AmericanaFest 2019: 25 Best Things We Saw

Jonathan Bernstein, Jon Freeman, Joseph Hudak and Marissa R. Moss

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AmericanaFest grew to nearly South by Southwest proportions this year, with concerts seemingly going on all day long at venues, backyards, and parking lots across Nashville. Heavy hitters were everywhere, like Brandi Carlile, Tanya Tucker, and the Mavericks, who somehow shoehorned their big band onto two of Nashville’s tiniest stages: the Station Inn and Robert’s Western World. And rising artists, from Che Apalache to Marcus King Band, put in their time, playing gigs in the unrelenting heat of Tennessee’s late summer. Then there was Yola, the U.K. songwriter who all but became a new Americana queen with rapturous performances aboard riverboats and inside breweries. Here’s the 25 best things we saw as AmericanaFest celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Jamie Lin Wilson
AmericanaFest had barely just begun when Jamie Lin Wilson took the stage on Tuesday at Acme, rendering the adage of “saving the best for last” pretty useless. One of the sharpest voices to emerge from the modern Texas scene, Wilson recruited an ace band, including Adam Kurtz on steel guitar, to play songs like “Dusty Shoes,” from her Dirty Blonde Hair EP and “Oklahoma Stars” from her excellent 2018 release Jumping Over Rocks. Wilson sings with warmth and precision, telling stories of how to see the light when everything feels grey, or how to keep going when the road seems hopelessly long. A set highlight was a reunion with two out of three of her former bandmates in the Trishas, whose harmonies have lost none of their luster over years gone by. M.M.

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Brandi Carlile
The afternoon after winning the Artist of the Year trophy at the Americana Honors & Awards, Brandi Carlile wasn’t about to take a gluttonous victory lap: she wanted to get down to work again. Which she did Thursday afternoon by sitting with Change the Conversation’s Tracy Gershon to not only talk about her career, but ways she hopes to change the landscape for women and taking direct, personal responsibility for both her mistakes and how she can move the needle. The two discussed Tanya Tucker, systemic bias in the music industry, the Secret Sisters’ new material (including playing a song called “Cabin,” inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, that hushed the room), and how she’s looking toward solutions, like opening for other artists including Lucie Silvas and Courtney Marie Andrews. “I’ve been guilty at times in my life of being quite competitive,” Carlile confessed to Gershon, explaining her own personal evolution. “I’m not interested in doing anything other than being part of the solution.” It felt like an invitation for everyone else in the room to figure out how they can be, too. M.M.

Better Together: That Memphis Groove n’ Grind
Will Hoge growled through the Box Tops’ “The Letter,” Mike Farris delivered a William Bell master class with “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday,” and Nicki Bluhm slayed with Ann Peebles’ “How Strong Is a Woman?” — all in less than an hour of the four-hour marathon saluting Memphis music. The annual kickoff to AmericanaFest, the Better Together concert leaned heavily on soul and R&B, but also had its share of bona fide rock moments via Memphis native Liz Brasher’s hard-charging set, and Aaron Beavers’ homage to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”). Even hip-hop was represented: East Nashville heartland rocker Jon Latham led an all-star rendition of Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” By show’s end, the performers and the crowd were as sweaty and spent as Memphis in August. J.H.

The Luck Mansion
The presence of Willie Nelson looms large at the Luck Mansion, a temporary outpost for the Red Headed Stranger’s beloved Luck Reunion. That’s partially due to the joint preserved under glass next to a sign that says “reserved for Willie,” and to the bar serving up tasty Willie’s Reserve CBD coffee. But mostly that’s due to a set of unique, stripped-down performances from the likes of Suitcase Junket, who cultivates a massive sound through a collection of eclectic instruments; Peace Police, a new incarnation of the New York band Heaven’s Jail, whose last album was produced by Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck; Katie Pruitt, celebrating the release of her new single “Expectations”; and Jeremy Ivey, who treated the audience on Saturday to brand-new songs despite only releasing his debut album, The Dream and the Dreamer, the day before. “She can disappear in the light of day,” Ivey sang on the tune about his wife and frequent collaborator, Margo Price. “She knows how to listen when there’s nothing to say.” M.M.

