By Kim Grant
For those of you unfamiliar with AmericanaFest, it’s a weeklong celebration of Americana music held in Nashville, TN. It takes place in mid-September and along with the music, there are panels you can participate in, mentoring sessions and interviews with country and Americana artists that you can watch live. Wednesday evening is always the crown jewel—The Americana Music Awards, that are held at the legendary Ryman Auditorium.
This is my 5th AmericanaFest and this year I wore two hats: One as a music publicist with clients participating in the fest, and the other as the eyes and ears for Turnstyled Junkpiled. Crossing of the paths became unavoidable – this is a recount of my experience.
With over 300 bands and 6 days, there were just too many bands to see and places to be. You can watch the awards ceremony at NPR (National Public Radio).
I flew in on Tuesday afternoon, got settled at the Air BNB, and headed to dinner at The Family Wash with my friend, Dawn. I can highly recommend the shepherd’s pie. After that we headed over to The Basement East for the Better Together AmericanaFest Kickoff Party featuring Chuck Mead and his band. Aaron Lee Tasjan, Brian Wright and Lee Ann Womack. For the second year in a row, Sin City Shilah and Guitartown’s Little Deb presented a spectacular party.
I walked in a bit late so missed the string band from Nashville School of the Arts (Proceeds from the show benefitted the Music Makes Us initiative). Chuck Mead (former front man for BR-549) was onstage with his “kick ass friends” that included Sarah Gayle Meech, Patrick Sweany and Hee Haw legend, Charlie McCoy. It was a great place for meet and greet, saying hi to old friends both artists and industry folks, and making new friends. Two highlights of the evening for me; Sarah Gayle Meech singing onstage with Chuck Mead –a duet of “Some Velvet Morning” and “Rocket In My Pocket”, then Sarah Gayle did Blondie’s Heart Of Glass. Brian Wright and Aaron Lee Tasjan rocking the song “Glory Hallejuah.”
“Singing glory hallelujah
How that pain it’ll shoot right through ya
And it sure was fine to knew ya
But, I’m gone, gone, gone”
-and the crowd went wild.
There was a whole lot more to that evening with Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Lee Ann Womack on the official schedule (billed as Lee Ann Womack’s All Star Extravaganza) and many surprise guests including Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.
Wednesday I started my day off at the Country Music Hall of Fame where renowned music journalist and NPR correspondent, Ann Powers interviewed country music’s new leading lady, Margo Price and a few of her friends, turning it into as she joked, Margo’s version of “this is your life!”
The program told Price’s story with conversation and playing music in an artist-in-the –round format. The lady of the hour has been living in Nashville for over 13 years and (for those who live under a rock), just released an extraordinary album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Guests included her husband and former band mate, Jeremy Ivey, and other friends and collaborators Lilly Hiatt, Erin Rae, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Kenny Vaughan. Things I learned: Margo was formerly a drummer; when she first started out she made up a fake booking agent; She paid her dues at Nashville’s Five Spot where she also met Kenny Vaughn.
Wednesday night was the aforementioned Americana Music Awards show. It’s a chance to dress up (the Ryman is the church of country music after all) hear great live music, and see deserving artists get their due. The show was over three hours long and The Boot and Ditty TV recaps the winners and T Bone Burnett’s Keynote Address.
Highlights for me included Dwight Yoakam performing with a bluegrass band (he has a new bluegrass record called, Swimmin Pools, Movie Stars); Bob Weir singing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”; Bonnie Raitt performing “Gypsy in Me” and the close out of the night when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many of the performers sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
Thursday afternoon, I accompanied country musician, Sam Morrow to the Compass Records studio where Kelly McCartney of The Bluegrass Situation was interviewing several artists for a segment they call, “Hangin’ & Sangin’.” Sam was last interview of the day, but we caught a few songs from the duo, The Cactus Blossoms. Highly recommend this band, as brotherly harmonies can’t be beat.
My late afternoon and evening was dedicated to the Alternate Root Magazine and California Country Records party, The California Country Social, held at Fond Objects Record Store. Alternate Root Magazine is based out of California, and California Records was founded in LA by music artists, Manda Mosher and Kirsten Proffitt from the band, Calico (the band). The lineup consisted of musicians who live or have lived in California with a handful of Nashville residents tossed in. For me, a home away from home. Not only were there California artists performing, I ran into old friends Jake LaBotz and Rosa Pullman who have put new roots down in Nashville.
