(cover photo and photo of Mike and the Moonpies by Melissa Payne, all other photos by Melissa Clarke)
I moved to Nashville in ’97 and for almost the entire time I have been blessed to live in the city AmericanaFest calls home. While I have been in the paying audience for numerous showcases over the years, 2019 marks the first time I have been in attendance as a journalist. I found myself stepping away from the bar (once or twice) and walking away mid conversation to get a better view or a better listen of whoever happened to be on stage at that given moment. September brought no relief from the oppressive southern heat but spirits remained high, probably helped along by the cold beer that never seemed too away.
My version of AmericanaFest started out at The 5Spot in East Nashville for an “unofficial” showcase hosted by Adam Dawson, the brains and brawn behind Broken Jukebox Media. I walked in and there was definitely as much talent in attendance as there was on stage. Kevin Gordon, Renee Wahl, Jon Byrd were all mulling around enjoying the top tier talent. Ben de la Cour was his usual awesome self – dark introspective and provocative. Rod Picott, whose name I knew but had never heard him play, was up next. Picott, who has released a ton of records since making Nashville his home, knocked me back a step or two. Great voice, songs that catch you right in the moment and an excellent stage presence really drove the performance home for me. I have spent the last few days exploring his catalog and I suggest you do the same.
The Truehearts, a duo I had seen a few years ago stepped up next. Having seen them as a more stripped down unit I was surprised as person after person walked onto the stage. They had a full band complete with a trumpet player, who oddly enough, was apparently the secret spice they may have needed all along. The tribal drumming mixed with a New Orleans/ swampy bayou kinda groove drove the opening track and I was right in the palm of their hands as I went from mildly interested to enthralled. Steve McWilliams & Debra Buonaccorsi have a great chemistry and their voices can either blend together nicely or stand alone with equal effect. There were elements of damn near everything throughout their songs but it all felt natural and unforced. Big props to Dawson as the showcase was curated very well and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off the festivities.
I left as the final notes were still in the air for a garden party where a parade of acoustic duos played for a backyard/sideyard full of people. Outside of singer/songwriter Edan Archer who has a captivating voice and absolutely owned the big shiny electric guitar she was playing, the remaining artists collectively put on a fine if not particularly compelling showcase and I called it a night soon after. I knew Thursday night was going to be a marathon and I have a corporate day job so I unfortunately could not stay out into the early am hours, at least not on the first night.
Thursday rolls around and it’s off to the Easy Eye Sound (Dan Auerbach) showcase at Little Harpeth Brewing. Put together by Tom Osborn this had all the makings of one of those “you had to be there” moments Nashville is so fond of dolling out. Due to traffic being the royal pain it has become I missed the surprise guest who turned out to be Yola. Sigh…..oh well, you can’t dwell on things you can’t change. In spite of my irritation at missing her set my timing turned out to still be pretty good as I did walk in just as Early James & The Latest were being introduced. The first track started out with slow, deliberately paced vocals, a 50’s style guitar, trembling in the moment and some poundings drums just for good measure. Needless to say, they had my attention. The next song was equally compelling and the best way I can describe his voice is as follows: imagine it’s Saturday night and you find yourself driving, alone, down some state highway in rural Alabama or maybe Mississippi. The am station is coming in and out on the radio as you fidget with the tuner, trying to dial in the signal. Suddenly a moment of clear sound bursts forth from the past their prime delco speakers, it growls and crackles as a hellfire and brimstone preacher half screams half intensely whispers into the void, searching for a soul to save. Now throw in a drummer who is taking out all his frustration on the kit, a guitar player who is firmly locked into the groove and bassist who is loving life on the bottom end and even then, you still probably won’t get the impact of a band at the center of what was a truly magical happening. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up as I type this, an all too real reminder of just what a moment it was. Auerbach joins them on stage for next track and the back and forth guitar work was fun to watch. Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama they stole the entire festival. While I saw some great stuff after them, I could have gone home happy as I knew I has had been witness to something unknown and very, very special. That being said I did not go home but you get my point. Dee White is maybe 19 years old but the band was good and he has a maturity about his voice and songwriting that is well beyond his years. It is classic country with a little 70s rock without being gimmicky or too retro and I especially enjoyed his duet with Molly Tuttle.
