The AmericanaFest can be described in many ways - entertaining, enlightening and - to be absolutely honest - exhausting. But mostly it's amazing. Six days of shows, showcases, discussions and seminars involving the brightest lights in Americana music, among them, both superstars (Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and up-and-coming artists as well (too many to mention).
Suffice it to say, this is the best festival of its type bar none, and while other gatherings come close, the sheer abundance of great music and compatible personalities puts it into a league all its own.
Still, by its very nature, choices must be made. While it's hardly reached the scale of, say, South By Southwest, the abundance of entertainment options dictate that careful planning and strategizing must be taken into account. There are upwards of 400 artists and 40 stages involved, and the possibility of catching even a fraction of that number is all but impossible. And yet, while it's heartbreaking to consider the many talented performers who will be missed - much to the consternation of their publicists and participants alike - the key artists that are seen outweighs the disappointment of those that might be missed.
Consequently, the need to maximize time spent networking and in the various venues often results in fleeting encounters, and with it, sensory overload. Those are not bad things, but it does take an individual with discipline and the ability to multitask to accomplish their mission. Friends and industry contacts who are only seen annually are given precious time, but then, just as quickly, it's on to speak with someone else. After awhile, one becomes grateful for five minutes spent in the company of someone special.
That said, those many special moments turn into series of incredible highlights. And while it's tempting to lump it together by saying "EVERYTHING WAS AWESOME," a breakdown of the memorable moments from each of the six days is definitely called for. To be sure, there were many more special events that aren't included due to the aforementioned limitation involved in not being able to be in more than one place at one time. Regardless, if the following is a concise summation of much of what Americana has to offer, it would still be one hell of an experience.
Tuesday, September 20
AmericanaFest begins, albeit a day earlier than it had in years before. The action is already in full swing at Grimey's, both a terrific record store (remember those?) and an intimate (read: cramped) place for acoustic concerts. This particular afternoon offered a chance to catch Jack Ingram performing songs from his well-stocked catalogue as well as his spectacular new album "Midnight Motel." An affable and authentic troubadour, Ingram put on a terrific show in those limited environs, telling stories and playing with a passion that easily brings comparisons with the likes of John Prine, Guy Clark and other wizened road warriors.
Needing time to decompress, we then headed to City Winery, a relaxing place to sit, chill and watch the evening's festivities unfold. Tuesday evening was no exception as Tim O'Brien, Paul Burch, Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin, and, finally, Sam Bush all took the stage to provide their individual brands of exceptional entertainment. Again, if this was all we were offered all week, it would have been amazing
But of course, there was much more to come...
Wednesday, September 23
One of the highlights of the festival each and every year is the annual gathering at the headquarters of Compass Records that's known as Hillbillies and Hotdogs. This year was no exception. Not only does the label offer performances culled from their remarkable roster of artists, but they also arrange to have the best hot dogs in Nashville served onsite.
Live music from Infamous Stringdusters, Colin Hay, Shannon McNally and Mountain Heart graced the studio stage, while elsewhere animated conversations took place between visitors and various representatives of No Depression (who co-sponsored the soiree) and the always hospitable Compass owners Alison Brown and Garry West.
From there, it was off to the Country Music Hall of Fame to watch as Dwight Yoakam offered his thoughts on his latest LP, "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." One of the most magical moments of the day came with listening to Yoakam's rendition of Prince's "Purple Rain" now reconstituted as a bluegrass anthem.
Other great moments followed later - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's performance at the Cannery Ballroom, followed immediately by the Infamous Stringdusters on the same stage. Their version of the Grateful Dead's "Jack Straw" represented another ideal choice of cover material and further proof that Americana is truly timeless.
The obvious high point of the festival is always the annual awards show at the church of country music, the Ryman Auditorium. Somehow, the organizers manage to pull in an impressive, star-studded line-up, with bandleader Buddy Miller, host Jim Lauderdale (whose acceptance of the prestigious Wagonmaster Award proved one of the real emotional moments of the evening), and an array of guests and presenters that included Bob Weir, Margo Price, Lake Street Dive, William Bell, Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Stapleton, Lucinda Williams and George Strait sharing the same stage. You can have your Oscars, your Emmys and, yes, your Grammys, but one would be hard pressed to find a better line-up than this.
Of course, there were other stellar appearances to come, and that brings us to...
Thursday, September 24
The day began as it should have, with a keynote address by T Bone Burnett, who reminded the packed house that technology will never take the place of the emotion and humanity that the arts have always had to offer. Technology is usually good for 10 years, Burnett concluded, but music and art are enduring.