Fond Records is not only a record store, but there is a vintage store attached and out back two separate stages for music and a pen for the friendly goat. Tacos, beer and water were served and the lineup included: 2Ton Bridge, Marvin Etzioni, Renee Wahl, Julie Christensen, Sam Morrow, Ted Russell Kamp, Amilia K Spicer, Calico the band and their label mate, Alice Wallace who can yodel like nobody’s business.
When the party was over, I high-tailed it over to the High-Watt where legendary bluesman, Bobby Rush performed. The stage was small, but Bobby Rush’s performance was not. With room for only two of his famous dancing girls, he managed to bring the funk. The crowd sang along cheering and clapping and singing along to the title song of his new record, “Porcupine Meat.”
After his last song, I headed over the Third Man Records Blue Room, where I caught Swedish duo My Bubba. Quite a difference in energy from the High Watt, the duo had the crowd enraptured with their ethereal vocal harmonies.
Friday was my last day to hear the music and meet with industry. The festivities continued on through Sunday officially and unofficially until Monday. I, however, had a Saturday flight back to Los Angeles to catch.
I kicked off the day meeting with the editor of The Daily Country, Tara Joan. She’s a huge proponent of indie artists and new music and prefers bringing new undiscovered music to her reader’s ears.
After our chat I wandered upstairs to the conference hall where people had set up booths. I said hello to Jeff Fasano who sets up a pop-up studio every year and photographs artists who sign up for a session. He takes a few photos and lets the artist choose one for free use promotionally.
Across the way, Ditty TV had also set up a pop up studio and I can’t rave enough about these folks. They are the folks that bring you Americana music videos 24-7. Based in Memphis DittyTV is a television network with live concerts, artist interviews, music videos, festival coverage, documentaries and more. They were doing on-camera interviews with artists and having artists do promotional segments for airing. If you haven’t checked out this video channel, please do, you’ll become a video junkie, like me.
Bloodshot Records party in the afternoon! I am originally from Chicago and not only do I love Bloodshot artists, but take a certain pride in the fact that they’re based in Chicago. It was great to see radio promoter, Joe Swank back in the Bloodshot fold and they threw a heck of a party at Groove Records—even in the sweltering heat. Lagunitas brewing provided free bee under the hot sun and Bloodshot artists Lydia Loveless, Cory Branan, Robbie Fulks and The Bottle Rockets provided the entertainment.
Lydia Loveless and Cory Branan both played stripped down (yet powerful) acoustic sets, and I had to leave for the next show before I could catch Robbie Fulks or The Bottle Rockets, whom I did get to catch last year. Always a good show.
After that it was on to Bobby’s Idle Hour to see Boo Ray. Bobby’s Idle Hour is a bar with a down-home feel and a good mix of a crowd, from hipsters to cowboys to old-timers and everyone seems just to get along. Boo Ray is always a great show to see and this one was guitar heavy with 3 guitars on stage plus a pedal steel as he played songs from his newly released Sea of Lights and threw in a couple of covers. The crowd was loving the music and loving the huge personality that is Boo Ray. At one point Boo Ray took a moment to ask the crowd about the sound, “How’s it sounding out there, is anything too loud, too much, too anything?” To which an audience member responded, “It’s too fucking awesome!”
My musical journey ended with a musician from home, Brian Whelan. He was on the road before hitting Nashville for his first AmericanaFest and backed by his touring band and some of my favorite performers on the planet, Mike Stinson on drums, Mark Riddell on bass, and Lance Smith on guitar. Across the hall was another Californian, Sam Outlaw, and I slipped over for a couple of songs, but Brian Whelan’s sound drew me back. As Whelan played, there was audience buzz as Wynonna Judd who was scheduled for a 9:30 show pulled up in her bus. But for me, and as Americana artist and audience member Beth Lee of Beth Lee and the Breakups put it, “I’m not sure who Wynonna is, but I’m pretty sure I like Brian Whelan better.” Exactly.
Next year, if you decide to make the pilgrimage to AmericanaFest, and I recommend it, i’ll see you there.