The Frothy Pit: Wynonna and Cass McCombs
“I’m a blues mama now,” Wynonna announced to the crowd midway through her first-ever set alongside Cass McCombs. It was one of just several proclamations of fresh beginnings from the 55-year-old country singer (a few others: “I’m in a band now!;” or “I’m being reborn into a new season!”). Billed as the Frothy Pit, McCombs and Wynonna resolutely answered any questions those might have had about the unlikely indie rock-Eighties country pairing with a searing set of folk-blues originals (see McCombs’ tale of an ambivalent veteran “Unproud Warrior”), unlikely covers (Grateful Dead’s “Ramble on Rose”), and reinterpretations of each other’s material (McCombs took lead on the Judds’ 1984 classic “Why Not Me”). Despite leaning over to McCombs to whisper, “I’m so nervous” as soon as she began, Wynonna was in perfect form and seemed utterly reinvigorated by her new artistic surroundings. As she put it in her opening take on the standard “Feeling Good”: “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life for me.” J.B.

Mike and the Moonpies
There were few sets this past weekend that had more of a “can’t miss” feel than Mike and the Moonpies’ packed-house Thursday set at the High Watt. Playing highlights from their past two albums, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose and Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, the quintet performed pristine roadhouse country, showing off their dynamics early on when the band alternated between the mid-tempo stomp of “Beaches of Biloxi,” the honky-tonk balladry of “You Look Good in Neon,” and the sing-song chug of “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose.” While the band shook up their sound with their turn toward ornate arrangements on their latest album, their AmericanaFest set was a reminder of the group’s no-nonsense country bona fides. J.B.

Yola
British country-soul singer Yola was clearly the breakout star of AmericanaFest 2019. Wherever she turned up, the crowds followed, even in the sweltering midday heat of Little Harpeth Brewing for a quick acoustic set. But on Thursday night, Yola went all out at City Winery, delivering a full-band performance that flattened everyone within earshot. As good as her voice sounds on 2019’s endlessly enjoyable Walk Through Fire, Yola sounds even better when she’s in front of a microphone, her rangy alto soulful and supple until she pushes harder and forces it to break up into a raspy howl à la Tina Turner. Guests in attendance got a set of highlights from Yola that included “Ride Through the Country,” “Lonely the Night,” and “It Ain’t Easier,” plus a dazzling cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” J.F.

Lula Wiles
The New England folk outfit barnstormed AmericanaFest with a potent set of originals from their new album What Will We Do. Like the record’s title suggests, the music of Lula Wiles (Eleanor Buckland, Mali Obomsawin, Isa Burke) is, at its heart, inquisitive and probing, never more so than on the group’s one-two punch of “Shaking as It Turns” and “Good Old American Values.” The latter song, in particular, was a standout, a biting send-up of American myth-making that found the group asking tough questions of its audience. Aided by the group’s recent addition of touring drummer Sean Trischka, the band’s soft-spoken folk transformed onstage, filled out with hints of pristine Nineites alt-rock and folk-pop. J.B.

Tami Neilson
Tami Neilson brought a much-needed shot of camp and color to AmericanaFest, donning bold dresses and an impossibly tall bouffant for all of her appearances. At a daytime performance for WMOT, the Canada-born, New Zealand-based singer backed up that eye-catching presentation — “I think I was a drag queen in another life,” she joked onstage — with considerable talent and confidence. Opening with the funky “Big Boss Mama,” she shimmied and strutted like Sharon Jones, but switched the pace to sing Everly Brothers-esque harmonies with her brother Jay on the rocking new single “Hey, Bus Driver!” She closed with a devastating blues number that let her howl ferociously, somehow embodying Amy Winehouse, Dolly Parton, and Etta James all in one. J.F.

