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Together Again: What To Watch For At The 2021 AmericanaFest

Nathan Zucker / AMA

The 21st convention of the Americana Music Association is upon us, and it’s never felt like this before. Live music had to fall silent for more than a year, and that’s something none of us had ever contemplated for a moment in our lives. 2020 was the most disruptive, devastating year for America since Vietnam, if not World War II. Every musical person - maker or listener - figured out new strategies for musical connection, for spiritual health and even for survival. Online shows took on lifeline-level importance and became a muse and medium all their own. A lot of great culture was made and transmitted. Some of it made money. All of it made the world a better place. But to repeat a commonplace, there’s nothing like live performance.

The summer of 2021 has seen A return of live music if not exactly THE return of live music, if you get what I mean. Artists and audiences are both eager and wary. Shows are smaller than they’d otherwise be if we were truly in a post pandemic world. But indoors and outdoors, we are at last communing with each other and with performers, bobbing our heads, feeling vibrations. And I am extremely eager to see how the return of AmericanaFest feels in this liminal space between lockdown and freedom. There sure is a lot to choose from, because the format has never been more diversified or eclectic.

AmericanaFest doesn’t feature headliner artists per se. But it’s pretty clear that anyone playing Cannery Ballroom or the big stage at City Winery or Brooklyn Bowl or Basement East is in the 2021 spotlight. The year’s most anticipated and celebrated artists, to my understanding, include Allison Russell, Maggie Rose, Natalie Hemby, Brandy Clark, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Joshua Ray Walker, Sierra Ferrell and Tré Burt. Meanwhile, numerous well-established stars of the format are on stage this week, including Kathleen Edwards, Langhorne Slim, Lilly Hiatt, The Mavericks, Jim Lauderdale, Jason Ringenberg, Paul Thorn, Rodney Crowell and Hayes Carll. Those are all easy to spot, and you can’t go wrong.

But here I’ll share a list of a dozen artists who have attracted my idiosyncratic tastes and curiosity as a reporter. It’s personal, and that’s the only honest way to approach this. There are an infinite number of permutations for and pathways through AmericanaFest, so take this as inspiration, not instruction.

Southern Avenue has built something special over the past decade out of Memphis, maturing from a solid bar band to fluid funk, R&B and blues visionaries. Their very new album Be The Love You Want, produced with Steve Berlin, brings new levels of harmonic composing and instrumental atmosphere. Lead singer Tierinii Jackson is exceptional, and her sister plays spanking drums. (9.23 / 7:30 pm / Cannery Ballroom)

Suzanne Santo has also enriched her sonic palette, perhaps inspired by a long stretch as a band member for the soul-pop arena-filler Hozier between her time with the duo HoneyHoney and her new solo LP Yard Sale. Her writing, production and smoky voice have never been this synched up and powerful, and with her track record, that’s saying something. (9.23 / 10:30 pm / Cannery Ballroom)

Brittney Spencer was half of my AMA preview episode of The String because she’s so remarkably good and on the make. One of a fantastic cohort of black women redefining country music in this decade of possibilities, she’s a unique writer, a gorgeous singer and a radiant person who’s going to shake stuff up. (9.23 / 8 pm / 3rd & Lindsley)

The Onlies were announced this week for a late breaking showcase and that thrilled me because they are the fire in today’s old-time string band youth brigade. Half the band is the duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno, and by all means see their showcase too for emotionally stark, lovely roots songcraft in the Gillian and Dave mode. The quartet is all about energy with driving fiddle and banjo. (9.23 / 10 pm / The High Watt)

North Carolina-raised, Colorado-based Emily Scott Robinson charmed our ears in 2019 with Traveling Mercies and then won the interest of Nashville’s Oh Boy Records, who are going to soon release the moving collection American Siren. Her voice shares a warbling loveliness with Joan Baez and Caroline Herring. (9.25 / 10 pm/ 3rd & Lindsley)

Leah Blevins has at last made the full-length album fans knew she was capable of. Working with Texan Paul Cauthen as producer, Sandy Hook, KY soul sister Blevins has crafted a moody, sultry and rapturous country music sound on First Time Feeling. On stage, Leah brings immense passion and focus to every line. (9.23 / 10 pm / 3rd & Lindsley)

West Virginia native John R Miller has released one of the sharpest albums of the year with Depreciated, his debut for Rounder Records. It’s crafty and droll with the kind of details and wordplay that make me think of Tyler Childers, who is a big fan. Miller is understated fronting his band, but that makes him even more compelling. (9.24 / 9 pm / Mercy Lounge)

Nashville’s Brit Taylor and Adam Chaffins just got married and they’ll be performing separate showcases, presumably backing each other up on stage as they do in life. She’s a profoundly interesting emerging country singer and songwriter with nerve and charm. (9.24/ 9 pm / The Basement) He’s a soul/roots artist with bluegrass background who plays a mean bass while he sings his tasty, unpredictable songs. (9.25 / 7 pm / The Basement East)

Red Dirt Boys are Emmylou Harris’s backing band, and she let them take their name and their outstanding and longstanding musical chops to a side project so potent and full of ideas they are releasing two studio albums this year. Led by the voices of Will Kimbrough and Phil Madeira, this is rambling southern roots perfection, with Nashville heart. (9.24 / 11 pm / 6th & Peabody)

AJ Lee grew up making music with her friend Molly Tuttle, and Molly’s guitar-shredding brother is in her band Blue Summit. Bay Area based, AJ has been more visible out east in recent years, captivating me at the last IBMA convention and releasing the fine albums Like I Used To and the very new I’ll Come Back. It’s newgrass and neo-folk, with Lee’s song-anchored voice and mandolin skills at the center. (9.23 / 9 pm / The High Watt)

Golden Shoals, formerly Hoot & Holler, offered one of the acoustic roots sleeper stunners of 2020 with their self-titled re-incarnation debut. Amy Alvey (fiddle, guitar) and Mark Kilianski (guitar, banjo) are Berklee graduates, but the music is ultra down-home, with flatpicking that’ll impress Doc Watson fans and a worldly wisdom in their memorable tunes and lyrics. (9.24 / 7 pm/ 6th & Peabody)

Remember to check AMA’s Covid health safety protocols to be sure you can fully participate.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.