The Outlaws and Gunslingers luncheon on the rooftop of the George Jones Museum provided more time for talk than time to take in the performances, but it was a nice way to spend some time regardless. It's somewhat ominous handle aside, there was plenty of friendly chat and introductions. And the food wasn't bad either.
It was then back to the Country Music Museum to watch Weir answer questions about his new release "Blue Mountain," his first solo effort in a quarter of a century. That was followed by a visit to The Filming Station and a launch party for Hwy 61 radio featuring another impressive array of performers, among them, Steve Forbert, Jason Crosby, Elliott Peck and Margo Price. Yours truly got the brush-off from a major idol (who shall remain nameless) because it appeared I was interrupting his listening time. I hoped we would talk later, but apparently he wasn't as anxious to talk to me as I was to talk to him.
The evening calendar was occupied by time spent at the Mercy Lounge, and despite the crowds - hey, this is Nashville after all - Joe Purdy, The Cactus Blossoms and Reckless Kelly made the standing and sore feet all seem worthwhile. Other artists would follow, but we opted to go downstairs and then back to the Cannery Ballroom to catch superlative sets from Rodney Crowell and the Indigo Girls before finally calling it a night.
It was time summon up more strength for...
Friday, September 23
As is likely evident by now, there's nothing we enjoy more than free food, so after a highly enjoyable visit with publicist Lance Cowan and singer/songwriter/musician Tomi Lunsford. Tomi happens to be the niece of famed songwriter Bascom Lunsford and bearer of a new album, "Come On Blue," a set of songs that remains true to the family traditions.
We then had the opportunity to feast our ears on another of our favorite festival events, A Taste of Australia, starring the usual array of excellent Aussie artists - CW Stoneking, Grizzler Train, Kasey Chambers, Ruby Boots, Russell Morris and Shane Nicholson in particular. Grizzler Train, a young guitar/drums duo were the only newcomers in the bunch, but they provided able accompaniment to Kasey Chambers, whose hard rocking set belied the softer, folkier image she generally purveys on record. As far as the other lady on the bill, Ruby Boots... suffice it to say she's destined for stardom in her own right.
The evening was spent encamped at 3rd and Lindsley. We were able to witness another formidable line-up that included the grizzly Tony Joe White, a perky as always Chambers, the resplendent Lauderdale, a show-stopping Bell and the confident and competent Tami Neilson, who, it might be mentioned, effectively held her own against the veterans who preceded her. Still, Lauderdale's stage presence and Bell's age defying, soulful singing made the competition all the more daunting.
That left only one full day more.
Saturday, September 24
Again, with food foremost in mind, we made our way to another record store of renown, the Groove, where we took in another of our festival faves, the Bootleg BBQ. It's an odd name, especially considering the fact that it's a showcase for some of the best British bands in Americana realms, as well as a handful of American acts that round out the bill. This year, as in years past, there were several great discoveries, chief among them singer/songwriter Robert Vincent, the cross-Atlantic trio Applewood Road, the assertive William the Conqueror and the soul-strutting sensation Yola Carter, who quickly became the talk of the festival. As always, it will be interesting to see how this latest batch of Brits fares from here.
We did a bit of a rush about after that - a stop at the Indo for the Canadian Blast to catch another set by Ruby Boots and then on to the Last Chance Records Party at Fond Objects featuring Austin Lucas, Eric Ambel, Tim Easton, Malcolm Holcombe, Roger Hoover and Joey Kneiser. We arrived late, but the place had a nice vibe, and we found it a pleasant respite regardless.
Saturday's activities culminated at the reliable City Winery, again a perfect place to chill after a busy week of running around. The line-up was ideal for a final night of entertainment. Ruston Kelly and the Wild Reeds offered impressive introductions, while familiar favorites - Shawn Mullins, Martin Sexton and Anthony D'Amato - reaffirmed their prowess as experienced entertainers. What a lovely way to end an evening,
And, aside from what was to come tomorrow, a lovely way to end the festival.
Except for the fact that there was one final day, and that was...
Sunday, September 25
The annual Gospel Brunch is practically a sacrament in itself. Hosted by the jubilant McCrary Sisters, it's a celebration of spirit, an uplifting experience that provides a common bond for a like-minded group of Americana believers. If there was ever proof positive that music can soothe souls, then this particular event seals the deal. Luke Bell, Sons of Bill, Lori McKenna, Cece Winan and Bonnie Bishop filled out the roster, each offering their own take on spiritual celebration. All the musicians helped create this moving musical experience, with Winan's revered reputation and McKenna's moving tune "Humble & Kind" providing an emotional exhilaration that moved many in the audience to tears. It was a joyful revelation, and the Gospel Brunch provided the ultimate salvation and affirmation.
Much like AmericanaFest itself.