Kelsey Waldon
Nashville’s Kelsey Waldon has been a presence at AmericanaFest — and the Americana Scene in general — for several years running. But this year, as the newest signee to John Prine’s Oh Boy Records, Waldon finally emerged as one of the most buzzed-about artists, backing up that anticipation with a dynamite performance Wednesday night at 3rd & Lindsley and a slew of other appearances throughout the week. Previewing songs from her forthcoming album White Noise/White Lines, like the potent “Sunday’s Children,” Waldon’s music is a mix of storytelling, that high-lonesome sound, and the dangerous chug of Waymore’s Outlaws, filtered through her fresh perspective and emotive voice. It’s no wonder Oh Boy snatched her up. M.M.

The Mavericks
Madman DJ Mojo Nixon returned to Nashville’s seminal honky-tonk Robert’s Western World for a second year to host his Music City Mayhem, a live broadcast on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. Free and open to anyone who might walk in, and stumble out, the boozy afternoon featured sets by country royalty Carlene Carter, Robert’s mainstay Chuck Mead, and Sarah Gayle Meech, who co-hosted with Nixon. But the highlight was the magic trick pulled by the Mavericks, who somehow managed to fit an eight-piece band, including horns and accordion, on the bar’s postage-stamp stage. Their four-song set was equally magical, with Raul Malo leading the band through a spirited cover of Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and a majestic take on Hank Cochran’s “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me),” the latter cut short by a round of tequila shots. “I want to have a drink,” said Malo. “We’ve been working all day, man.” J.H.

Tanya Tucker
Americana, country, whatever: Wednesday night at her official showcase, “joy” felt like the appropriate genre for Tanya Tucker’s triumphant set. Bringing her best growl and some hearty hip-shaking – along with backup singers for the ages, Brandi Carlile and Tim and Phil Hanseroth, fresh off the Americana Awards stage — Tucker proved that her resurgence is in full swing, and rightfully so: both with her comeback album While I’m Livin‘ and her ability to put on a dynamic live show, years after so many counted her out of the industry for good. Tucker brought tears with her rendition of “The Wheels of Laredo” and “Bring My Flowers Now,” and then got the whole place singing the song that made her a star, “Delta Dawn.” Bring her those flowers now, for sure — and an invitation to join the Country Music Hall of Fame, while we’re at it. M.M.

We’ve Only Just Begun: A Tribute to the Music of the Carpenters & More
Amid all the various permutations of Americana being showcased during the fest — punk-tinged country, country-soul, sincere singer-songwriter folk, et al. — one of the most unlikely items on the official schedule nodded to one of American popular music’s great duos. We’ve Only Just Begun, organized by performer Erin Rae, was a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of East Nashville (and beyond) artistry with singers including Michaela Anne, Lilly Hiatt, and Logan Ledger offering up a sweet and smooth alternative to the rest of the Fest with covers of Carole King, Jim Croce, and Glen Campbell abutting loving renditions of “Superstar” and “On Top of the World.” Seems like everyone got the memo: the 5 Spot was packed wall-to-wall with artists and fans alike, singing along to their favorite Seventies hits. J.F.

Joe Pug
Among a sea of countless Americana traditionalists, Joe Pug’s disciplined folk classicism stood out. Most compelling were the string of plaintive two-verse originals from Pug’s recently released record The Flood in Color, including the title track, “The Letdown,” and “Blues Came Down” (which was performed in “the key of Delta,” as Pug put it). But the Maryland singer-songwriter’s set stretched the entirety of his decade-long recording career, dating all the way back to “Hymn #35” and “Call It What You Will,” both chestnuts from his 2009 debut EP Nation of Heat. J.B.