I thoroughly enjoyed his show and I look forward to hearing more from him in the future. Capping off a great afternoon of music were The Gibson Brothers. Bluegrass royalty with the IBMA awards to back it up, they blew me away. The harmonies were tight, as you might expect from brothers, but the pure clean crispness was a blast to listen to. The guitars were electric Gibsons and Fenders and those boys can flat out make ‘em sing. Catch them on tour this fall, I don’t think you will be disappointed.
Now it was off to Mercy Lounge where I tend to find myself every year. There are three great venues under one roof – The Mercy Lounge, The Cannery Ballroom & The High Watt, and all three featuring some of the best music of the festival. Jeremy Ivey, husband of Margo Price and artist in his own right was playing when we walked in. Not realizing who it was at first I didn’t realize Margo was part of the show. I enjoyed the duet with Margo and his solo work is absolutely worth your time and attention.
Mike and the Moonpies were better than I expected and had a good live energy. Gangstagrass was interesting. Acoustic guitar, fiddle and banjo backed by a beat and two MCs. Wasn’t sure what to expect and even after seeing them I’m not sure what I thought. I think I liked it, two great tastes that taste kinda weird together, yet it kinda worked. Darren Bradbury sounded like a really early 1970s Buffet.
Friday – Day three of showcase after showcase, act after act and I couldn’t be happier. As I was plotting my show schedule my ONLY must see act for the entire festival was the Chris Stamey, Don Dixon & Mitch Easter show at Mercy Lounge. Everything else was planned around being there for this jangle pop happening that I was not going to miss. I got there early and caught Early James & the Latest for the second time that week. Just as good and compelling and it only served to confirm my initial impression of the band. I caught a few songs of Liz Brasher and she was amazing. Great songs, excellent guitarist and an enthusiastic crowd made for e great time. My friend Rodney wanted to see Bonnie Bishop so off we went. She was probably one of the top five artist I saw all week. She has soulful voice than can go raspy or smooth to devastating effect. The band was on point and Gabe Dixon on keys never hurts what you bring to the table. She has a new record coming out the first week of October so save your pennies.
As I mentioned I was there for Stamey, Dixon & Easter. They did not disappoint. Mining their collective pasts as artists and producers it was a show for the ages. I came late to the db’s, Lets Active etc so it was a thirty year dream to see this happen. Their voices and chops were strong and my jaw hurt from smiling. My hope is this grouping is something we may hear and see again.
Micky & the Motorcars over in the High Watt had a nice country rock feel that was fueled by three electric guitars plus steel so you know it was gonna be a good time. Sarah Shook in the Mercy Lounge was complementing Micky & the Motorcars at the same time and it was a tossup which to choose.
Foy Vance has that white boy soul thing that folks from the UK have made their own and it was a more than welcome addition to the festivities. Bonne Bishop was singing backup so that should tell you something. Band and audience alike were having a blast as Vance overshot his timeslot. American Aquarium sounded fantastic as usual.
I rounded out the night with The Commonheart. The Pittsburgh based collective fronted by Clinton Clegg was a blast. The nine piece band can hold their own with anyone and their soulful rock stomp was the perfect act to finish the night with. Big, bold and not shy Clegg is a frontman to the 10th degree. It is difficult not to be drawn to the power of their sound or the joy they take in making such a beautiful noise. It was a hell of a night.
AmericanaFest was perfect. For every artist I saw or discovered there were two or three that I knoew I was missing. I hated I did not get to the Station Inn for Scott Miller or to Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge for Lizzie Noe, City Winery for Garrison Starr, or to Grimey’s for their Americanarama celebration. Oh well I will plan better next year. But for now I can rest easy knowing I had a great time, discovered some fantastic artists and thoroughly enjoyed myself.