Someone once asked me to describe what Americana music was. My simple reply was “country music that doesn’t suck.” I further embellished this remark by adding that an Americana artist most likely 1) plays an instrument; 2) writes their own songs; and 3) doesn’t need to use Auto-Tune to correct their vocals. While my description still fits, on this day in Grimey’s parking lot, legendary British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg told us how they see it in England, “[It is] country music for people who like The Smiths.” Music fans from all over came to town for several days of country music that doesn’t suck—the 14th annual Americana Music Festival and the 12th annual Honors & Awards ceremony.
Not able to take in any of the weekday afternoon and late night festivities, my involvement this year was limited to Grimey’s annual “Americanarama,” a Saturday afternoon outdoor live music and record sale.
As always, the line up this year was impressive and included sets by The Reneaus, Steelism, Dexateens, Daughter, T. Hardy Morris, The Autumn Defense, Billy Bragg, High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama (featuring Amanda Shires and Morris) and Willie Sugarcapps. Each act played a brief 30-minute set on a make-shift stage in the parking lot. I arrived mid-day targeting The Autumn Defense and Mr. Bragg.
The Autumn Defense features two members of Wilco, John Stirratt and Patrick Sansone, who started this side project in 1999 before Sansone joined Wilco in 2003. Sansone was a former part-time Nashvillian who once worked with my fave local pop band Swan Dive. The band’s Nashville ties connected them to local bass man extraordinaire, James “Hags” Haggerty (Joe, Marc’s Brother, Josh Rouse) who rounded out the day’s trio.
Defense’s afternoon set featured a delightfully warm, refreshing pop sound. Their twin acoustic guitars and pretty harmonies were fused together under an echoing layer of reverb. Opening with an older track from their 2003 release, Circles, the band then played four songs from their latest effort, the 2010 Yep Roc release Once Around. They nicely closed things out with a sweet-sounding cover of the Bob Welch/Fleetwood Mac classic “Sentimental Lady,” a song with a Nashville connection since Welch lived here until his death just last year.
There was quite a bit of gushing from store proprietors Mike Grimes and Doyle Davis over bringing a “legend” to the stage in the form of Billy Bragg. The Bard from Barking was in town for a show at the Belcourt this past April and had returned to be a part of the Americana fest. As expected, Bragg spent about as much time talking as he did playing. But, no one complained since listening to him pontificate on things political and musical is part of why we all love him.
Bragg opened with three songs from his latest 2013 release, Tooth and Nail. He then proceeded to perform his 1983 debut EP, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy in its entirety (although out of order) in honor of its 30th anniversary. He jokingly said how he didn’t need to rent out the Ryman for such an event since he can just do the whole thing as an encore like he did today.
The crowd for Bragg filled both the lot and the three levels of balconies behind the stage. I was amazed at the number of folk singing along to the classic Bragg songs. Judging from the response he received, Bragg would be welcome here in Nashville any time. I’d be willing to bet, though, that 30 years ago he would have never thought he’d be playing in Music City for country music fans who like The Smiths.
THE AUTUMN DEFENSE SETLIST:
- The Sun in California
- Every Day
- Huntington Fair
- Once Around
- The Swallows of London Town
- Sentimental Lady (Bob Welch cover)
John Stirrratt–acoustic guitar and vocals
Patrick Sansone– acoustic guitar and vocals
James “Hags” Haggerty–bass
BILLY BRAGG SETLIST:
- No One Knows Nothing Anymore
- I Ain’t Got No Home (Woody Guthrie cover)
- Handyman Blues
- The Busy Girl Buys Beauty
- To Have and Have Not
- The Man in the Iron Mask
- The Milkman of Human Kindness
- Lovers Town Revisited
- A New England
Billy Bragg–acoustic and electric guitars and vocals