Canines are trained to search out a great many things, from drugs to explosives, persons of interest, articles of clothing, crime scene evidence, blood, fear and death. Every September in Nashville, Americana Fest has a way of releasing the hounds on us all.
There is a brutal sniffing out of talent, a relentless and exhausting chase. A play act of cops and robbers ensues where the thieves are artists—all vying for our attention with their most tender and practiced songs—and the cops, gatekeepers of the genre. Gentle columnists, solitary producers and the toothy sharks of the industry all swarm and intermingle. It’s impossible to know who’s who though we all strain to keep our eyes neck-level and skyward in a vain attempt to not seem like we are not all here for the same purpose, to meet and be met, to do drugs, set off explosions of sound, create a scene, and try not to die.
I’ve found myself during past Americana Fests either trying to do too much or feeling guilty for getting ensnared by the fear and missing out on the action. This year I made a firm plan to do what I could to make my own fun, and set host a showcase at the joint where I work, Tennessee Brew Works. Two days of local beer and music in a simple and safe environment amongst friends turned out to be everything I could have hoped for. Tennessee Brew Work’s Finely Tuned Showcase was a musical haven. A sanctuary. A fortress.
Friday kicked off with Ashleigh Flynn and the Riveters from Portland, Oregon. Flynn indulged me by playing her song “Big Hat, No Cattle”, which is a lighthearted account of feeling like a phony, something I suppose we can all relate to. The song was recorded on her forthcoming, self-titled album set to release September 21st.
Flynn was followed by a Canadian contingency. 2017 Kerrville New Folk winner Winona Wilde shared the stage with Sarah Jane Scouten who toggle songs with a mix of witty-wild banter and harmonies fit to make a mean man cry. Also a Kerrvillian, from the 2016 cohort, Rachel Laven from San Antonio followed with an uplifting mid-day set that was like a shot of espresso. Laven is from a big ‘ol Texan music family, but she is a strong solo performer with a smiling confidence and golden grin.
A close neighbor to Laven, rolling in from Austin, Texas Nichole Wagner performed her self-termed “glitter folk”, which is not really what you’d think. The ‘glitter’ is more like the mica and sand sparkle that clouds the air after a dynamite explosion. Wagner’s song “Dynamite” got shouts from a team of Colorado tourists who applauded her when she shared that she had grown up in a small town in that state, one which was built up around a dynamite factory. “Initiate, detonate, blow it up and walk away.” Yes, that my friends, is Sparkle Folk, a powerful blast from an unassuming pyromaniac.
Koziol Kennedy was on next, featuring the harmonies of Matt Koziol and Bre Kennedy, who’s partnership melts the insides and weakens you. For me the performance was like a bloodletting of emotion; a harmonic leaching of the humours. Trust me, I needed it. And just as much as I need that release, I appreciated the saucy comedy of Kimberly Kelly’s set which followed. Kelly, who did me the solid by appealing to my Georgia roots with a fun-loving cover of Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee”, also proved an insightful songwriter with an easy stage presence, connecting with each person in the room, even to the point of getting someone to save her some fries.
Headlining Friday’s performances was a set by The Cowpokes with vocalist Sierra Ferrell. A Nashville staple, you can hear The Cowpokes most weeks performing regular sets at Robert’s Western World on Broadway, or you can catch them at The American Legion Post 82 off Gallatin Pike in East Nashville every Tuesday for Honky Tonk Tuesdays—a hoedown for local dancers who get together to keep up the tradition of partnered dancing that for centuries has been a hallmark of the genre.
All of that with a whole other day of performances to go!
Saturday afternoon began with the warmed-honey-in-your-whiskey vocals of Mercy Bell, who recently released a couple singles, one of which titled “Home”—where Bell accounts the deepest of sorrows imaginable following the loss of her mother to cancer. Home in this instance is both the grief-ladened bed that she climbed into after trying to drink the pain away, and also the womb that she laments ever escaping from. Bell is a rising name in the Nashville scene whom I truly look forward to hearing more from.
Kashena Sampson followed. Now, music writing will always fail to convey with words what only can be felt deep within the ear holes. Sampson is an all around, consummate artist with a vocal range that matches her lyrical quality. It was an honor to have her perform our taproom stage. Pick a song, any of them—”Wild Heart”, “Away From Here”, “She Shines”—and try to not have them playing in your head for days. Hers is the “crystal voice that calls you.” Don’t resist.
“Will an atom bomb bring you back to me?!” Leland Sundries, in town from Brooklyn, New York was up next with a jolt of punk-rockicana that whet the palate for what the rest of the evening was gearing up to be. Nick Loss-Eaton dialed in a refreshing escape from the limits of Americana while also touchstoning the genre’s mainstay qualities. I just learned this—TOUCHSTONE is a word derived from the process of testing alloys of gold by observing how jasper marks the stone in purity tests. The take-away…Leland Sundries ROCKS.
Luella was up next with a “Luella Set”, which if you do not live in Nashville means that she was not being tagged in anyone else’s set for her superb vocal quality or on-beat, freeing percussives, but performing her own songs with backing from her own well-chosen band. And let me tell you, I was told by more than one or ten people that this was their favorite performance in all of AmericanaFest. I’ve been following Luella for years as she performed with various other Nashville noteables, and was so pleased to get a chance to do “The Hot-Dog” with her, on her own terms.
Up next was Ben de la Cour, playing a solo set. Mind you, de la Cour playing solo leaves nothing of his rock quality untapped. Weighing in at a lean (I’m guessing) 180lbs, this southpaw is a hard hitter with songs that jab at the guts and turn in to uppercut you right in the kisser. My boxer metaphor is only made legit in that de la Cour used to be an ametuer boxer. Saturday evening, de la Cour came in swinging with a set of songs that reflect a hard knock life. With themes like drug abuse, love lost, and getting murdered while hitchhiking to your father’s funeral—de la Cour’s songs are not for the precious hearted.
Stay with me now because these final two performances warrant keen attention.
Jaimee Harris took up the stage as the penultimate performance of the Finely Tuned Showcase, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Harris is slated to be the next big name in Americana with a soon to be released, first full album Red Rescue—world wide release set for September 21st, right around the corner. The vibe was personal without being self-indulgent, riding that wave of connection that we seek out when listening to the champions of the genre.
After everything was said and done a fellow writer and I discussed the finer qualities of Gordon’s raw appeal. What was it in particular that made him so damned cool? Not to spoil anything, but we never did figure it out. All’s we could figure was that beyond the caliber of his songwriting, and beyond the elements of his style—toyed out on a ‘56 Gibson ES-125, tuned to open D—Kevin Gordon exudes abysmal mood. Wherever he got that Gibson (I don’t really want to know) it was likely traded in for a beating heart at a crossroads somewhere near the midnight hour.
And that’s that! The Finely Tuned Showcase at Tennessee Brew Works was delightful. I was able to thwart my typical, unceasing anxiety surrounding these types of conferences while still being able to see and share my favorite performers, and be introduced to new and up and coming artists. For a brief moment at least the artist’s scents were masked, and the canines lost their trail. The musicians were for a time only petty thieves, casually stealing hearts left and right.