Emerging Artists Shining Through At AmericanaFest 2023.
Americana was kind of underdog music when I got engaged with it in the late 1990s, and it has achieved a scope and scale I couldn’t have foreseen. In the mid 2000s, the annual AmericanaFest convention featured a rotating cast of familiar core artists year after year at a handful of venues in the core of Nashville. Then, like Music City itself, the styles of music under the Americana umbrella - if not the format per se - caught a cultural wave.
With arena-filling artists and major festival acts like this year’s Trailblazer Award winners the Avett Brothers and bluegrass star Billy Strings, roots oriented music is reaching wider audiences than it has since possibly the early 70s country rock boom. Meanwhile, efforts to engage American music across racial and cultural lines diversified the community of Americana artists.
These and other forces have made AmericanaFest a sprawling beast involving some 40 venues and spaces across the city, approaching SXSW levels of choice and traffic jams. But of course it’s a hell of a lot of fun and a validation of our belief that this music could reach lots of people who would support a wide range of artists. And while I understand the difficulties of touring and the thin returns on streaming music, we ought to sometimes wonder at the number of great artists who are making it work and the many avenues for excellent new artistry.
That’s what this Episode 262 of The String is about - a survey of emerging talent that’s captured my attention in the last year or two. They’re (mostly) working out of markets other than Nashville. They span honky tonk to exotic southern pop to innovative old-time music. And while no three-artist sampler can truly convey the range of creativity in American roots music, these artists ought to make you feel good about Americana’s future.
Summer Dean is one of the year’s most compelling breakout purveyors of hard-core country music, and not only because of her piercing songwriting and her voice, which feels cured and refined like saddle leather. She’s also an encouraging late bloomer story. A multi-generation native Texan, she grew up in a ranching family, and while she made music for fun and sometimes in bars, her livelihood was teaching elementary school. Then at age 39 she quit her gig because she felt music calling.
She honed her sound and a band playing a year-long residency and released her debut album Bad Romantic in 2021. That record was praised on its own but the song “You’re Lucky She’s Lonely,” a duet with Canadian breakout Colter Wall, really helped Summer get on the map. Texas icon Bruce Robison brought her into the fold of his evolving Next Waltz label and recording operation for the 2023 album The Biggest Life. With pathos, humor, blues and twang, it’s one of my favorite pure country albums of the year.
One of its standout songs, and for sure its most vulnerable and revealing, is its closer, “Lonely Girl’s Lament,” which confronts the social expectations of her time and place and the light and dark sides of following her own independent path.
“I was raised with good, steady parents that see the value in family and husbands and kids. And I do too. But I didn't see it as a necessity. And that was hard to get through to myself and to my family. And that's what that (song) is about. I felt so unfeminine and unwhole as a woman because I wasn't getting married and having babies. And some people think that's silly, but it was heavy for me. And I have found out that it's heavy for a lot of people.”
Single Lock Records is one of the most interesting and sincere labels in today’s Americana universe, because it sustains and grows the decades-long story of Muscle Shoals, one of the most musical places in the country. It was founded ten years ago in the Alabama town of Florence by singer-songwriter and former Civil Wars star John Paul White and some partners with an old school attention to integrity and regional talent. The team has shepherded great releases by Dylan LeBlanc, Lera Lynn, Cedric Burnside, the late Donnie Fritts, and others. So Caleb Elliott’s AmericanaFest showcase was part of a Saturday night devoted to Single Lock artists at the Exit/In. It was excellent and easy-going, with floating beats and drifty harmonies, and it was wonderful to see Caleb perform about a third of his set while playing his first instrument, the cello.
Caleb tells me in our conversation about his deep study of the cello alongside his discovery of the guitar and songwriting in his teens. Unlike the expected script, he rode the cello into the family of Single Lock as a session musician (joining the long history of great session players from Muscle Shoals, including the famous Swampers). Then he revealed his skills as a writer/artist, and they’ve released two albums with Caleb since 2019, the newest being the groovy and serene Weed, Wine & Time. It quickly became a favorite of mine when it came out in the spring.
Elliott says that from the moment he picked up a guitar at age 13, he wanted to write songs with it.
“I was like, I can do whatever I want on this, you know? It became my creative outlet. And so I've always had a hunger, like an insatiable thing, to write songs. I get really obsessive about writing songs, and melodies get stuck in my head. And I can't really move forward with my life without exploring it. And so that's why the Muscle Shoals scene was a really great one for me, because there's a lot of people who feel that way about songwriting there.”
Allison DeGroot and Tatiana Hargreaves
Old-time music is a world unto itself, connected to bluegrass but not the same thing. And while for most Americans it’s well off their musical radar, old-time is thriving through a network of festivals and contests and through younger fans and artists like Allison DeGroot and Tatiana Hargreaves. DeGroot is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba who got excited about the sound of the clawhammer banjo years ago. She loved it but had no intention of becoming a professional folk musician. Then a band scooped her up and she found herself touring and loving it. She’s done time with the great fiddler Bruce Molsky and now focuses on her duo with Tatiana Hargreaves.
Hargreaves, now based in Durham, NC, came from Corvallis, OR and had more of a family grounding in traditional music, including a brother who now plays fiddle with Billy Strings. Tatiana felt drawn to older styles and repertoire. “Playing fiddle has always been a part of my life, but it's just taken different shapes over time,” she says.
The musicians met about ten years ago while both at different schools in the Boston area, and they hit it off right away. By 2018 they’d formed a duo and made a first self-titled album rather quickly, before even much touring. But their unique, mesmerizing sound has been a hit for all kinds of roots audiences and a vector into old–time for a lot of fans who’ve been unfamiliar. Their newest album is 2022’s Hurricane Clarice, a mix of found songs and original instrumentals. Their shows pull the listener into a vortex of rhythm and move the heart with close, sometimes strange harmonies.
Allison, now living in Nashville, tells me that the duo format has really worked for them.
“We have gotten to a point where we can respond really immediately and react to each other. And sometimes we end up doing the same thing at the same time without even planning it. Every time we play something, it's going to be a little bit different. And I feel like that's what the audience notices. If there's an audience that doesn't necessarily know about old-time music, which is a big part of our background, they still can see our musicianship and the way that we interact together, and I feel like that's what translates.”