Nashville, Tennessee is known as the Capitol of Country Music and tens of thousands of fans flock to the little big town every June to take part in the CMA celebration of the genre. But, did you know an even bigger festival takes place annually in the city called the AmericanaFest and that got us to thinking. What exactly is Americana music? We decided to take in as much of the event as we could when it ran from September 11 through 16, 2018 at points scattered far and wide throughout Music City in order to find out.
Margo Price pulled a Beatles’ move in Nashville.
The American Music Organization is the group who presents this compressive program that features over 500 acts in dozens of official and unofficial venues every year in Nashville. They state that Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band. Some describe the genre as more of a feeling while others express that it’s a hotly debated topic and the definition of it seems to change every year.
A surprise free concert on the rooftop of Jack White’s Third Man Records perhaps provided a clue to go by. A large banner read “Margo Price. Broader Than Broadway. Americana.” The perky artist called the next big thing in country made her label boss proud as she ran through a spirited set including songs from her All American Made album. So, maybe the genre is broader than what the Nashville honkey tonks have to offer? Either way, she proceeded to jolt her fervent fans with a dose of country rock while joined by friends Lilly Hiatt and Brandi Carlile.
Hiatt’s presence and several high profile appearances by another one of the great daughters of rock – Amy Helm – pointed to another line that can be explored to uncover the undercurrents of Americana – and that is lineage. Helm and her five-piece excitedly debuted many songs from her forthcoming sophomore album This Too Shall Light in an intimate performance at Grimey’s Record Store. Fans were even more enlightened when she delved deep into her father’s catalogue with a Levon and the Hawks tune the next day.
John Oates is best known for his work in the hugely successful duo Hall & Oates. John is also an accomplished solo artist who is currently promoting his new platter Arkansas. “It’s like Dixieland, dipped in bluegrass, and salted with Delta blues,” says Oates.
After thanking AmericanaFest for an amazing week John posed the question – What is a pop song? He answered that by saying that in its simplest terms it is something people can hear on the radio or buy from a store. John opened his set with a pop song from the 1920’s when the biz was just emerging. During his time on stage Oates frequently touched on the foundations of popular American music.
“Arkansas” and “Miss Mississippi and You” from the new album reflected John’s current interest in old school music. With a nod to his past Oates presented a revised version of “You Make My Dreams.” Before playing “Maneater” John shared that he originally wrote it as a reggae tune but his partner Daryl Hall insisted on handling it differently. On Thursday, John performed that #1 song the way he had envisioned it. Oates with his talented team educated as they entertained in an effort to define Americana music at the City Winery.
During Paul Thorn’s showcase at the networking hub InDo we learned that the genre of Americana music is rife with world-class storytellers and there really is none better than this singer-songwriter who hails from the birthplace of Elvis Presley – Tupelo, Mississippi.
Thorn has a way of making you feel something when he’s singing about his mama or fighting Roberto Duran during his days as a professional boxer and you really experience a whiplash effect of emotions when watching him do his thing. The free pours provided by his supporter and fellow musician from Lagunitas IPA helped make this one of our favorite stops during the week. When hundreds of fans joined in with them both to help sing “I Have a Good Day” it was one of the more transcendent and memorable moments we have yet to witness in this very musical town to date.
The blues were also represented at AmericanaFest. Shemekia Copeland with a full band that included her producer Will Kimbrough presented the genre in all its bold glory. Copeland’s set showcased tracks from her eighth album America’s Child which features an impressive list of guests such as John Prine, Mary Gauthier, Rhiannon Giddens, Emmylou Harris, J.D. Wilkes, Steve Cropper and others. Copeland’s new material – “Ain’t Got Time For Hate”, “Would You Take My Blood?” and a winning “The Wrong Idea” were reflective and riveting. Shemekia – an expressive, powerhouse singer mentioned that much of the record was written for her son who will turn two on Christmas Eve. The latest songs seem to be a statement on current events paired with a parent’s hope for the best possible future but for that present moment it was blues at its sizzling best.
