The 20th annual Americanafest made its mark on Music City, and yours truly took in an incredible three days of live music. My investment of two afternoons away from work and one late evening produced some amazing returns and included the riches of some once-in-a-lifetime special sets. It blew my mind following the on-line coverage of Americanafest that there were several parallel universes of equally remarkable events for which I couldn’t be in multiple places at the same time. So, for those who may have missed what I did get to see, here’s a recap of what went down in my space time continuum.
Thursday, September 12
I devoted my Thursday afternoon to the “Americana From All Sides” event hosted by the Concord/ Rounder record folks at The Ainsworth in Midtown. Although this slick new room reminded me of the sad reconstruction that destroyed some of my fond memories of the old Midtown, it was a great vehicle for intimate music viewing and tasty snackage.
Rounder president, John Strohm served as MC and rightfully took pride in his effort to fill the day’s card with unique memorable collaborations. The first featured a covers-laded set from the amalgamation of rootsy pickers Della Mae with the Gospel/Blues vocalizing of The War & Treaty. The latter were still riding high after taking home the Emerging Artist trophy at last night’s Americana Awards show.
Next on the Ainsworth stage was a fast-fingers treat for guitar lovers that brought together the award-winning banjo virtuosity of Bela Fleck with young and upcoming guitar slinger Billy Strings. I would say that an album from this pair would be quite worthy.
Unplugged was what the usual full-band rockers The Record Company did for their laid-back mid-afternoon set.
Out-of-towners were next given a taste of a Nashville “in the round” with a set from three local young writers, Logan Ledger, Caroline Spence and Sierra Ferrell. We would also get a later dose of Sierra when she filled in for Tanya Tucker who was forced to skip her interview segment due to an eye issue.
In what had to be one of the most unusual pairings of the week, whistling singer-songwriter Andrew Bird was joined by his friend and noted actor, John C. Reilly. Bird was his usual soft and skillful self while John C. brazenly took reign over the room and exercised his Hollywood privilege. He scolded talkers and banished them to the bar area while demanding that the doors to the listening area be closed. His simple picking and subdued singing were quite gentler however and the stories the two Chicago natives shared were entertaining.
The afternoon closed with one of the festival’s most high-profile artists, Ruston Kelly. Splitting his set between 2019’s Dying Star LP and his imminent covers EP, Dirt Emo Volume 1, he and his family band, dad on pedal steel and sis on backing vocals, easily captivated the room. But why was Song of the Year nominee “Mockingbird” crossed off his set list?
Friday September 12
I started my afternoon/evening of venue hopping with Molly Tuttle on the historic War Memorial stage that was hosted by the best Americana radio station in the land, Murfreesboro’s WMOT-FM. Molly never fails to mesmerize me with her award-winning playing and singing. I also can’t resist giving a nod to her fine local guitarist Anthony da Costa.
A short stroll through the shade of the Nashville skyline took me to one of the week’s most-anticipated events, Ruston Kelly at the historic Union Station hotel. After a slight delay to get a missing pedal for his dad’s steel guitar, the 30-minute set sounded sublime to those huddled near the front while those elsewhere had to deal with the challenging acoustics of the former railroad station’s tall ceiling.
Upstairs in the Cannery Building, the cozy High Watt played host to a solo Chance McCoy who closed out his set with a full band sound assembled using his on-stage electronics.
Downstairs at the Mercy Lounge, the evening was dedicated to North Carolina artists and the feature was the once-in-a-lifetime triumvirate of Dixon, Easter and Stamey. Backed by a drummer, the three rotated through three songs a piece from their respective careers. Each a great musician in their own right, the sound of these three together was a rocking delight.
My night closed with a set by the always-hilarious and musically-gifted Steve Poltz at the City Winery. For whatever reason, the night turned more comic than musical, but we were all laughing too hard to even think about complaining.
Saturday September 13
The focus of my final day was two events at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s small and cozy Ford Theater. First was a morning North Carolina “in-the-round” featuring Sarah Siskind, B.J. Barham of American Aquarium, and Jonathan Byrd. It was a most pleasant way to start the day with songs and stories.
I next took a quick lunchtime break to nosh and listen on the roof of the Westin Hotel for some of “Under the Sun” hosted by Transoceanic Records and Atomic Music Group. My timing was perfect to catch a great set by one of “my elevens” Scott Mulvahill.
Back to the CMHOF, I saw not only what had to be one of the festival’s greatest moments, but one of the most exhilarating events Music City has seen all year. The “Tribute to Doug Sahm” was an interview session and musical throwdown honoring one of Austin’s finest. The make-shift band was led by Doug’s son Shawn who does his late dad great honor carrying his flame. The all-star cast, which featured Shawn’s childhood friend Charlie Sexton on guitar, all helped share the love.
Well, I hope your sliver of Americanafest was as filling as mine. I was quite pleased that as the event has grown in attendance, so has the artist roster which made for comfortably uncrowded viewing. I can’t wait to see what next year brings.