from The Alabama Shakes. She said she's fed off the “ghosts” of the many legendary artists who recorded there. Rose and Them Vibes will hit the road with Heart and Joan Jett later this month.
Rose was followed by another high-energy set from New Orleans-based Honey Island Swamp Band. The group formed in San Francisco after evacuating post Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and found such musical synergy that they kept the band going when they subsequently returned home to Louisiana. Members of the audience could barely stay in their seats, moved by the band’s joyful, grooving Southern-inspired rock, once coined as “Bayou Americana” music. Vocalist/guitar player Aaron Wilkinson gamely worked “WMOT” and “AmericanaFest” into song lyrics, which was much appreciated by a crowd mostly comprised of WMOT members.
Shinyribs, featuring Kevin Russell of The Gourds, kept the energy going with their swampy soul music. At the beginning of the show, WMOT’s Hoeppner had joked that Russell decided to bring a seven-piece band instead of a three-piece to the stage, and when Shinyribs started playing, it was obvious why: You simply can’t play swampy soul without a horn section. In addition to the “Tijuana TrainWreck Horns,” the set featured the glorious “Shiny Soul Sisters” on backing vocals. Rumors of a conga line swirled the room, but you just had to be there to know if it happened or not.