The Best of the 2019 Americana Music Festival
The first thing I tell new attendees to the Americana Music Festival and Conference when they ask for advice is “resign yourself to missing things.” When I first starting going to Americanafest 10 years ago, it consisted of 5 venues and approximately 100 bands. Now, in its 20th year, it's up to over 300 bands across dozens of venues spread throughout Nashville. So while heartbreaking choices have to be made (in my case, it was missing Buddy Miller and AMA Lifetime Achievement Honoree Maria Muldaur, with a surprise appearance from Rhiannon Giddens), you're also guaranteed a lot of good stuff. All in all, across the festival's 5 days, I caught 37 full or partial sets. If I wrote about all of them, this article would approach the size of a New Yorker think-piece about Global Warming, so instead I'm going to focus on a few “bests” among the shows I did see.
Best In Show: Yola and Amythyst Kiah
Full disclosure: I've been the conductor on the Yola train since I first heard her powerful voice at Americanafest 2016, but I had never gotten to see a full set from her. At Americanafest 2019, I got to catch a short 10 minute set during Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound party as well as her full show at City Winery later that night. Neither disappointed. With a voice that sounds like someone married Roberta Flack and Dolly Parton, not to mention a wail that needs no amplification, Yola not only dazzled but stunned, with murmers heard throughout the venue after her show. After this year, I suspect I'll need to add a few more cars to the Yola Train.
What I didn't expect was for there to be a second set that would tie for my favorite, but Amythyst Kiah's showcase at Station Inn did just that. If you believe in reincarnation, there's plenty of evidence that Kiah might be the returned spirit of Rosetta Tharpe. Bold, brash, and possessed of some mean guitar skills, she was electric throughout. The set was already approaching “favorite” status before the surprise ending. Speaking of which...
Best Use of Guest Talent: Amythyst Kiah
Amythyst Kiah is best known to Americana fans as one-fourth of supergroup Our Native Daughters, who brought down the house at the Ryman when they opened up the Americana Honors and Awards Show. So when two of Kiah's OND bandmates, Rhiannon Giddens and Allison Russell joined her onstage at the tiny Station Inn for an surprise two song closer, fans knew they'd just gotten to see something special. As it was Kiah's night, the group performed two of the Kiah voiced tracks from their album, “John Henry” and “Black Myself.”
Best Use of Guest Tallent: The Delavantes
The Delavantes, known for their Everly Brothers style harmonies and '90s folk rock sound, had recently reformed to play Americanafest and people who aren't familiar with the band's history might have thought their bassist looked kind of familiar. Sitting in with The Delavantes for their Americanafest opening set at City Winery was none other than E Street Band founding member, bassist Gary Tallent. Tallent produced one of the band's albums and is an Americanafest regular, but a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer on the first bill of the week was a heck of a start!
Best Hair: Tami Neilson
New Zealander by way of Canada Tami Neilson's bouffant is as big as her personality, and just as bold. The sassy singer performed at the WMOT Day Stage and had the audience in stitches with her sly answers to mid-set interview questions. When asked about her fashion, she deadpanned “well, I don't know if country music has ever seen a woman with big hair and big boobs before”, an obvious reference to Neilson's hero Dolly Parton. Like Parton, Neilson has brings a rockabilly swagger and a charisma that doesn't so much fill the room as slam into it like the wave of a concussion grenade.
Best Protest Song: Che Apalache
If the past two years are any indication, the best thing to come out of the Trump Administration is the strongest collection of protest songs since the Vietnam War, and no one did it better than Che Apalache. Made up of one gay North Carolinian, two Argentinians, and a Mexican, Che Apalache have some definite opinions on wall building and divisive rhetoric and they wowed audiences at War Memorial with a one-two punch of their songs “The Dreamer”, about a DACA recipient friend of bandleader Joe Troop and the a capella “The Wall” with its defiant “if such nonsense does come true, we'll have to knock it down.”
Best Back to Front Transition: Red Dirt Boys
If you've heard of the Red Dirt Boys, you've likely seen them with “Emmylou Harris and...” in front of it. Harris' longtime backing band is filled with artists who, solo and in various combinations, have played Americanafest in the past and on festival's last night, they performed a set at 3rd and Lindsley as a group, minus their Americana royalty bandleader. Guitarist Will Kimbrough and keyboardist/guitarist Phil Madeira traded lead vocal duties while bassist Chris Donohue and Bryan Owings kept things moving with a solid rhythm section. It was a fun, if somewhat shortened, set of songs from a band of some of Americana's most talented players.
