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On The String: Voices From The Comeback AmericanaFest

The return of live music has been bumpy to say the least, with events around the country tested by labor and supply shortages, vaccine policies and even epic flooding. So AmericanaFest 2021 gets a lot of credit for taking place at all, and it did so with lively venues and good spirit among those who passed the health check and came out for seminars and shows. The cancelation of 2020’s event was dispiriting but inevitable. The return was about half the size of 2019’s mega-festival, but it was satisfying and abundant, with more than 400 sets of music across about 40 venues and an unprecedented embrace of diversity and inclusion.

My view of AmericanaFest was informed by the artists I sought out for the conversations presented in Episode 184 of The String. They’re from all over the country and all over the map stylistically as well. As always, I resist the temptation to call them a cross section of Americana music, because there’s never been more variety or individual expression in the field. But with blues, rock and roll, old time and songwriter represented here, Americana’s root system is healthy.

Sue Foleywas a teen blues phenom in the 1990s who left her native Ottawa for Austin with a paisley Telecaster she calls Pinky and a voice like nobody else’s. With an ice-cold attack on the strings that pays homage to her blues forefathers and foremothers, she embarked on a run of great albums and thrilling live shows. Her pace slowed only a little bit after having a son and moving back to Canada, but she’s been full tilt since the 2019 release of her album Ice Queen. Now she returns with Pinky’s Blues, an album that opens with an original guitar instrumental. That was to send a bit of a message, she told me.

“I am definitely, 100 percent, a guitar player first. I sang reluctantly. I enjoy singing, but if I'm playing at home I'm just playing guitar. I will sing to work tunes up, but yeah, guitar is it man. I like to disappear into it. I feel like I can really go places instrumentally, and I don't necessarily feel like that vocally - like really exploring you know?”

Chris Pierce had never attended AmericanaFest before, possibly because his music has been more directed to the Los Angeles TV and film market, while his solo albums have touched the contemporary soul space. But folk music defined his origins in music and he’s circled back at age 48 to a passionate and political form of solo songwriting. His album American Silence is a polemic and a call to action on behalf of racial justice. In performance at the City Winery, those songs lit up with a magnificent, risk-taking voice and a preacher’s charisma on stage. Pierce told me about how the nation’s reaction to George Floyd’s murder motivated him and about the hearing loss that’s put stones in his pathway for decades. A failed surgery in recent years left him struggling for confidence in his musical future.

“I (grew) up with a mother who was an eternal optimist. So I was always trying to look to the bright side, and it was pretty dark after that last surgery. Because I was like, man, what is going on? And I started really thinking about a whole career in music and communication in life where I'm forced to really listen and feel beyond what's on the surface. When I'm singing, (I’m) pushing from a place and pulling from a place where I wouldn't normally, if I had normal hearing.”

Emily Scott Robinson is the latest addition to the growing roster of Oh Boy Records, as the Nashville label widens its mission to uphold the songwriting standards of its founder John Prine. She got on many fans’ radar with her 2019 release Traveling Mercies, while her story of living on the road with her husband in an RV for three years cemented her reputation as somebody who’ll go anywhere for song. The North Carolina native went west after college to pursue social work, but the song camps and contests held by Planet Bluegrass helped get her established as an artist. The camps, she told me, had a profound effect on her.

“The biggest core insight was that growing up being a fan of people like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, and James Taylor, you hear their finished product, but you don't get to witness their writing process. And I just I just sort of assumed that songs fell out of people. (But) I found songwriting to be pretty hard, which it is. Those folks really break down, really show you what the making of a song is like. Seeing Mary Gauthier talk about how many years it took for her to write ‘Mercy Now.’ I mean, it just demystified the songwriting process for me.”

Suzanne Santo has fully realized herself as a solo artist in the wake of leaving HoneyHoney, the duo where she forged her identity as a professional touring artist. She’s followed up 2017’s Ruby Red with this summer's bracing, highly textured Yard Sale, produced by indie/alt musician John Spiker. It’s a lot more cohesive and flowing than the grab bag title implies, with gripping songwriting, guest appearances by Shakey Graves and Gary Clark Jr., and Santo’s gorgeous silk and leather voice. It also has overtones of the drama and scale she experienced during more than a year in the working touring band of Irish pop star Hozier. I asked her if she still sees herself as a roots musician.

“I don't know, because I love to do it all. I mean, I love to sit in anyone's living room and play together and I'll bust out the fiddle. But I love big stages with big sound. I love small rooms with just me and a guitar. I mean, I can't really say I'm a folk roots musician. But when I'm writing, I'm usually just on an acoustic guitar. And its nucleus is folk, you know? So, I don't know. I don't like to wear the same outfit every day.”

Golden Shoals caught my interest when the AmericanaFest lineup came out and I set about listening to as many of the artists I’d not heard before as possible. Their 2020 self-titled album was so good I chided myself for missing it the first time around. Fiddler Amy Alvey and guitarist Mark Kilianski comprise a duo that puts a new gloss and attitude on old-time country music. They’ve toured since 2013, but much of that time was under the name Hoot and Holler; the new moniker better captures the edgier direction they’re heading. I’ve called them a post-modern Gillian and Dave, if that helps. What’s remarkable is that both came to traditional music from a standing start at Berklee College of Music, having gone there with completely other directions in mind. Mark recounted it this way:

“Amy grew up playing classical violin. And I started playing guitar in heavy metal bands, and got into jazz when I was in high school. And so we were coming from very non folk oriented learning experiences. And it was an interesting time to be at Berklee, because the roots program was not an official program yet. They were kind of building it. They had a lot of bluegrass, old time, Scottish, all kinds of different musicians from all different traditional realms. And that's how we met - at jam parties for these kinds of music. And we just kind of fell in love with it. Part of the connection for us was that we were both approaching this as beginners. We were both skilled at our instruments. But this new style was a new thing for us. And you know, we were a bit intimidated, and a little bit scared, but also just awestruck and wonderstruck with the beauty of that music. And we learned together.”

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