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A Feast of a Fest: Americana 2017 in Review

Jacqueline Justice
The Texas Gentlemen blow out the walls of the Yee-Haw Tent at WMOT's first birthday celebration Saturday at AmericanaFest

The best way to approach an oncoming juggernaut like AmericanaFest is a delicate balance of reckless ambition and meticulous planning. That, in any event, is one of my takeaways from observing how WMOT and Music City Roots made the scene and flew their flags amid this year’s city-wide roots music extravaganza. Encouraged by support from the listening public and the musician community and empowered with resources from Middle Tennessee State University and some valued partners, WMOT celebrated its first anniversary as a full-time Americana station with a centrally located three-day block party, as well as a variety of spinoff appearances and broadcasts around Music City.

As a participant and employee, I can’t very well write a disinterested or dispassionate take on these events, so what follows is my own insider’s account of WMOT’s week, supplemented by quotes and photos from the Roots Radio contingent.

TUESDAY: The remnants of Hurricane Irma shrouded Nashville in a mist as the fest got started, as if to remind us all of the serious non-musical challenges facing the nation, especially in Texas, the Gulf Coast and Florida where so much of our music comes from. That said, Americana artists don’t do escapist fantasy, so it wasn’t long before Phoebe Hunt was singing of sacred inner journeys and global dialogue to officially kick off Roots events on Tuesday afternoon. That performance, pushed indoors by the elements, was part of a welcome wagon afternoon of short sets that culminated with Lukas Nelson in a packed out Grimey’s record store.

Credit Val Hoeppner
Lukas Nelson's acoustic set at Grimey's was a highlight of Tuesday.

About that same time, Music City Roots co-founder Todd Mayo and his television partner Todd Jarrell fired up the premiere of Havana Time Machine, the journalistic concert special featuring The Mavericks visiting Cuba that will air on Great Performances on PBS in October. A Mavericks show co-presented by WMOT followed with guest performers and the audience abandon that always attends a Mavs show.

WEDNESDAY saw a variety of events all over town during the day. I interviewed MCR regular John Oates about his memoir at Howlin’ Books and the crew at Compass Records threw their annual hot dog lunch gathering with performances by Shannon McNally, Mike Barnett, A.J. Croce, Colin Hay, and Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards (a truly exciting and innovative quartet). But everything seemed like a warm up for the Americana Honors & Awards at the Ryman Auditorium.

Jessie Scott anchored a long pre-show webcast featuring Joan Osborne, Billy Bragg and Willie Watson among others. I joined her for a stretch and enjoyed the company of Lukas Nelson, Ruston Kelly and Laura Cortese among others. I must say though that six minutes with a gold-bedecked Valerie June made my entire week. Her substance and charm and sweet southern drawl rivals Dolly Parton for charisma and magnetic power.

Credit Jacqueline Justice
Joan Osborne on the MCR Bus, interviewed by Jessie Scott

The Awards deserved their own review, and indeed I posted one late on Wednesday night.

THURSDAY found part of our team over at Thiel Audio (formerly Aurora). It’s a high tech venue to deliver old tech music, but a privileged gathering of WMOT members and guests sat for intimate performances of gravelly swamp groove by Tony Joe White, laid back country and storytelling by Brent Cobb and exquisite jewels by Lori McKenna.

Credit Val Hoeppner
"Another highlight for me was the Wired In performance. Lori McKenna is such a master songwriter and when she played "Humble and Kind" tears rolled down." - Cliff Seltzer, friend and member of WMOT

Thursday also marked the opening of the Yee-Haw Tent, where the whole Roots crew collaborated on a series of shows, beginning with a formal, season opening edition of Music City Roots. It’s nervous making when you go on live radio from a stage that was only just built and sound-checked, but it appears to have gone off perfectly. Georgia songwriter Pony Bradshaw, a new artist planning a release on Rounder, opened the show with rusty hinged country rock. Angaleena Presley has become a regular live guest on the WMOT airwaves, and again she showed her sass and her class with songs of defiance, place and self-realization.

Credit Val Hoeppner
Ray Wylie Hubbard and son rocked the finale of Music City Roots on Thursday night.

The Cactus Blossoms brought a wholesome retro vibe with their country/rockabilly brother duo. The sibling voices synched up with a silvery shine on original songs that sounded like lost Everly Brothers sides. Then John Paul White brought even more vocal refinement to the stage with a cooing, half-falsetto croon that stilled the crowd and raised goose bumps. The energy was more explicit in Ray Wylie Hubbard’s half hour on stage. The gonzo Texas troubadour sang “Snake Farm” and other semi-dangerous songs with a drummer and his son on shreddin’ electric guitar.

Five artists just wasn’t enough for the Yee-Haw Tent edition of MCR, so we arranged a big old nightcap with country heroine Lee Ann Womack and Friends. And what friends they were: Amanda Shires, John Fulbright, The Secret Sisters, Waylon Payne, Andrew Combs and of course our own Jim Lauderdale. Womack’s band members Jedd Hughes and Adam Wright, a couple of Nashville’s premiere cats, took turns up front too. Yes, Lee Ann scorched it on new songs from her new album The Lonesome, The Lonely & The Gone. And the show capper was a duet with Jamey Johnson. We blew our curfew by a half hour, but nobody stopped us. So I guess you could say we were outlaw.