Best Multi-Media Artist: Abe Partridge
I knew nothing about Abe Partridge when I went to his art exhibit and show at InDo. I just didn’t have anything else to do and the event had free beer. I’m glad I went. In addition to being a highly talented visual artist, Partridge is also a gifted storyteller, pulling on his wry sense of humor and his background as an ordained minister to deliver deadpan commentary worthy of Arlo Guthrie.
Best Representatives of Americana's Next Generation: Rainbow Girls and Sawyer Fredericks
The key to any genre is to develop a new generation of talent to supply new blood. There was plenty of that at Americanafest, but the two best examples I saw were from Rainbow Girls and Sawyer Fredericks. Fredericks kicked things off on Tuesday night with a day closing set at new Americanafest venue Analog at the Hutton. Those in attendance got a great mix of songs from his 2018 standout release Hide Your Ghost as well as some new songs. Fredericks and his band deftly mixed blues, rock, and folk for a scorching Midnight performance that turned some Americanafest heads.
Opening Thursday night for a bill that featured guitar wizard Molly Tuttle and breakout artist Yola might be a daunting task for a young act, but Rainbow Girls took it all in good humored stride. The trio's show was full of harmonies so tight you couldn't tell where one voice began and the other ended, as well as some great laugh lines. If their dorky and kind of awkward charisma is an act, they deserve an Oscar. More likely, they're exactly what they seem; three good friends who are having the time of their lives performing on stage. They were far and away my find of the festival and I am already hoping for a return to Nashville because I really need a good 90 minute set from these three.
Best Multi-Tasker: Molly Tuttle
Even one chance to see 2018 Americana Instrumentalist of the Year Molly Tuttle at Americanafest is a gift. But not satisfied with just her Thursday Showcase at City Winery, Tuttle was the busiest woman at Americanafest. Between performances, guest shots at group sings, and panel discussions, Tuttle notched a total of nine Americanafest appearances, according to the festival app, and my guess is that's shorting her a bit. I caught Tuttle's official showcase for the second year in a row and, even though I went into her set knowing what to expect this year, I was no less blown away. You don't hear the word “beast” used to describe acoustic guitarists very often, but Tuttle is a bonafide Beast, with the capital B well-earned.
Best Example That The Blues Is Ageless... And Funny: Jontavious Willis and Keb' Mo'
After the Americana Honors and Awards Ceremony Watch Party Wednesday night at City Winery, those who stuck around for the evening's performances got a lesson in the blues from 23 year old sensation Jontavious Willis and one of the genre's elder statesmen, Keb' Mo'. Back to back, the pair showed that blues, arguably the most roots of roots music, has no age. Both men also reminded the audience that, despite its depressing sounding name, the blues is best when bad luck is delivered with sly wit and boundless charisma. There isn't much to say about Keb' Mo' that hasn't already been said. He's a master for a reason. But Jontavious Willis made his case to carry the torch into the next generation.
Best Boogie Party: Shinyribs
Somewhere in the no man's land between the swamps of Louisiana and the musical hotbed of Austin Texas is a kingdom called Shinyribs, where the benevolent King Kevin Russell rules over a land wholly dedicated to the art of Texas-Louisiana Swamp Boogie. On opening night of Americanafest, Russell and his royal court, in this case being the Tijuana Trainwreck Horns and the Shiny Soul Sisters, sent a delegation to Tennessee to bring the good word to Americanafest. It was a 45 minute continuous wall of sound, frenzy of dancing, and pure toe tapping joy that I'm already digging out my passport and making plans for another visit to the magical land of Shinyribs.
Best Non-Sequiters: Grayson Capps
Let's be honest. When it comes to on-stage non-sequiters, no one even comes close to the always eclectic Robyn Hitchcock. But LA (that's “Lower Alabama” to the uninitiated) songwriter Grayson Capps did his best. Between soulful and poignant songs with often heartbreaking lyrics, Capps rambled on about legalized marijuana, kombucha, yoga, and running in a non-stop run that somehow managed to sound deep while simultaneously making no sense whatsoever. But is sure was fun to try. Here's hoping Capps and Hitchcock team up for a tour sometime in the future titled “Free Trips: No LSD Needed.”