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More Eclectic and Electric Than Ever, AmericanaFest 2018 Plugged And Played

Jacqueline Justice
Aaron Lee Tasjan (R) jams with Brian Wright in a fiery Music City Roots AmericanaFest set.

Americana is, by all indications, rocking. That applies in the metaphorical language of the street, because the community and format seem as popular as ever, but perhaps even more in the musical sense. The six days of shows I saw at AmericanaFest 2018 were, generally speaking, louder, harder and more fuzz-toned than the Americana I fell hard for decades ago.

Before you dismiss me as the old guy who wants the kids to turn their music down and get off my lawn, I offer this as an observation more than a critique. The rock and roll I saw was good to great, and rock and roll is an American roots genre. I’m only saying the past two festivals suggest to me that a pendulum has swung away from the acoustic to the electric, from the spacious and spare to the heavy and passionate. And since this field is a democracy that moves when fans and supporters speak up, don’t be surprised if my advocacy for country and folk music gets more vociferous in the months to come, even if I have little hope of being louder than the Cannery Ballroom’s Americana sets.

That is where, early in the week, The Ruen Brothers, a kind of post-modern Everlys from Scunthorpe, England, put on a striding, stomping set that infused 1960s rockabilly with post U2 anthemic sweep. Kansas City blues woman Samantha Fish followed, showing remarkable stage command and panache. She’s a ripping guitarist and a songwriter with star potential. A fascinating slate ended with the ultra-charismatic, Oakland-based Prince disciple Fantastic Negrito. How and when this animated, uncategorizable NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner got magnetized toward Americana I don’t know, but he adds a welcome West Coast flash to the mix, and he is an exceptional, supple vocalist.

Earlier that day, I saw the first in a string of stalwart Americana country/folk oriented artists who’ve cranked up the drums and energy. Knoxville’s venerable Black Lillies have regrouped and released their first LP with Sam Quinn on bass and vocals. His keening voice blended enthrallingly with founder Cruz Contreras and electric guitarist Dustin Schaefer. The spirit of Neil Young hovered benevolently over their preview of powerful new material from the Sept. 28 release Stranger To Me. The band has gotten smaller but its sound and ambition has never been bigger. From the same Knoxville family tree (though now of East Nashville) Jill Andrews also showed an amped up, even danceable side in her new music.

The Americana Honors & Awards on Wednesday night further bolstered my thesis. Lilly Hiatt played her celebrated rocker “Trinity Lane” with a shiny outfit and a gale force that would have been out of step with the format several years ago. Jason Isbell offered one of his ballads with “If We Were Vampires,” but he is Americana’s most influential artist nowadays, and his band, The 400 Unit, is more Southern rock than alt-country. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is a powerhouse soul rock band, and they’re hot on the AMA charts. Later in the week I saw Nashvillian-Australian songwriter Ruby Boots, who’s revved up and rocked up her former country sound. Sam Morrow, a new favorite here at WMOT, sounds like Waylon at Woodstock with a full electric band. American Aquarium is tougher and steelier than ever, but they’re singing about the mood of the nation, so that figures.

Credit Val Hoeppner
Sam Morrow's country rock filled The Local on Thursday afternoon.

Do not misunderstand, abundant and astonishing country roots music is being made in the format and was showcased last week. Tyler Childers is a monumental talent who's just getting started. I loved seeing JP Harris twang up 3rd & Lindsley Saturday night in a lineup that included Whiskey Wolves of the West, Jamie Wyatt and Mike & The Moonpies. Tasty acoustic acts like Barefoot Movement, Chance McCoy and I’m With Her showcased as well. I felt the harmonious thrill of Canadian folk duo The Small Glories at the City Winery Lounge on the same night as spare neo-Appalachian singer Amythyst Kiah and new Smithsonian Folkways acoustic trio Lula Wiles. Wildly precocious Kaia Kater, also new to Folkways, brought a complex heritage to the party that includes Canadian folk, Appalachian studies and her father’s roots in the island nation of Grenada.

It also must be said that a non-negotiable part of the Americana ethos is that artists do the leading and that true artists evolve. Wilco was an alt-country band until they weren’t because they became an even better band. Aaron Lee Tasjan and his buddy Brian Wright rock hard, but their songwriting and their track records and their affinities make them Americana without question.

One could also feel the gravitational pull of rock and roll and indie rock via this year’s discussion and debate over whether the AAA format is having an outsized impact on Americana radio and the Americana chart. Generalizations are only generally true. Trends in Americana are like weather patterns, and all sounds have their season. But as an underdog-oriented guy and a lifer fan of the musically spacious, trad-leaning Americana of Steve Earle’s Mountain album or Lucinda’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, I’d urge vigilance in looking out for the future of folk, country and the blues.

Credit Val Hoeppner
Michael and Tanya Trotter, War & Treaty, performing at The Local.

Related to that latter subject, the other unmistakable trajectory this year came from the most robust presence of African-American artists in the convention’s history. Cedric Burnside drumming and singing at Third Man Records displayed roots so thick you couldn’t chop through them. It was fulfilling to see guitarist, songwriter and activist Guy Davis and underrated soul great Candi Staton in the mix. Songwriters Tyrone Cotton, Sunny War and AHI sang their hearts out to great acclaim. And the duo The War & Treaty were everywhere, radiating love and sanctified music.

A lot of ground has been covered in 19 years. Tents don’t just get bigger. Whole new tent cities can spring up, if the people and the artists want them pitched. Americana is wide open and broad based, more so than ever. For the association and its constituents, that’s a good management problem to have, and the week’s seamless joy suggested that everyone seems to be managing quite well. Every new voice makes the call of Americana more attractive and a bit louder, and these days, Americana goes to 11.