Does Americana music have to be rooted in the U.S. or can it grow in the fertile worldwide field of music? Case in point is Tommy Emmanuel who is one of Australia’s most well-loved musicians. Over the course of his five decade career Tommy has earned numerous accolades and awards including the rare title of Certified Guitar Player (CGP) from the late yet still legendary Chet Atkins whose influence is still very much present in Music City. Tommy performed at a number of venues during AmericanaFest including The Aussie BBQ which was held at the 5 Spot in East Nashville. That event started at noon and ran into the evening where Tommy entranced folks with his fluid multi-part fingerstyle guitar style.
Emerging and respected artists who may not be that well-known are also a big part of AmericanaFest. In our travels we discovered Arkansas Dave. His music was a blend of edgy blues and southern rock. My Politic is out in support of their most recent record 12 Kinds Of Lost which examines the human condition through empathetic accounts set to Appalachian-influenced Americana, Country & Folk music. Guthrie Trapp was observed fronting a power trio while presenting a package of technically tricky yet tuneful instrumentals. With so many venues participating in the festival there was an abundance of entertainment to take in. Many event sponsored songwriting rounds were overflowing with aspirants and ascendants showing off their stuff in Nashville’s most popular format.
However you define it one thing is for sure. Americana is award-winning music. Among the numerous activities at AmericanaFest is the Americana Honors & Awards which was held at the Ryman Auditorium. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit won in three categories including Album of the Year for The Nashville Sound. The legendary John Prine was crowned Artist of the Year and special awards were given to Rosanne Cash, k.d. lang and Buddy Guy while Tyler Childers was named Emerging Artist of the Year.
Live performances are a major component of AmericanaFest, however the business side is also an important element. During the event numerous panels were held focusing on a wide range of topics such as Protect Your Rights, Demystifying Digital Streaming, Takin’ Care of Business, Living The Dream, Building Community, Rock of Aging and more. In additional to these educational seminars there were keynote speakers and songwriting sessions. All of these meetings allowed ample time for attendees to network.
AmericanaFest is a comprehensive and fun festival, yet with so much to do one has to have a strategy to make the most of their time. There are different approaches. One is to review the festival guide to determine which artists or panels are important to you and then map out your scheduled based on that. Another is to drop in at different venues. On Wednesday, September 12th we started our day at InDo for Tales & Ales with Paul Thorn and Tony Magee. Next, we drove up 8th Avenue for an intimate gig at Grimey’s with Amy Helm. Lastly, we went to The Local for Tony Lucca & Friends Songwriter Residency.
Surprise gigs are also part of the festivities. Thursday, September 13th, Margo Price played a roof top concert at Third Man Records which was close to our main goal that night which was the City Winery. This upscale venue hosted full line-ups of music throughout AmericanaFest. A big plus here is that one can sit and enjoy food and drinks in a place that proclaims to be a listening room. We have found patrons are generally respectfully of this policy so it’s a perfect venue for music lovers.
Staying in one spot is an effective strategy. The Cannery Ballroom was ideal for this plan of action as it had several rooms with multiple acts. Plenty of other venues in Nashville such as 3rd & Lindsley featured varied line-up for fans to enjoy over the course of an evening.
Regular site favorites Will Hoge and Alejandro Escovedo were multi set performers and prominently featured via a variety of formats over the almost overwhelming six days of top-notch music and tough choices in Music City. Stand-up bass player Scott Mulhavill has gone straight from a stint with Ricky Skaggs to standout solo career. His slot and meet and greet at the regularly scheduled Thursday night Musician’s Corner was a don’t miss moment of the week.
So, what exactly is Americana music? Well, we’ve probably only just scratched the surface in our search for a true definition but you’ll have a chance to find out for yourself next year when they do it all over again as the twentieth anniversary AmericanaFest unfolds throughout Music City in 2019. Mark your calendars and get ready to plan accordingly.
Related Links: For more information on the AMERICANAFEST and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links — AmericanaMusic.org