Credit Val Hoeppner

The moment at AMA I loved the most was the Secret Sisters sitting in with Lee Ann Womack after Music City Roots. It's like time stood still, the whole room became quiet and their beautiful voices filled the air with "Davey White." I also loved that they chose to sing one of Lee-Ann Womack's songs with Lee Ann Womack. #Killedit - Ashleejean Trott, Music City Roots

That’s when I got to do some music rambling on my own. I caught a late Thursday night set by Michigan-based The Accidentals, one of my favorite new acts of last year. Young, daringly eclectic and hard-working, they’ve improved, written striking new material and released an album on Sony Masterworks (wow). Then on FRIDAY, the Australia lunch party featured abundantly mustached Andy Golledge, who led a six-piece band through rolling melodic material I’d love to hear again. Also on hand was sparkling acoustic vocal quartet All Our Exes Live In Texas, who’s playing Music City Roots this week. I swung by the American Legion Post 82 in far East Nashville (one of the city’s greatest current country music venues) where I was impressed by Ben de la Cour’s bitter songs and where Nashville's Amy Speace made me cry with a song called “Ghost of Charlemagne.” Over at the Basement East I marveled at Brian Wright’s psychedelic country rock –my personal favorite set of the week.

Then, in a swing that wound up saying more about the AmericanaFest than I anticipated, I caught the intimate and traditional duo set of Rayna Gellert and Kieran Kane. It was out of the way at a mis-cast venue called The Cobra and thus under-attended for the quality of these important and established artists. I spoke with the musical pair the next day about an impression shared by others that old time styles are being marginalized by Americana radio and festival programmers in favor of harder edged rocking artists. We’ll get into that on the upcoming episode of The String.

Meanwhile however, Friday was a big day at the Yee-Haw Tent, where 40-minute live sets kicked off at 2 pm with Webb Wilder’s long, tall humor and deep voiced twang. The crew enabled and enjoyed a lineup with guts and diversity. Kasey Chambers showed why she’s the biggest roots music star ever to emerge from Australia. Celebrated newcomer Tyler Childers brought true-life angst from rural Kentucky. Lindi Ortega, Canadian and Nashvillian with Mexican and Irish parents did her global country groove thing. The World Boogie theme was capped with a fiery electric performance by the North Mississippi All-Stars, for my money one of the most important and revelatory bands in the world. The long afternoon wrapped with a full set by Pony Bradshaw and some DJ action by Greg Lee who hosted his Bel Aire Drive show live for what I think was the first time.

https://vimeo.com/234423313">LutherDickinsonAMPfinal from https://vimeo.com/user1363289">Val Hoeppner on Vimeo.

"My favorite moment was watching Luther Dickinson dial in two Fender amps to find the right stereo sound while playing the WMOT NPR Music Live event at the Yee-Haw Tent. I made this sequence with 154 still photos to capture it. - Val Hoeppner, WMOT Executive Director

SATURDAY, however, was the ultimate throw-down, an act of audacious duration and community celebration. It was billed as the WMOT Roots Radio First Birthday Bash, and while this correspondent had been seeking his own variety show around town on Friday, Yee-Haw was my home for nearly the full day, and with the weather and vibe and music, there was no lure to be anywhere else. Just about everybody who’s been part of our Roots family was there to say hello or participate, and when I stood back and thought about it, I saw a level and scale of planning and execution and pride that I did not think would be possible after just one year on the air as Roots Radio.

With 12 artists over 12 hours, I can’t single out every one, but it seemed like there was an extra fire in the audience for a few standout sets. The O’Connor Band brought stunning musicianship and family intimacy to their blast of bluegrass. Rocking and insistent Lilly Hiatt proved why she’s emerging as Nashville’s answer to Patti Smith. I had The Texas Gentlemen as my top new artist target for the week, based on reputation and a stunning album, and they were indeed a blockbuster band, capable of sliding around styles and jamming with abandon. The segue into Aaron Lee Tasjan’s melodic and explosive rock and roll (including extended guitar freakouts with friend/colleague Brian Wright) proved the pinnacle of the day.

Credit Val Hoeppner
Aaron Lee Tasjan (right) launched into extended guitar jams with friend Brian Wright on Saturday at the Yee-Haw Tent.

"The climax moment for me was Aaron Lee Tasjan's rockin' live version of "Ready to Die (For a Worthy Cause)." It's been my theme song for the past year, so it was quite exhilarating to hear it crankin' live at our birthday party! - John Walker, Co-founder, Music City Roots

But it wasn’t over. Our station’s kid sister and voice over talent Katie Pruitt slayed it in her full length, full band set. Her work with her background singers was just mesmerizing and she can sing in so many moods. We’ll watch her star rise in the years to come. Then Vandoliers offered rip roaring Texas country before the nightcap with Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue. Mike’s as close to core Roots Radio as anyone, with his long MCR history and his fusion of key Southern genres. Armed with a bunch of sharp new songs, he conjured his usual holy funk but with even more craft and focus. His words from the stage about WMOT as family were moving and certainly mutually felt.

Credit Val Hoeppner
Mike Farris capped off dozens of bands over five days under the WMOT banner.

As the crew stashed away microphones and cables and the rest of us stacked chairs and swept up, the WMOT broadcast playing over the PA from back at the station featured a new Shannon McNally song that starts with the repeated verse “Get out of church now let’s go home.” For folks who’d arranged, loaded, presented and enjoyed what seems to be 26 acts in 36 hours, that summed up the feeling pretty well.

Roots Radio would like to thank Yee-Haw Brewing Co., Ole Smoky Moonshine, iZOTOPE and its Spire Studio, Sound Image, Bandit Lites, Compass Records, Hand Drawn Pressing and Fender Amplifiers Nashville Division for support throughout the week.