Putting together a highlights list for the 2019 Americana Music Awards Festival, which has grown to 300 some-odd official acts, with more than 700 official performances, not to mention all the local and off-schedule gigs and parties mushrooming exponentially everywhere throughout the city, inevitably comes with the caveat that the vast majority of the acts were simply not seen. But each one of these acts spoke to my very soul personally and in very distinct ways. Here are a couple of reasons why.
1. The Center of Nowhere documentary by Dave Hoekstra screening at BMI. Michael McCall, Vance Powell, Eric Ambel, Brenda Lee, Supe Granda, Dave Hoekstra. There was so much to learn in this documentary and not a dry eye in the room as people processed the fact that bright light producer Lou Whitney passed away after decades of work in the music enclave of Springfield, MO. During the movie, the history of Ozark music and the Ozark Jubilee was sketched out as the foundation that put Springfield on the map of music history. The network television series promoted country music that was featured on the show, which was broadcast from Springfield (in the Ozarks) by Red Foley, because its location on Route 66 rendered it accessible. Brenda Lee, who was in attendance, began singing at the Ozark Jubilee when she was 9. When the jubilee left Springfield a lot of musicians stayed, as country was giving was to rock ‘n roll music, which is a blend of African/blues and hillbilly music. The primary carrier of the Springfield rock n roll torch was the charismatic Lou Whitney (with his crack studio teams The Skeletons and the Morells). His studio there produced dozens of acts including Dave Alvin, the Del-Lords, Robbie Fulks, Bottle Rockets, Jonathan Richman, Wilco, Blue Mountain and others. During the panel discussion, through tears, laughs were shared, particularly Ambel‘s anecdote about how Whitney once said there was only one thing ever stolen from his studio (dramatic pause) and “it was those goddamn Christians” to which Brenda Lee smacked the table in laughter. Keep an eye out for this film.
2. Gretchen Peters has an uncanny ability to pull tears up from the depths of your soul and cause you to weep involuntarily in a room full of strangers. After her set at the Proper Music Party at the Nashville Underground, a man from the UK standing beside me leaned over to say, in a wobbly voice: “Gretchen Peters gives me the shakes. I’m really overwhelmed.” I could only smile in return through my own blurry vision. Cathartic sorrow is a gift.
3. Stamey, Dixon, Easter. This was an exciting piece of history with legends at the helm. Mitch Easter produced REM (with Don Dixon), among many other acts, and was in the band Rittenhouse Square with Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, the latter two later forming the dBs. In addition to being a showcase for an important element of music history, the trio, along with their drummer, sounded downright sensational. The Mercy Lounge was crammed and every ear was on the band. As someone in the audience quipped: “This was amazing. The only thing that could have added anything to this would have been a cameo by Peter Holsapple.”
4. Sunny War. She has an incredibly adept playing style, and her fingers on both hands are mesmerizing to watch. Her vocals are spellbindingly earthy. Her stage banter, referring to her mom, only served to underscore this musician, who is already so proficient, still has a whole career ahead of her.
5. Malcolm Holcombe. He is a national treasure and his delivery was captivating as he also looked fantastic in the stage lights at 3rd and Lindsley. Familiar songs from his recent album rang out over the crowd and despite his appearance as a man just seated there casually with an acoustic guitar, he can work the crowd, and the effect was commanding to the far reaches of the room.
6. Liz Brasher is fiercely multitalented and a magical songwriter. Her music and songs are tapped into something truly unique and sometimes gothic novel/otherworldly, and although I caught only the end of her set at Mercy Lounge, it was wonderful.
7. Eilen Jewell. She rocked the house on Friday night at the High Watt at the Cannery Ballroom complex. You could see in people’s shining eyes how moving she is. Traffic all the way up the alley made me late to her set (and she was on at the same time as Brasher) and I was left wanting more.
8. American Aquarium. BJ Barham’s songwriting just keeps getting better and better. The American Aquarium set at Mercy Lounge was powerful and amazing and Barham’s songs are beautiful, moving and complex. We’re eagerly awaiting the new album.
9. Tami Neilson. She is bold entertainment fresh from New Zealand by way of Canada. Her style is, simply put, a refreshing counterbalance to the more earnest end of the Americana spectrum. “Boom!”
10. Micky & the Motorcars. You really need a dose of alt country to ground you at this festival and this band delivered. Truthfully, it was by chance and a surprise to discover how good they were, and that kind of surprise is the definition of highlight.
11. Rainbow Girls performed songs that are crisp and often lyrically irreverent and funny among their harmonies of perfection. Their set at City Winery drew a significant crowd who laughed along in outbursts with the songs’ frequent punchlines!
12. Rod Picott. Rod Picott’s “Ghost” has been an ear worm since I first heard it early last summer, so getting to hear it live was a real treat. He performed it at the Americana on the Rocks party — a counterpoint to the awards ceremony on Wed night at the 5 Spot — which had a heartwarming family feel in its Nashville-Texas blend, hosted by the Ohio based Broken Jukebox Media.