Gangstagrass
“I think the question is, is the Station Inn ready for Gangstagrass?” asked banjoist/vocalist Dan Whitener during an all-too brief showcase appearance Thursday afternoon by the hip-hop/bluegrass collective. The answer was yes: the five-piece group, rounded out by Brian Farrow, Dolio the Sleuth, Rench, and R-Son the Voice of Reason, brought their defiant sound to the legendary roots music venue, delivering numbers like “All for One” and “Nickel and Dime Blues” during their rousing four-song set (later that evening, Gangstagrass played to a packed, rapturous crowd at the High Watt). The band, which includes a fiddle, banjo, and guitar player alongside two rappers and plays to a programmed drum beat, offered a fresh, much-needed take on traditional roots music that, given its context, felt more than a little radical. J.B.

Chris Shiflett
Yeti, the en vogue cooler company, put together one chill lineup for their party atop the Bobby Hotel’s roof in downtown Nashville. Kelsey Waldon, the Wood Brothers, the North Mississippi Allstars, and Chris Shiflett all played against a Cumberland River backdrop. Shiflett, the Foo Fighters guitarist turned Americana troubadour, was particularly on fire, leading his band through songs off his latest album Hard Lessons. The political “This Ol’ World” and “I Thought You’d Never Leave” were highlights, with Shiflett parrying with steel player Adam Kurtz during an inspired shred-off. One of many gigs he and the band played during AmericanaFest, it reinforced Shifty’s rep as a performer who can sing, solo, and literally chew gum all at the same time. J.H.

Trigger Hippy
Steve Gorman and Nick Govrik relaunched their dormant soul-rock band Trigger Hippy with a new lineup this year and their gig at Thirty Tigers’ day party on Friday proved it was wise to stir the beast. Rounded out by vocalist Amber Woodhouse and singer-guitarist Ed Jurdi (of Band of Heathens), Trigger Hippy offered a preview of their upcoming album Full Circle and Then Some. “Don’t Want to Bring You Down” illustrated the power of having three singers in a band with Govrik, Jurdi, and Woodhouse each taking a verse, while “Born to Be Blue” offered the charismatic Woodhouse her own moment in the spotlight. Gorman may be best known as the drummer for the dysfunctional Black Crowes (a wild ride he recounts in his upcoming book Hard to Handle), but with Trigger Hippy he’s found a more easygoing type of chemistry. J.H.

Che Apalache
Credit the Americana Music Association for sticking by a broad and expansive outlook, because it’s bringing in a lot of exciting and different talent. One such example is Che Apalache, led by North Carolina native Joe Troop and rounded out by musicians from Argentina and Mexico. During their on-air performance for WMOT at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium, the acoustic foursome deftly weaved together bluegrass instrumental styles with the rhythms of Latin America, Japan, Eastern Europe, and beyond in a way that felt exuberant rather than academic. Troop courageously sang about the journey of a DACA recipient in “The Dreamer,” the threat of theocracy in “Rock of Ages,” and the Southern border crisis in “The Wall,” earning some enthusiastic applause for the latter’s line, “We’ll have to knock it down.” Troop also showed off his vocal chops, flitting between high-lonesome mountain soul to traditional Japanese melisma, even pulling off one spectacularly high and cathartic run near the end of “New Journey” that brought the crowd to its feet. J.F.

Marcus King Band
When it comes to young guitarists, few are as mesmerizing as Marcus King. There’s something otherworldly about the 23-year-old, in the way his fingers float around the neck of his instrument and in the way he sings, a primal scream that seems to release a lifetime of pent-up angst. He let it all out onstage at the Easy Eye Sound Get Down on Thursday, a showcase curated by Dan Auerbach that also included Kendell Marvel, Yola, and new Easy Eye artist Early James. Country-soul and funk were the order of the afternoon, but King and his eponymous band brought the rock, unabashedly and damn loud. J.H.

Anna Tivel
One of the festival’s most spellbinding sets was from Portland, Oregon, singer-songwriter Anna Tivel, who delivered a high-intensity performance at the High Watt. Accompanied by Mark Erelli on guitar and harmony vocals, Tivel ran through quietly devastating highlights from her 2019 standout The Question, including the impressionistic introspection of “Shadowland.” Songs like “Velvet Curtain” and “Homeless Child,” meanwhile, showed off Tivel’s penchant for close third-person character sketches that imbued her protagonists with grace and tenderness. In a week of countless songsmiths showcasing their attempt at that exact type of singer-songwriter storytelling, Tivel’s winding, largely chorus-less tales shined and shimmered. J.B.

