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An AmericanaFest to remember

Nashville, September 11, 2019

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

The key to enjoying AmericanaFest is not to lament the fact that there will be dozens of artists that the attendee won't be able to see due to the sheer amount of concurrent performances and vast selection of showcases. It's best to celebrate the fact that so many performances are presented,and those that can be caught are worth the time spent.

Indeed, this annual celebration of Americana music and all its offshoots offers both artists and audiences an opportunity to find a common bond beneath the sprawling banner Americana music has come to represent. With literally hundreds of performances spread across several dozen venues throughout Nashville, it provides a diverse and dedicated array of artists all committed to the Americana cause.

The 18th Annual Americana Honors and Awards ceremony, hosted once again by The Milk Carton Kids, provided an opportunity to recognize those artists and auteurs who have helped move the music along, whether it was through rock, roots, country, folk or rhythm and blues. That was evident not only in the honors given those for lifetime achievement. The President's Award was given to songwriters Felice & Boudleaux Bryant. The Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting shared with Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens and African American musical pioneer Frank Johnson were honored with the Legacy of Americana Award. Delbert McClinton received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance, while Maria Muldaur and Mavis Staples were accorded the Trailblazer Award and the Inspiration Award respectively.

Aside from the auspicious honors, the ceremony provided any number of one-of-a-kind musical moments as well. Buddy Miller and his all-star band providing most of the backing, the singular show stopping performances included Joe Henry and Rodney Crowell reprising the duet between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash's on "Girl From the North Country," the opening track from "Nashville Skyline," Bonnie Raitt and John Prine pairing for a performance of "Angel from Montgomery," Emerging Artist of the Year nominees Yola, J.S. Ondara and The War & Treaty soulful performances as well as selected songs from several other artists worthy of recognition, among them, Lori McKenna, Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile, I'm With Her, Ruston Kelly and Mark Erelli.

Nevertheless, it was more than musical moments that made the ceremony so remarkable. There were any number of emotional interludes referencing African American musical contributions the enduring struggle for civil rights.

The Awards preceded a week of extraordinary encounters. Here is a list of other highlights that made the 2019 version of AmericanaFest so special...

The Tuesday night program of performances at The City Winery kicked off in rousing style courtesy of with a stunning set by the Delevante Brothers, followed by tireless troubador Grayson Capps, the soul-stirring Austin band Shinyribs, Joachim Cooder with special guest and beaming dad Ry Cooder, and the evening's closer Jonathan Wilson.

"Hillbillies & Hotdogs," an annual must-attend event held at the headquarters of Compass Records spotlighted several of the acts on the label's roster including Steve Poltz, Molly Tuttle, Old Salt Union, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, the Small Glories and Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.

For their part, The Rounder Records party offered some inventive pairings which found The War and Treaty teaming up with Della Mae, Bela Fleck and Billy Strings exchanging musical mantras, and Andrew Bird sharing the stage with actor/musician John C. Reilly.

Yep Roc Records were no slackers either. They offered a salute to their home state of North Carolina that included, among others, Chris Stamey, Daddy Longlegs and Jack Klatt.

The Mavericks' Friday night show at the Ryman Auditorium found them celebrating their 30th anniversary with their usual zest and revelry. Few bands can compete with their energy, enthusiasm or for that matter, their smooth moves. A couple of solo songs performed by stalwart singer Raul Malo offered reason why he's not only one of the best vocalists in modern country today, but an obvious heir apparent to the late Roy Orbison as well.

The Australia, Canadian and the U.K. all-day events provided their usual array of outstanding artists from their home country environs although in some cases, the heat proved too much to withstand. The Aussie duo, The Falls, kept things cool in the intimate environs of the 5 Spot, adding a string quartet adding extra enticement.

With their performance in the cavernous Cannery Ballroom, Gibson Brothers showed how they've been to vary their template in recent years, the band eschewed typical bluegrass trappings in favor of a revved up roots rock performance that found them tackling such standards as "These Days" by Jackson Browne and the old country chestnut "Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone," famously recorded by Doug Sahm backed by Bob Dylan in 1973. Their set was the start of an entire evening borne from bluegrass, one that included electrifying sets from Della Mae and the Travelin' McCourys as the evening went on.

Allison Moorer talked about her forthcoming autobiography, Blood, and sang a few songs from the album that will accompany it. It was revelatory to say the least.

Moorer returned to the stage to accompany her new husband Hayes Carll at the Basement East, but it didn't come close to surpassing the apparent bromance between Carll and Corb Lund, the Canadian cowboy troubadour, who played a superb show of his own at the same venue the night before.

Their sets were two of the many that found individual stars shining --The Marcus King Band, Yola, Josh Ritter, Amy Speace, the Amy Ray Band, Tami Neilson, Drew Holcomb, Ted Russell Kamp, Nicki Bluhm, Scott Miller, newcomer Dee White, Amelia White, and Roanoke -- chief among them.

Buddy Miller's set at the Basement East, featuring a guest appearance from Maria Muldaur and her daughter Jenni was a particular highlight, one that drew Emmylou Harris to watch from the wings.

Of course, there's nothing like stumbling on an impromptu jam featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Dirk Powell and Mark O'Connor sitting, singing and strumming on the back stoop of the Station Inn following a performance by the aforementioned Scott Miller.

Finally, the Sunday morning Gospel Brunch, a hallowed tradition for the past nine years, provided the ceremonial wrap on the festival. Hosted by Elizabeth Cook, it included special performances McClinton, 85-year-old bluesman Bobby Rush, Holcomb, and other sources of spiritual solace.

One final note...with all the diversity displayed under that expansive Americana umbrella, finding an exact definition of what the term entails can be elusive. I hosted a panel dedicated to that very purpose, one that took the title of my book, "Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an The interface duringHonest Sound" as its premise, and in so doing, shared the thoughts offered by such notables as singer/songwriters Scott Miller and John Lilly, Compass Records co-founder Garry West and respected publicists Rob Evanoff and Lellie Capwell. We didn't come up with a precise definition -- that's elusive at best -- but we did have a lively discussion, at least until a fire alarm went off and we were told to disperse. (It was a false alarm BTW).

Lee Zimmerman is a freelance writer and author based in Maryville, Tenn. He also expounds on music on his web site, Stories Beyond the Music - Americana Music Reviews, Interviews & Articles. His book -- Americana Music - Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an Honest Sound is available from Texas A&M University Publishing.