The 10 Best Performances at the 2018 Americana Music Festival
The Americana Music Festival is a full immersion dream for fans of the genre. More than 250 bands performed across six days and dozens of venues throughout Nashville with shows starting as early at 10 AM and going deep into the night. While it's impossible to see everything at the festival, I made a good attempt, catching 27 full or partial shows through the week and probably a dozen more one-song performances. Everything was great, but a few artists stood out from the pack. Here is a list of the 10 best performances I saw over the week.
1. The War and Treaty
Husband and wife duo Michael and Tanya Trotter got their break at Americanafest 2017 when the filled in for a flu-stricken Buddy Miller. In 2018, they capitalized in a big way with a performance at The Cannery that left nothing on the table. Their show was a high energy combination of charismatic tent revival and searingly passionate love story. When the Trotters stood face to face with Michael crooning “let me hold you” and Tanya responding “I want you to hold me” it was so personal, so sensual that it almost felt too naked, like peeking in one someone's love making session. But that's the thing that makes The War and Treaty the best new act in Americana. Everything is out there and everything is real, with Michael delivering a passionate speech about why he loves Americana and Tanya reduced to tears on two occasions by the positive crowd reaction.
2. Mary Gauthier
The breadth of Americana can be summed up in the contrast between the year's top two performances. Where The War and Treaty were pure kinetic energy, Mary Gauthier was more subdued, but no less impressive. With only herself and backing vocals from Jaimee Harris, Gauthier performed songs from this year's Rifles and Rosary Beads. The album, co-written with veterans and their wives, is already a powerful gut punch of an album and was made even more so as Gauthier told the stories of her experiences with them. The highlight was Gauthier's story of writing with a soldier who was having marital troubles because of his PTSD and coaxing from him the truly touching love ballad that he was incapable of telling his wife to her face. There weren't many dry eyes in the house.
3. Tommy Emmanuel
Tommy Emmanuel is a freak of nature. Taking the Cannery stage alone with just an acoustic guitar, Emmanuel proceeded to show he didn't need any other accompaniment, drawing what sounded like a full band's worth of music from his one guitar. The highlight of the night was a mostly instrumental Beatles medley where Emmanuel played the lead, rhythm, bass, percussion, and even basic vocal melody all on one guitar, with the audience happily supplying the lyrics.
Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough are long time veterans of Nashville's rock and Americana scene, playing in various bands throughout the city since the '80s. When the longtime friends get together as Daddy, the rock and roll side of Americana is on full display. Daddy's sound borrows heavily from '50s rockers like Chuck Berry and the '70s garage sound. For this show, the duo was joined by all of Kimbrough's bandmates in the Red Dirt Boys, aka Emmylou Harris' longtime backing band.
5. Mandy Barnett
Mandy Barnett literally grew up in the country music business, starting her career at age 12 with a contract from Asylum Records and coming to prominence as the star of the musical Always...Patsy Cline. For her latest album, the forthcoming Strange Conversation, Barnett went independent, releasing on her own Dame Productions, and performed a set almost exclusively from that album. Ranging from smoky lounge croons to a Tom Waits-esque dark cabaret take on Sonny and Cher's “A Cowboy's Work is Never Done,” Barnett's vocals were on point throughout the evening and she proved to the last remaining doubters that she is much more than the girl who sounds like Patsy Cline.
6. Muscle Shoals Tribute
Americanafest always brings it with their tribute shows and the festival opening tribute to the music of Muscle Shoals and late FAME founder Rick Hall did not disappoint. The show was the debut performance of the newest generation of the “FAME Gang,” the studio's sessions players led by guitarist James LeBlanc. It also featured vocal guest slots from Mike Farris, Brent Smith from Shinedown, who brought a surprisingly soulful take on “Mustang Sally,” and Holli Mosley. But two artists were highlights of the night. Amanda Shires, taking the stage with Peter Levin, LeBlanc, Jason Isbell, who she only referred to as “Mr. Shires” (but who insisted he was hyphenating it to Isbell-Shires), did an amazing rendition of The Allman Brothers' “Midnight Rider.” The other major highlight was Eli “Paperboy” Reed who was described by Farris as “the funkiest Jewish white kid I ever met.” The show ended with a pair of Beatles tunes that had been given a Muscle Shoals makeover with the Joe Cocker version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” and the Wilson Pickett/Duane Allman version of “Hey Jude.”
7. David Olney
Only at Americanafest could one of the week's best performances come inside a hat store. But that was the case to open the Hatwrks Happening as Nashville's own David Olney delivered an hour long clinic in songwriting. Olney is one of those guys who appears to have a 50 point IQ spot on anyone else in the room, but who is so humble and affable that he never comes across as pretentious, even when he's sprinkling references to Greek mythology and classic literary traditions into his folksy ballads.
8. Asleep at the Wheel
When you've been doing your thing since the '70s and continue to draw a crowd, you're doing something right. Asleep at the Wheel's brand of rowdy Western swing packed the house at the Mercy Lounge and caused as much spontaneous dancing as the limited space would allow. Founding member Ray Benson was as charming as ever, leading the proceedings while his youthful band dazzled with their instrumental prowess.
9. Molly Tuttle
Speaking of instrumental prowess, you can't get much better than Americana Instrumentalist of the Year Molly Tuttle playing a set just a couple hours after winning the reward. Anyone who wondered why she won the award had any doubts removed as her skill with the guitar was the star of the night. While not as flashy as Tommy Emmanuel, Tuttle draws maximum sound from her minimalist approach and her genuine humility and surprise at winning the award, made her set a fun lead in to Gauthier's more serious performance following her.
10. Tales and Ales with Paul Thorn and Tony Magee
Paul Thorn is one of the funniest and most engaging guys in Americana, so was the perfect person to team with Lagunitas Brewing's founder Tony Magee for a combination concert and Q&A session. Thorn joked with fans throughout, told stories about the writing of his songs, discussed the beer making process with Magee, and played some favorites from his catalog.
Honorable mentions go to excellent performances from Yola Carter, Erin Rae, The McCrary Sisters, and Phil Madeira. Across the board, it was an excellent year as always for a festival that has always been focused solely on the music.