Elizabeth Cook
After shit went south for the Quaker City Night Hawks on Wednesday night (their Basement East set ended in a trashed stage), Elizabeth Cook got the call to take their Thursday night headlining slot at the Cannery. Why she didn’t have that gig from the get-go is anyone’s guess — because as Cook gears up for a new album, she’s absolutely in the zone onstage. Dressed in one of her fringe jumpsuits, the singer and Outlaw Country DJ ran through material new and old, commanding the crowd with a stage presence that mixes down-home hospitality with piss n’ vinegar. She also came armed with a white-hot band, including guitarist (and Rolling Stone contributor) Andrew Leahey, who when not leading his own group the Homestead, plays Cook’s formidable right-hand man. J.H.

Sarah Potenza’s Sunday School
If there was anything held sacred at Sarah Potenza’s annual Sunday School showcase at the Hutton Hotel, it was the camaraderie and the music. Everything else was up for grabs. Sporting a leopard-print jumpsuit that she quipped was her “Jersey plaid,” the boisterous singer hosted her annual fest-closer with humor, wit, and a healthy dose of sarcasm. But she got serious when it came to the artists joining her onstage, from the one-to-watch Sara Morgan, an agile Kansas City songwriter, to the duo Granville Automatic, who remade Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” into a haunting, harmony-rich ballad. Nashville honky-tonker Chuck Mead also turned up, leading the crowd in a singalong of “I Saw the Light.” But it was Potenza who was the glue holding it all together. “I love to invite people that I meet all over the country while I’m out there touring,” she said, after uniting the room with Phil Madeira’s “Give God the Blues.” J.H.

Dee White
Alabama native Dee White was a more low-key thrill option for those who ventured out on Saturday night. Occupying a prime slot at 3rd & Lindsley, the young singer-songwriter performed a series of the tracks from his underappreciated debut album Southern Gentleman, including the sweetly nostalgic “Bucket of Bolts” and the heartbroken “Rose of Alabam’.” He also sang about a place that exists apart from worldly troubles and time in “Ol’ Muddy River,” skillfully introducing it with an a cappella snippet of “Ol’ Man River” and then tacking on a gleeful romp through Mel McDaniel’s 1981 hit “Louisiana Saturday Night” in the final section. It was a quick musical appreciation lesson, delivered with youthful bar-band bravado. J.F.

Jesse Malin
In his black suit and sideways cabbie’s cap, the New York City hardcore singer may have seemed like the fish out of water at AmericanaFest, but on the back of his Lucinda Williams-produced new album Sunset Kids, he charmed a post-Awards show crowd at the Basement on Wednesday night. Backed by his full band, including Derek Cruz on guitar and a horn section, Malin tore through Sunset Kids tracks like “Strangers and Thieves” and “Shining Down,” along with early favorites like the reggae-vibed “She Don’t Love Me Now.” For the capper, he unbuttoned his shirt and climbed atop the bass drum for a reckless cover of the Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail.” Once a punk, always a punk. J.H.

Vandoliers
At the Bloodshot Records Backyard Bash, a slew of great performances — from Jason Hawk Harris to Sarah Shook and the Disarmers — made hanging out in the dripping heat more than worth the sweat. Vandoliers, the raucous cowpunk Texas collective, were determined to do the most with their short set, announcing to the crowd that they didn’t plan to stop once. Instead, they were just going to keep rolling forward with everything had. And they did, bringing the energy level to 11 and beyond with songs like “Troublemaker” and “Fallen Again” in front of a Lone Star flag. Americana can get loud, courtesy of bands like Vandoliers — and thankfully so. M.M.

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